Saturday, 3 August 2013

Symbolism in “The Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad was born in Poland in 1857. He born in a well to do family. Poland was ruled over by Russian Imperialism. His father, who has translated the works of Victor Hugo and Shakespeare into Polish, was against Russian Imperialism. And was arrested for being acting as a leader in the struggle of Polish Independence. He died when Conrad has been just eleven years old. Conrad reads widely in French and German after the death of his father. At the age of seventeen he decided to become a sailor. That decision led him in the service of Belgium merchant navy. After that he got a job in British Ship. He experienced a lot in seamanship. The different voyages in different countries introduced him to different cultures and traditions which served as materials for his novels. One trip up the Congo led to the writing of one of his best novels i.e. Heart of Darkness.

Conrad based his novel Heart of Darkness on his exploration of the African country of the Congo and the famous Congo River flows through the country. He has written the novel in a learnt language and used several devices to increase the charm of his literary work. Symbolism is one of the salient features in his writing style. The use of symbolism may heighten up the emotional effect of a situation. The symbolism imparts additional layer of meaning to the writing. While the apparent meaning lies on the surface. The symbolic meaning is often hidden from views it lies deeper than it seems. In Heart of Darkness various symbols are used which can be separated into three divisions. First Nature, second Society and third Characters.

Starting with the natural symbols used in Heart of Darkness. There are the symbols taken from nature and associated with other things on the basis of their inherent properties. For example in Heart of Darkness, the Congo River is the key to Africa for Europeans. It allows them access to the center of the continent without having to cross it physically and allows them to remain always outside. It makes upriver traveling slow and difficult which represents that it wants to exile the Europeans from Africa altogether. The river does not favor European. This river gives the lesson of wisdom because as Marlow progresses further up the river in his search for Kurtz he begins to learn more and more about himself. He comes to realize that he probably has more in common with the natives than the selfish Europeans who have come to civilize them. The Ivory symbolizes greed and destructive nature of man. The manager and the agents of the company are so obsessed with obtaining ivory that they forget about their morals and so-called civilized ways. Fog is the representation of uncertainty, obscurity and ambiguity. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s steamer is caught in the fog, meaning that he has no idea where he is going. The jungle was very condensed. The dark and thick jungle gives us the feeling of savage instinct. Although both the good and evil is found in us but it increases the inefficiency to control our animal appetite. It weakens the nerves of even a strong man. Same is the case with Wilderness which was also there in the Congo. It gives the feeling of loneliness. The Congo looked like a God forsaken wilderness. Surf is the sign of displeasure hostility. The Congo is the land of Black people and they have the right on it. Marlow says surf on the coast when the waves were striking. The surf epitomizes nature’s anger and wrath to the Alien intrusion. Conrad called it unjustified intrusion. The grass stands for wilderness. The grass has no harmony. The uneven growth which is not trimmed and groomed looks terrifying and horrifying. The grass resembles the condition and status of Congolese that they are wild and brute. They need to be groomed and civilized. The fire in the station interprets the corruption and embezzlement of White men. Often officers set fire to the documents and disposed off the record so that their corruption can be concealed. Marlow was busy in fixing the streamer when the station caught fire. He saw a man come to the bank of the river with a leaked bucket while filling it half-heartedly which was useless. It suggests the hypocrisy of White men that they pretend to be positive but actually not.

