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“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad Essay Sample

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“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad Essay Sample

Novels do not have to be long to have credible literary merit. Such is the case with Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness is quite short, yet superior and intriguing, due to the content of the novel.

Heart of Darkness is intriguing, like Hamlet or like a Kafka novel, in that readers taken by power of the story never feel quite satisfied with their attempts to intellectualize the experience (Adelman 8).

Heart of Darkness was written during the time of British imperialism and extreme exploitation of Africans in the Congo. The British were exploiting the Africans in an effort to extract ivory from the primitive jungle. Throughout the novel, Conrad expresses his dislike with the ‘civilized’ white people exploiting the ‘savage’ black Africans. Conrad also uses several literary devices in his writing to portray and express several messages. The writing style, techniques, structure and themes in Heart of Darkness all combine to create one of the most renowned, respected and mysterious novels of all time. Conrad wrote an ultimate enigma for readers to interpret and critically analyze for years to come.

Conrad’s excellence in style is very controversial; some believe that he is “a literary genius” (Adelman 16), while others “criticize him for being limited, pretentious and vague” ((Adelman 16). Throughout the novel, Conrad uses ample amounts of descriptive language, vivid imagery, and powerful symbolism. The vague part is that he leaves it up to the reader to interpret his mysterious and ‘unspeakable’ enigmas. Conrad’s descriptive language in Heart of Darkness is present from the beginning to the end. With the opening paragraphs describing the Nellie, a “cruising yawl,” the weather, the view of the Thames River and London as a group of men sit , waiting for the tide to change. Marlow is constantly describing the jungle river and environments that he encounters. Conrad’s use of sensory effects are excellent. From the Beginning, readers seem to be on the Nellie with Marlow and his comrades. The reader is basically in the hot jungle, traveling up the ominous river into no-man’s land. The reader sees, hears and smells everything that Marlow describes;

Marlow tells us that he was struck by the sounds of the congo night…That sexual tremor of ‘sinking’ and ‘swelling’ sounds less faint to Marlow after he has arrived at the Station and reached the pitch of his bewilderment and despair (Glassman 206).

“The smells of the congo stir Marlow, and open him to the strange beauties of the jungle night” (Glassman 206). The imagery that Conrad uses is very vivid. Marlow provides images of the boat which Marlow and his crew took up the river. Marlow also provides images of each character, like the accountant for instance;

I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light apalca jacket, snowy trousers, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand…and had a pen holder behind his ear (Conrad 22).

One of the main stylistic devices that define Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is his use of symbolism in it. The symbolism in Heart of Darkness is what makes the novel so amazing and puzzling. Everything in the novel symbolizes, alludes to, or allegorizes something in some way. From the way Marlow is sitting in the Nellie, to the constant repetition of darkness or light symbols, to the different representations of characters, namely Kurtz, all mean something and make an attempt to express Conrad’s ideas and messages. The symbols were a way of trying to get across what went on in his mind. Conrad seems to be on another level of enlightenment with this novel and he is trying to pass it on to others. The most puzzling part is that the symbols could mean so many different things,

The Heart of Darkness: the title is richly ambiguous. ‘The heart of darkness’ could mean the center of a dark (obscure, Mysterious, sinister or evil) place. In the tale, it is applied to central Africa, but London is described as the center of ‘brooding gloom’. The phrase could also mean the ‘person’s heart which is dark’ (obscure, mysterious, sinister or evil), and thus anticipates the depiction of Kurtz. Darkness also connotes in the tale: the death of the individual or of the human race; ‘dark ages’ between periods of civilization; the abominable; the primordial; the inscrutable; the unknown; the mapped. Light is associated with civilization and truth but also with brightness and the destructiveness of fire. Whiteness is associated with hypocrisy, ivory, bones, death, fog and the unmapped. The title thus aptly introduces the ambiguities, paradoxes and enigmas of the tale (Conrad 97).

Conrad’s style is defined by his vast vocabulary and command in the English language, by the imagery he utilizes and the massive amounts of symbolism that he uses. This is what truly distinguishes Joseph Conrad as a great writer, and sets Heart of Darkness above the rest.

Conrad’s technique is quite fitting for the story and the themes he is writing about in Heart of Darkness . There is a narrator on the Nellie who is listening to Marlow who is telling the story, “story within story within story. And as if these stories were not enough, we will discover other ones as we read on, all of them, like Marlow’s journey itself, bearing in upon Kurtz” (Fothergill 11). He uses a first person point of view. Heart of Darkness is one large flashback as Marlow describes his story to his comrades on the Nellie. Within Marlow’s narration there are several foreshadowing stories. “There’s the self-contained mini-story about Fresleven (with troubling parallels to Kurtz) and also others which we might call proto-narratives: other people’s version of Kurtz and his ‘achievements'” (Fothergill 11). When Marlow tells his story he does not know Kurtz. By doing this, Conrad forces the readers to learn with Marlow as he learns about Kurtz in these ‘proto-narratives’ about him.

