Joseph Conrad’s use of light and darkness to represent good and evil in the Heart
of Darkness helps in developing the theme and the plot of the novel. Conrad uses the
symbol of light and darkness repetitively throughout the novel in order to disclose his
insight to the reader; Conrad uses light and darkness when referring to the Thames and
Congo river, the skin color and hearts of the whites and blacks, and the black mistress and
the Intended.Conrad’s use of light and darkness is evident from the opening of the novel.
story opens on the tranquil Thames River aboard the cruising yawl called the Nellie. All is
calm on the water as the lights of London twinkle around the boat. The Thames River,
which is seen as calm, civil’ and bright, is an obvious contrast to the Congo River that
Marlow navigates in Africa. The Congo is full of darkness and fractiousness.
the bright Thames is described similarly to the dark Congo. In the closing lines of the
novel, the Thames seems to be flowing “into the heart of an immense darkness”( ). During
the onset of the novel, in which none of Marlow’s story is disclosed, the narrator is
ignorant to the horrors of European imperialism, and he subsequently describes the
Thames as bright and lit. However, during the closing of the novel, in which the startling
cruelty of the Europeans is divulged, the narrator describes the Thames as strikingly
different: immensely dark.
Through the use of lightness and darkness Conrad inveighs
that regardless of where the white man exists, in civilized London or deepest Africa, he
seems to bring darkness: inhumanity to his fellow man.
Conrad uses light and darkness in context of the color of skin of the whites and
blacks, as well as the corresponding good and evil of their hearts. In contrast to the greed
and cruelty of the white men in Africa, who voraciously and recklessly seize ivory at any
cost to human life, Conrad depicts the black natives as having more self-control. The
Manager is starving the cannibals on board Marlow’s steamer to death, and although they
eagerly eye the body of the dead helmsman and also the physique of the plump Russian,
they restrain their native urges and do not attack the living or the dead.
In a similar
manner, the savages’ along the Congo do not attack the steamer bearing the greedy
Europeans even though they know the intent is to be evil and destructive. It is only a white
man’s command, at the urging of Kurtz, that the natives attack the steamer. It is
intentionally ironic that the black man in the novel has a purer (light) heart than the white
man, whose heart is callous, cruel and baleful (dark).
The two women in Kurtz’s life are also described with the use of light and
Kurtz’s black mistress in Africa is very demonstrative, wearing bright clothing
and jewelry and acting in a loud, wild manner, clearly displaying strong emotions. In
contrast, Kurtz’s Intended in Belgium is fair, mild-tempered, and draped in black. The
brightness and passion of Kurtz’s black mistress are revealed from her bright attire while
the passiveness of Kurtz’s intended is evident from her dark clothing. However, despite
their differences in appearance and temperament, the love they feel for Kurtz is very
The white Intended’s attire of black shows her bond with the black woman, while
the black mistress’s bright clothing and jewelry display this common bond as well; inherent
in both is a love for Kurtz.
The use of the symbols of light and darkness assist in developing many major
themes in the Heart of Darkness. Many of these themes, if not grasped by the reader
through the use of symbols and other literary devices, generate a misinterpretation of the
novel. Therefore, the allegations deeming Conrad racist are merely the result of ignorant
readers who do not comprehend the style of writing which he employs.