The next category of the symbols is Society. It includes those symbols which are taken from our society. These elements and figures convey normal meanings but symbolically it carries deeper meanings. This includes: The phrase “Whited Sepulchre” comes from the biblical Book of Matthew. In the passage, Matthew describes “Whited Sepulchre” as something beautiful on the outside but containing horrors within; thus the image is appropriate for Brussels, where the company’s headquarters is located. The people lived in the city looked civilized but were hollow at the core. It suggests that the more we become educated the more we become savage and barbaric. The sophisticated, neat and tidy looking people are empty from the inside like whited sepulchure. They have a vacancy for evil. They easily yield to the three dimensions of temptation. The desire for riches, power and physical pleasure. The discarded machinery was laying in the outer station which included different tools and products of modern science and technology. White men planned to start some constructive works e.g. roads, buildings, factories etc. but they applied Imperial administrative system. The whole machinery was decaying and giving the evidence of their false pretension. The Kurtz painting, “ … a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber – almost black”, interprets the entire European civilization. They are blindfolded and away from the harsh realities. They are ignorant and living in a state of falsehood. And the lighted torch represents their misconception of enlightening Congolese because they themselves need it. Her face has become distorted because the European customs seem rather repulsive. The dark background shows their low mental caliber. Rivets are the adequate tools, although nominal in value but very important in the function. The Rivets symbolize adequate tools of civilization. We need civilized rivets to live in a society. These are the internal and external controls which abide us from uncivilized activities. Civilized rivets are speech, clothes, a tailor, a constable, education etc. The Congo lacks rivets like these. The Dismantled Hut is the emblem of the failure of White man’s civilization. It exposes their rottenness, inefficiency and incompetency. The steam-whistle symbolizes a new sound for the Africans and it is said that they scream when they hears the whistle. “One good screech will do more for you than all your riffles”. It means there is no use of operating guns, disastrous weapon and brutal forces if they scare from a single steam-whistle. The Shoes represent protection. By wearing shoes we feel safe and secure. Candle on the steamship – Marlow brings a candle into Kurtz’s quarters as Kurtz is dying on the ship. The candle is the symbol of Kurtz losing the struggle for life. When Kurtz finally submits to death, Marlow blows out the candle.
 After discussing various symbols with respect of Nature and Society, lets bring forward some of the symbols that signify Characters in Heart of Darkness. The general characters used by Conrad are very interesting in view of their association and connection with the Characters of Heart of Darkness. The very first to discuss is Buddha, “Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus flower”. Buddha was born in Nepal in a Royal family. He saw the inhumanity and sufferings of human and other living beings. He was so influenced from the injustice that he decided to abandon the royal and luxurious life in search of enlightenment. He promoted love and spiritual salvation whereas Lotus is a symbol of purity of speech, mind and body in every form. So the sitting posture of Marlow resembles to that of Buddha which means Marlow has also a staunch believe in sublimity. He has the same characteristics of non-violence and salvation like Buddha. But he has not attained complete enlightenment that’s why he is without a Lotus. He is in a meditating pose and wearing European clothes means that he has the hallmark of Whiteman.

 The two women knitting black wool is a symbol of Brussels Whited Sepulchre. They are knitting the yarn which epitomizes fate and furies and that the fate is having two dimensions one is favorable while the other is unfavorable. The process is either constructive or destructive but the net product will be the black wool that’s the evil. Secondly the two women also represent the imperial and industrial systems which are meant to amaze as much wealth as possible. They are manufacturing death and torment for themselves. The Manager symbolizes all the immorality of European Civilization. He is an emblem of the weaknesses of White men. That they have appointed such an unskilled and incompetent man on a very responsible post. The manager is not the right person for the job. He does not have the ability to manage the things. He is a square peg in a round hole. And due to his incompetency it can be said that his role is like a bull in a china shop. His only concern was to attain as much ivory as possible. The Chief Accountant suggests a typical European personality. He is very much curious about his book of accounts. We get a glimpse of naked reality. The Brick-Maker is doing a job against his title. He had not made a single brick in the last one and a half years. He lacks the skills and adequate tools to make bricks. He is actually working as a spy to safeguard monetary interests. This represents the acute possessiveness of White men that they hire a special person to restrict any collusion. The Brick-maker is also named papier-mache Mephistopheles which means he is a hollow man and possess a weak moral fiber. Brick-maker has been compared with paper-pulp to show the level of his weak moral values. He also represents devil characteristics. He aims to be a manager of the station and he can achieve it with the habit of nepotism.

Mr. Kurtz represents man’s dark side. Mr. Kurtz’s character can also be included in the most enigmatic characters in fiction. He remains in the state of inertia and performs no action. He initially worked for the society and wrote long pamphlets for society but he lost courage and felt irritated and wrote at the end of the pamphlet “Exterminate all the brutes”. This was because of his prolonged exposure to the untamed regions of the Congo. He is no longer feeling satisfied with just being a mere mortal, so instead transforms himself into an omnipotent being. Kurtz’s descent into madness is firmly established with his disturbing final words, “The horror! The horror!”

From the above brief explanation of symbols we can give the conclusion that Joseph Conrad has put his supreme efforts in giving a structural function to his writing rather than a merely illustrative. Heart of Darkness is very largely based on naturally symbolic action and objects such as: the jungle, wilderness, fog, fire, rivets, candle; the characters – Mr. Kurtz, the manager, the brick-maker.

• A critical study of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – famous products
• Lecture notes

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