Light and Dark Imagery in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

Joseph Conrad, a Polish writer, was born in the Polish part of Ukraine, in the epoch of imperialism. Most of his writings clearly highlight these issues as well as the bridge between Victorian values and the most progressive modernist ideas. Although the main characters of “Heart of Darkness’ face a number of adversities, hostile natural forces, violence, and illness, the tone of the novel is to great extent philosophical, so that the characters reflect upon such concepts as ‘home’ and ‘civilization’, despite the fact that their survival itself remains questionable. In “Heart of Darkness”, the elements of light and darkness and closely interwoven in Conrad’s writing, so that the author to great extent reconciles these two concepts, not merely in philosophical meaning, but also in terms of imagery.

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The motif of darkness basically derives from the idea of ‘barbarism’, or ‘dark spot’ on the map, i.e. poorly-explored and civilized place. “It is used to reflect the unknown, the concept of the ‘darkness of barbarism’ contrasted with the ‘light of civilization’ and the ambiguity of both – the dark motives of civilization and the freedom of barbarism, as well as the ‘spiritual darkness’ of certain characters. This sense of darkness also lends itself to a related theme of obscurity – again, in various senses, reflecting the ambiguities of the work” (Guetti, 1967, p.271). Moral issues are also represented through the prism of light and darkness, yet the author believes that both ideas are relativistic: for instance, allegedly well-mannered and civilized people (e.g. Kurtz) might behave immorally, whereas ‘barbarians’ often appear simple-hearted and kind in nature (Guetti, p.69). The spirit of darkness hovers even over Marlow’s native city – London, a product of contemporary civilization that in fact was a very ‘dark’ place in the period of the Roman Empire so that the heart of civilization, as well as the heart of darkness, are really ambivalent (Bloom, p.92). The protagonist views these labels as mere layers, which uncover the true nature of the object, so that human-being needs certain restraints to avoid judging on the basis of the first impression.

As for concrete graphic imagery of darkness, the author’s narrative actually begins at the twilight time: “And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men” (Conrad, part I). Such a beginning was probably designed in order to establish a certain tone of the plot development. Nevertheless, this sign of approaching darkness is close-followed by the representation of light: “lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly” (Conrad, part I). The author probably suggests that the path of human life is not always clear, as the appearance of dusk creates certain obscurity, but everyone should be able to distinguish a lighthouse that acts as a sign of the appropriate and desirable direction (Navarette, p.38).

Furthermore, Marlow describes his memories as the never-ending search for a light spot in the pitch darkness of existence: for instance, he describes the interior of his room as somber and deaf: deep shadows and houses that seem really huge, when looking at them through the window in the darkness. The protagonist seems to inhale this viscous dusk, but at the end of the end, he finally finds a map that can be regarded as a peculiar lighthouse, as it is described as a rainbow, as a source of radiance, and, more importantly, delight. This means, the author uses parallelism to divide human emotions and aspirations into ‘light’ and ‘dark’ (Bloom, 1992; Navarette, 1998).

Another element of darkness in the novel is the description of black wool knitters, who were sitting outside the door to darkness. The somber spirit of the office Marlow visits is, however, easily shattered by the appearance of a funny clerk, who probably acts as a hypostasis of light and joy, as his outfit and manners are really comic. On the one hand, the office employee tries to seem serious and competent, but large ink stains on his sleeves and his billowy cravat really disguise him as an irrational person.

Fog, as a major attribute of Conrad’s reality, at the same time serves as one of the most important intensifiers of darkness. As Susan Navarette writes, “Fog is a sort of corollary to darkness. Fog not only obscures but distorts: it gives one just enough information to begin making decisions but no way to judge the accuracy of the information, which often ends up being wrong. Marlow’s steamer is caught in the fog, meaning that he has no idea where he’s going and no idea whether peril or open water lies ahead” (Navarette, 1998, p.189). Foggy weather, therefore, reinforces the perception of overall darkness or uncertainty that can be decoded in this context as deep, gloomy, and depressing shadows.

One of the most interesting motifs in ‘heart of Darkness’ is a wilderness that can be interpreted in two different ways (Guetti, 1967). On the one hand, the first impression Marlow receives from ‘admiring’ jungle is actually the insight into total gloom: the forest is so thick that it seems black, rather than green, so that the island itself looks like an outpost of darkness. The inhabitants of this place also seem at first really ‘dark’: primary due to their skin color – nevertheless, observing one of the aboriginal ceremonies, Marlow notices a certain radiance of originality and simplicity, the mesmerism of this barbarism. They are shouting, singing and dancing, – the protagonist sees their glittering eyes and bodies and finally realizes that their vitality and wilderness are powerful sources of light, constructive and life-establishing energy.

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Most events in the novel take place in the evening, at night, or during twilight. When the other characters begin to tell their stories, they always mention the actual time of the happening or episode, – nighttime notably prevails in their narratives. Moreover, the author skillfully depicts a sort of 3D-darkness that can be perceived not merely visually, but also as a depressing melody or as a painful touch to vagueness or vulnerability. The characters literally absorb darkness through their skin pores: “An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances” (Conrad, at gutenberg.org, 2001, II). Nevertheless, most narratives of this sort have a quite successful or optimistic ending, so that the storyteller finally gets to the light at the end of the tunnel or at least receives temporary relief and rest (Navarette, 1998).

The most remarkable part of the novel is its ending, as the final paragraph is actually designed to demonstrate the harmony between light and dark: the protagonist, Marlow, was sitting silently like meditating Buddha, a commonly honored symbol of inner light, whereas the natural settings and imagery were approaching to darkness: black clouds, dark waters, but the author persuades that the path to the heart of darkness is intrinsically tranquil and calm, just like a waterway.

As one can conclude, Joseph Conrad envisions that light not merely points to righteousness or joy and darkness is not always a visual hypostasis of evil. Even the “enlightened” civilization like the British people might have extremely dark and violent natures, whereas the ebony savages can be characterized by childish innocence. However, Conrad contrasts light to darkness in the context of concerns about the future, i.e. darkness represents uncertainty, mystery, and fear of the forthcoming.

Works cited

  1. Bloom, H. Marlow. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.
  2. Conrad, J. Heart of Darkness.
  3. Guetti, J. The Limits of Metaphor: A Study of Melville, Conrad and Faulkner. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1967.
  4. Navarette, S. The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin-de-Siecle Culture of Decadence. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998.
  5. Cheng, Y.-J. Heralds of the Postmodern: Madness and Fiction in Conrad, Woolf and Lessing. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
  6. Firchow, P. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2000.
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