Symbols in Heart of Darkness

Symbols Examples in Heart of Darkness:

Chapter 1 7

"the torchlight on the face was sinister..."   (Chapter 1)

Notice how the painting depicts a figure similar to that of Lady Justice; however, instead of holding scales, she holds a torch. Considering Conrad’s treatment of women in Heart of Darkness, this most likely is a comment on not only European blindness to imperial atrocities, but specifically women’s blindness. Because women stayed on the continent, they unknowingly supported the violence in the colonies. The blind torch bearer symbolizes the danger of blind faith in a cause.

"a white man..."   (Chapter 1)

While in this passage “white” refers to the man’s race (i.e. the color of his skin), it also connotes the “Europeanness” that was previously alluded to. The man’s dress and other accoutrements are all pristine, and it is obvious that he has not had to engage in physical labor. He is thus distanced from the reality of the colonial proceedings, not fully involved in the violence and subhuman conditions. Conrad suggests that the Europeans were not fully cognizant of the state of the colonies they were so enthusiastic about.

"bit of white thread..."   (Chapter 1)

Conrad uses color imagery and symbolism to create a stark contrast between the Europeans and the Africans. In this instance, white is symbolic of European colonialism. The image of the white thread tied around the black man’s neck is reminiscent of a noose. Conrad combines these images to suggest that colonialism is a violent and deadly practice.

"stricken to death by the touch of that gloom..."   (Chapter 1)

This passage describes the darkness taking over the “glowing white” of the sun. The imagery is is ominous and foreboding, suggesting that darkness can eat away at what is light, break it down, and render it non-existent. It is a pessimistic view of the world that is carried through the entire novella.

"low shores in diaphanous folds..."   (Chapter 1)

Prior to this paragraph, Conrad used a lot of dark and gloomy imagery to describe London and Gravesend. Conrad, however, fills this paragraph with images of light, such as “exquisite brilliance,” “shone pacifically,” and “radiant fabric.” This is an example of the previously described light versus dark dichotomy. Note that the urban European places are described in terms of their darkness, while the more natural elements of the setting are described in terms of their lightness.

"The air was dark above Gravesend..."   (Chapter 1)

Gravesend is a town in Kent, England, located on the Thames. A dichotomy of light versus dark appears throughout the novella. “Darkness” is generally assumed to be a symbol for malevolence while “lightness” is symbolic of benevolence, but Heart of Darkness doesn’t necessarily make these exact associations. Take note of the people, places, and things Conrad ascribes “darkness” and “lightness” to as the novella progresses.

"interminable waterway..."   (Chapter 1)

“Interminable” is another word for “endless.” and it suggests an almost cyclical nature of events. Note that Conrad uses a simile to compare the Thames, a river in England, to this neverending “waterway”. It is symbolic that this powerful European country is the source of some unspecified, perpetual circumstances.