Joseph regardless of the cost, especially to natives

Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is full of symbolism. In this lesson, you’ll learn about the portrayal of symbols in the novel, including both inanimate objects and characters.

Symbolism & Heart of Darkness

Sometimes, an object or a person can represent something other than what it literally is. For example, when you see the American flag, you see more than just a pattern on cloth. It represents the country as a whole.

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This type of representation is called symbolism. It’s a very common literary device, and often adds meaning to the novel beyond what is literally being said or described. One place we can see examples of this is in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness.

Symbol 1: The Sepulchral City

The first major symbol we see is when Marlow goes to France to sign his paperwork for the Company.

He comments that the city he arrives in ‘always makes {him} think of a whited sepulcher.’ A sepulcher is a tomb or burial place, or a place where holy relics are kept. It is beautiful on the outside, but hollow in the center, and often represents death. In the novel, the sepulchral city symbolizes European civilization. It has a beautiful exterior, but is hiding something hollow and foreboding. It symbolizes bottomless European greed and the desire for power.

In addition, a ‘whited sepulcher’ can be used as a phrase to call someone a hypocrite. This ties into and symbolizes the hypocritical ways of the European Empire. They claim to be civilized and better than the natives, but in reality, they are cruel and their actions in the Congo certainly don’t hold up to their claims of civility and superiority.

Symbol 2: The Congo River

Another symbol in the Heart of Darkness is the Congo River. First of all, the river symbolizes movement toward a goal. It’s the only way the British have of getting to the center of the continent where the most ivory is, so it steers them towards their goal.

It also moves Marlow toward his goal of reaching Kurtz.The river also symbolizes the separateness of the outsiders, the colonizers. Marlow and the other people on the steamboat rarely go ashore. In many cases they simply can’t because of the dense vegetation.

The river physically and symbolically keeps them separate from the natives, who live on shore. Other than Marlow’s crew, when we encounter natives it is almost exclusively onshore.

Symbol 3: Ivory

The main focus of the Europeans in the Congo is to get as much ivory as possible. The ivory symbolizes their greed and commercialism. They want to get ivory any way they can, regardless of the cost, especially to natives and to the continent. In fact, they seem to forget about their ‘civilized ways’ in the quest for more ivory. This highlights the fact that their greed is more powerful than anything else.

In addition, Kurtz, the man who sends the most ivory, holds the greatest influence in the eyes of other Company employees. The ivory is a concrete symbol for all of this.

Symbol 4: Kurtz

Another interesting aspect of how symbolism is used in Heart of Darkness is that characters can also be symbols. The most prominent example of this is Kurtz. First and foremost, he symbolizes the darker side of humanity, starting with greed and an obsessive love of power. In addition to the ivory, Kurtz is the other symbol of European greed.

He is the person who collects the most ivory for the company, and partly as a result of that he is admired and even revered by other people. He is willing to go farther than anyone else to obtain ivory, as shown by the fact that he holds the innermost station of the Congo. His methods also go beyond anyone else’s, including putting heads of natives on spikes. Kurtz symbolizes the far end of where greed can take you.Kurtz also represents the love of power the white colonizers have as well as the influence they have over the natives. Kurtz is the ultimate power at his Inner Station, and he sets himself up basically as the natives’ god, as far as ultimate influence goes.

The natives accept him in this position and are willing to do anything for him. They even fight to keep him there when Marlow comes to take him away. Kurtz accumulates power here, and symbolizes the desire of the European empire to do the same in the Congo in general.Finally, Kurtz symbolizes the consequences this kind of power can bring and is an example of what can happen to a person when their dark side consumes them. While pursuing power he does terrible things and entirely forgets his civilization. In many ways his pursuit of power costs him his humanity. At the very end, Kurtz realizes this, and we see with his last words, ‘The horror, the horror.

‘ The horror is looking back on what he has become.

Lesson Summary

Heart of Darkness is full of symbolism, where an object or person represents something larger. We see this first with the sepulchral city, which symbolizes European civilization, with a beautiful exterior and hollow interior. It also represents their hypocrisy, with the phrase ‘white sepulcher.’ The Congo River symbolizes the outsider quality that the colonists have, by keeping them separate from the natives onshore. It also symbolizes movement, taking Marlow and the British towards their goals.

The British goal is to get ivory, which is another symbol. Ivory represents the greed of the colonists, and the lengths they are willing to go to to obtain this commodity. Finally, we see through Kurtz that people can also be symbols. Kurtz, as well as the ivory, represents the greed of the colonists and the terrible lengths they will go to for ivory. He also symbolizes the love of power of the colonists, and the influence they have over the natives. We see this in the level of power he attains at the Inner Station.

Finally, Kurtz symbolizes how destructive this power can be when we see that he has essentially lost his humanity.

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