The Manager of the Central station, the Russian Harlequin, and, on Marlow’s return, to Europe, the Company representative, the ‘cousin’, the journalist, and the Intended – all these offer Marlow (and us) their skeletal stories of Kurtz” (Fothergill 11).

Marlow’s credibility as a narrator and story teller seem reliable through the narrator who introduces Marlow, he is a wanderer, an adventurer. But unlike other seamen, he is one who embraces rather than complacently ignores the unknown and uncertain…Marlow’s stories do not contain their meaning positively, at the end of their telling, like an answer to a riddle or a moral tag to a proverb, but rather evoke in course of telling” (Fothergill 18).

Throughout the novel, readers learn more and more about Kurtz as Marlow moves up the river. Through this movement readers also see character development of Marlow. Marlow is a worker. In fact, he needs work to keep himself from falling into the ‘impenetrable darkness’ that Kurtz is in and that all the other colonialists were falling into. Marlow’s work habits (his shield to the insanity) is what makes the story plausible. If Marlow didn’t have this firewall, he would have gone insane with the rest of them and the story would never have been told. Marlow still teeters on the brink of insanity of that impenetrable darkness. “He still thinks that working hard he can resist their ‘brooding appeal’; but the Congo–and his secret responsive self–are far too strong for his naive and presumptuous devices (Glassman 210). With each character that Marlow encounters, they become more and more sinister as he travels up river (closer to Kurtz). Heart of Darkness is presented in a unique way; several different narratives and a ‘story within a story within a story’ which provides readers with mysterious ‘figure it out for yourself’ interpretation. All in all, Heart of Darkness is very open-ended.

The novel structure is in accordance with the themes and characterization. It consists of three main parts: the beginning narrative, Marlow’s story, and a concluding narrative. Within Marlow’s Story there are three main parts: the beginning in ‘civilization’ (Belgium), the travel up the river reaching a final destination, and finally, the return to Europe. Within the traveling up the river there are three stations: the Coastal Station, the Central Station, and the Inner Station. The structure of this short novel seems to make it feel quite a bit longer than it is. Marlow is stuck in a ‘savage’ jungle; stuck with an incompetent Manger who will not supply rivets to fix the boat. Through this journey, Marlow goes through transitions of innocence and ignorance to experience and enlightenment. This is shown when Marlow sees the Russian. The Russian is what Marlow was like before he traveled up river, naive and fascinated.

“The boat is hailed by a young Russian who is a phantom of the man Marlow himself was before his Conga experience…restored to the innocence he had known before the nightmare journey” (Adelman 75). One could also say that Heart of Darkness travels in a circle, only in the end, Marlow is enlightened. He starts in civilization and ends back in civilization, almost like the Manager, the journey and Kurtz never existed. The only person who knows that it did exist (and that the real story) is Marlow. The novel concludes with the group of comrades sitting on the Nellie proceeding back into a place of ‘darkness’ (London). Heart of Darkness has a structure that coincides on several levels with the characters and the themes within the novel. Conrad is successful in creating the structure of this novel so that it ends with an air of mystery and a need to search out the deep meaning he has laid within the novel.

The one major theme in Heart of Darkness is centered around self discovery and the darkness of man’s inner self. The novel is filled with symbolism of darkness from the title to the very last words of the novel, “seemed to lead also into the heart of an immense darkness.” Conrad compares and contrasts the symbols covered earlier in this essay of darkness and light. Marlow’s entire journey is symbolized as a journey of the discovery of man’s inner truth. “Heart of Darkness resembles traditional accounts of the hero’s descent to the underworld only in the most general sense” (Adelman 54). Marlow begins on the outside and works his way in. The Coastal Station is on the surface where Conrad begins his journey. He meets the Accountant there and hears the for the first time of Kurtz. Marlow then becomes absorbed in meeting Kurtz,

Marlow becomes obsessed with meeting Kurtz. It is a conspicuous change in his purposes that, as he steams up river to relieve the Inner Station, as the Congo’s ‘inner truth’ more and more disturbs his already devastated particularity” (Glassman 217).

As Marlow progressively gets deeper and deeper into the jungle, everything seems to get darker. The jungle is always described as an impenetrable darkness. The river becomes more dangerous and life-threatening,

in his search for Kurtz Marlow is made to confront tests more demanding by far than those he has experienced at the Stations down river–tests so nightmarish in their quality that he can scarcely find language to recall them (Glassman 219).

