Written by Christine Couture
The Leitmotif of Darkness in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”
As its title implies, the short story “Heart of Darkness”, written in 1902 , is a tale which explores the inscrutable depths of the human heart. Set in the backdrop of a river- boat expedition up the Congo river into the core of Africa’s unknown wilderness, the themes of death, hell, madness, and exploitation are woven throughout the text using the imagery of darkness as leitmotif for one man's journey of self-discovery and anguish over the meaning of human existence. In this way, the terms “heart” and “darkness” are used both literally and metaphorically in the text.
The theme of darkness is reinforced through the use of several closely related images such as night, death, and blackness, often contrasted for further effect with images of light, such as the sun, whiteness, Kurtz’s fiancée back in Europe who embodies innocence and light, and of course, ivory, the source of riches most sought after by Europeans: “Everything else in the station was in a muddle (. . .) set into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory.”
Africa has often been referred to by Europeans as the “Dark Continent” because of its great expanse of dense, lush jungles, the perceived savagery of its native population and the colour of their skin. However, Conrad’s story extends this conception of darkness to the entire European colonial enterprise in Africa. The company that hires him for his trade mission is described as having its offices in a “sepulchral city” (Conrad 18) on the Continent, presumed to be Brussels. It is staffed by odd-looking secretaries that knit black wool and guard the door to the office of the general manager as if it were “the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall” (Conrad 7), no doubt a reference to the Company’s unethical practices in the African colonies.
When Marlow finally arrives in Africa, the story describes a scene that can be likened to a descent into hell (Feder, 163). The outer station at which he first steps foot is a place of darkness, death, and pestilence with black slaves, wearing black cloth around their loins toiling at what appear to be futile enterprises along dark trails up mountain ravines, “a scene of devastation” (Conrad 10): “Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced
within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair.” (Conrad 11) But the real journey into the heart of darkness is Marlow’s trek up the great river into the jungles of Africa in pursuit of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, a Company clerk with a larger- than-life reputation as both the most successful ivory trader the Company has ever known and that of a beacon of light in Europe’s mission of civilizing the savage instincts of the populations it encounters in this wilderness. This concept of the European man’s civilizing “burden” is initially shared by Marlow, just as it was by Kurtz. However, Marlow begins to understand the “philantropic pretence of the whole concern” (Conrad 17). As rumours of Kurtz’s strange behaviour deep in the jungle begin to reach Marlow, he suspects Kurtz may have come to the same conclusion as he gazes upon a painting he made during a stop at one of the outer stations: “Then I noticed a small sketch in oils on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a light torch. The background was sombre - almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister” (Conrad 18). The image of the woman groping helplessly in the dark is that of Europe’s failing attempts in her mission.
“Ironically, what is dark in “darkest Africa” is not the land or the people, but the world introduced by the bringers of light and civilization” (Thale 157).
The darkness Marlow must face is that of man's ultimate loneliness in the universe: “No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence - that which makes its truth, its meaning - its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone. . .” (Conrad 20).
Confronted with freedom of choice and placed in a situation which places no restraint on behaviour, humans can decide either to behave for the good or to sink to the depths of darkness. This is Marlow’s “illumination” and terrible discovery; that of the frightening possibility within the heart of each and every one of us to make such decisions without any more guidance than our sense of humanity.
Conrad, J. “Heart of Darkness.” http://www.bartleby.com/. 68 p.
Feder, L. “Marlow’s Descent Into Hell.” The Art Joseph Conrad, A Critical Symposium. Ed. Stallman, R.W. Michigan State University Press, 1960. 162-181.
Thale, J. “Marlow’s Quest.” The Art Joseph Conrad, A Critical Symposium. Ed. Stallman, R.W. Michigan State University Press, 1960. 154-161.