In Joseph Conrad’s gripping novella Heart of Darkness, the author takes the time to break down the detail and the structure in which the main character, Marlow, is telling his story. Conrad digs far deeper than the surface to show both the literal events of the story and the symbolic meaning of these events along with how they shape and define Marlow’s character. Throughout the novella, Conrad exposes three specific motifs that can be traced through different moments in the story. From the imperialistic perspective of good versus evil and the individualized battle of interior and exterior influences, Conrad manages to show both the literal and symbolic meaning behind each aspect of the story.
When we further examine the overarching theme of darkness in the novella, it is clear to see how Conrad exploits this theme to touch on the imperialistic conflict of good versus evil. Especially in the beginning of Marlow’s story, it is almost difficult to get a good read on his character because he is still adjusting to the amount of chaos and brutality that is associated with the Company. Amid all that is going on around him, Marlow is constantly going back and forth between his moral ideals. For example, in rather grotesque scenarios he comes across as almost confused and frightened. Usually a very curious and wondering character, it is interesting to see how his tone of writing shifts when talking about violence and warfare compared to his very in-depth descriptions of nature and her surroundings. “Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares” (Conrad 15). In this early scene, Marlow and his crew come across a warship anchored just off the coastline and he is perplexed by the “pointless” guns that were shooting into the forest. While fully aware of the situation and the war going on at the time, Marlow still finds it impossible to understand why. One thing that really makes this scene stand out is that it is the first slight change of tone in Marlow’s storytelling. Up until this point the only thing he seemed to care about was discovering what has yet to be discovered, but now his sense of wonder has faded to fear. It’s almost as if this is his first time witnessing the harsh realities of the world around him and although still a “wanderer” at heart, he suddenly realizes that the world is much darker than he once presumed.
Among many different writing techniques that Conrad uses throughout the novella, there are some that are very difficult to see, but they all do a great deal in piecing together the perfect symbolic nature of the writing. For example, the narrator of the novella is almost always talking about a beautiful scene of nature with heavy detail. However, when looking back at the narrator’s descriptions we can see that they only ever depict the sun setting, and never rising. This very minor detail has so much impact in the grand theme of darkness. Since the narrator never explains the feeling of darkness becoming light, it darkens the scene just that much more. By constantly recounting the emotions correlated with darkness and never light, Conrad shows how Marlow’s emotions mirror his literal surroundings in nature. Another minor detail that is difficult to notice has to do with the Two Black Hens that are mentioned in the beginning of the story. Originally these hens were merely the cause of a fight that gave Marlow the opportunity to pursue his dream job, and they are never spoken about again. “What became of the hens I don’t know either. I should think the cause of progress got them, anyhow” (Conrad 9). Be that as it may be, there is an instance where we can see the metaphorical characteristics of the hens reflected later in the story. When Marlow first begins his job with the Company, he is greeted by two women that he describes as the “guardians of the Darkness”. He goes on to discuss their dark features and shabby appearances as he continues waiting. In the grand scheme of things, it is actually very easy to find parallels between the Two Black Hens and these “guardians of the Darkness”. For one, they both symbolize the beginning of Marlow’s journeys. Since the hens were what caused the death of the employee in the first place, they gave Marlow the opportunity to begin his conquest with the Company. Similarly, the two dark women represent the very first experience he has within the Company and are the first two faces to greet him as he walks in. In another aspect, both the hens and the women are never to be seen or heard about again throughout the novella. Just as the hens practically vanished from the scene of the murder, the two women are written of only once. “Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again—not half, by a long way” (Conrad 13). The very faint parallel between these characters just goes to show how Conrad uses both the seen and the unseen to impact and define the overall personality of Marlow’s character.
Throughout Heart of Darkness, Conrad is constantly using strategies far beyond his time to show the complexity of Marlow’s personality and how his surroundings are shaping him both literally and metaphorically. While there are many other overarching themes in this novella, darkness is easily the most prominent. Marlow himself speaks of darkness in the literal sense dozens of times throughout his story as it is something very impactful in his morality as he continues along his journey. Through many different characters and events in the journey, Conrad exploits every fragment of Marlow’s character and breaks it down to a symbolic masterpiece. As we are all affected throughout our lives by interior and exterior forces, it is compelling to see how Conrad uses these forces to put Marlow under the microscope and analyze his true character once and for all.