At the Central Station, Marlow meets the Manager. The Manager is a shallow and jealous man, “Marlow discovers that his steamer is at the bottom of the river. He suspects that the manager of the station, jealous of Kurtz and wishing him dead, deliberately had it wrecked” (Adelman 62). Marlow tries to stop himself from turning dark as well, by doing more work “The longer he is in Africa, and the nearer he is to his meeting with Kurtz, the shakier he feels, and the more the wilderness appears to him a threatening, degrading place. Marlow’s breaking point is anticipated as the identification between him and Kurtz is intensified” (Adelman 64). Marlow is constantly relating the journey up river as a return to prehistoric times “as Marlow steams up river, steams ever deeper into the heart of the Congo’s ‘prehistoric’ life, he feels a movement of soul” (Glassman 209). It is as if the inner truth and instincts of man are still linked to prehistoric times. Before Marlow reaches Kurtz, the boat is surrounded by a dense fog and the boat is attacked

But these hidden banks, these secret snags; this deadly night, this choking fog…at last confirm Marlow in everything he most feared. Their terrible images persuade him that men are indeed ‘very small, very lost,’ neither persons nor power, that men indeed are morally insignificant and insufficiently alive,” (Glassman 222).

Eventually, Marlow reaches the Inner Station where he meets Kurtz. Throughout the novel, Kurtz is repeatedly symbolized as the devil of all devils. Kurtz has already done this search for the inner truth of man, found its darkness, and embraced it in his greatness. “(Kurtz) becomes grotesquely devoted to the satisfaction of his passions” (Adelman 68). He had an entire tribe of disciples. Kurtz has seen the horrors that he and mankind commit, regardless of that, Kurtz continues to commit and perform these horrors. He can distinguish right from wrong but he still embraces the evil. Kurtz’ dying words, “the horror” are what sum up the theme of self discovery. The horror is pertaining to the horrors that mankind commits and acknowledges but ignores. Marlow overcomes this darkness and survives knowing Kurtz and his evils. “As we observe, Marlow, no longer young and ebullient after his return to Europe, but a man older, cynical and embittered” (Adelman 79). He returns to civilization and knows a great deal more about man and his inner truth and about Kurtz than anybody else. “The vision he has acquired, his enlightenment, is tragic because it implies a metaphysical conception…have fostered a death wish, an instinctual need to dominate or to be destroyed” (Adelman 80).

The entire symbol of this novel is that Marlow goes on his journey of self discovery,

Heart of Darkness is ostensibly the story of Marlow’s quest for Kurtz. Actually Marlow is questing for himself: ‘the most you can hope,’ he says, ‘is some knowledge of yourself’ (Harkness 127).

He is on the superficial level getting his first taste of the darkness within men (the Coastal Station) about to proceed on a deep, psychological journey. Marlow begins to see inside man and himself, and it does not seem pleasant. Marlow becomes more and entrenched in the darkness of man (traveling down river). He reaches a fog which lifts when he is on the brink of discovering the dark heart of man. Then he is hit by the darkness, seeing full well the horrors, the ‘unspeakable rites’ and ‘unspeakable rituals’ that are inside the heart of man. Marlow overcomes this darkness and for that becomes enlightened and knowledgeable. He returns back to civilization knowing the darkness in the soul of man that civilized people do not know of. They are still on the superficial level that Marlow was on when he first began. The question is, was he was ‘enlightened’ for the better part? This theme is what fascinates the critics and has influenced many people to allude to Heart of Darkness in their works.

Conrad’s literary genius is shown through Heart of Darkness. His extensive vocabulary keeps readers looking in the dictionary. It is in full force in this wonderful piece of literature. Conrad presents a well organized, deeply thought out piece of work. He uses amazing style, incomparable technique, unique and unifying structure, and a deep, disturbing theme. The theme uses the style, technique and structure to emphasize its meaning. Conrad shows his unparalleled genius and his complete enlightenment the only way he can. Many readers will not or will not be able to interpret the power and meaning in this novel. This essay critically analyzes the basics of the novel and the main devices that Conrad uses. It is safe to say that the interpretations of this novel will never cease. It is such an ambiguous novel that all the different perspectives seem exhausting. Many readers will “never feel quite satisfied with their attempts to intellectualize the experience” (Adelman 8). Overall, readers must interpret for themselves which meanings Conrad intended or if he intended all the meanings. This deep novel by Joseph Conrad is not easy to read but is valuable knowledge once it is read.


Adelman, Gary. Heart of Darkness: Search for the Unconscious. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness. Ed. Cedric Watts. London: Everyman, 1995.

Fothergill, Anthony. Open Guides to Literature: Heart of Darkness. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1989.

Glassman, Peter J. Language and Being: Joseph Conrad and the Literature of the Personality. New York and London: Columbia: University Press, 1976.

Tindall, W.Y. “The Duty of Marlow.” In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Critics. Ed. Bruce Harkness. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company Inc., 1968.

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