Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, and Imagery
Joseph Conrad lived in the late 19th and early 20th century and “Heart of Darkness” was published in 1902. The story is inspired by Conrad’s own experience of traveling into Africa on the Congo River. In the story, Marlow, the captain of a ship, is telling shipmates of a pilgrimage into Africa to rescue Kurtz, a brilliant but immoral colonial officer. Kurtz has become corrupt and is wrecking a piece of the Congo and oppressing many human lives in pursuit of more ivory, and Marlow experiences moral disillusionment. For Marlow, it was both a physical journey and also a mysterious journey of the mind and soul.
My Keys to Conrad: Conrad’s Imagery
Conrad uses dark and light imagery throughout the story to convey that darkness is all around us and also, inside us. The gloom in the landscape reflects the gloom and evil in men’s souls.
At the beginning of the story, the “gloom to the west” of Marlow and his men on the Thames signifies the blackness that is ever present in men, even when more noble characteristics take center stage:
The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draphing the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.
As Marlow finishes his tale, another image reminds us that darkness is present over the Thames as well as over the Congo:
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterways leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
On Kurtz’s deathbed, Kurtz grapples with the enormous depravity that has overtaken him and that threatens to corrupt all men. Marlow describes,
I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath –
“The horror!” “The horror!”
Study Questions/Teaching Prompts
1. How does Marlow react to the people he meets after he returns? How might this be similar to the reactions of veterans returning to their homes after war?
2. Is Kurtz’s final self-knowledge in any way victorious?
3. Is Marlow able to make sense of the mysteries and evil he experiences?
4. Among all of the corruption and greed, what group of people in the story show surprising restraint?
5. Find several examples of light and dark or black and white imagery in the story. How might these describe racial relations in colonial Africa?
Heart of Darkness is a novella (a short novel), but Conrad’s language is dense and rich, and it’s easy to get impatient and discouraged during the first half of the story. Hang in there. By the end of the book you will be pulled along to a conclusion that is tragic, yet satisfying.
Underline the phrases that seem significant to the development of the story or one of the characters, or that are especially powerful and moving to you. Review your underlined phrases in a second study.
Quotes from Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, Penguin Classics, London, 1987.