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Guide to Symbolism in "Heart of Darkness"

written by: Shelia Odak • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/20/2012

Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" is a novel rich in symbolism. The following is a discussion of some of the symbols found in this masterpiece of modern literature.

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    This article discusses just a few of the symbols found in the novel and explores the symbolism in Heart of Darkness. See how many more symbols you can come up with as you read the book. Remember that a symbol is something (an object, a person, a place, etc.) that is used to represent a concept (good, evil, happiness, death).

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    Darkness and Light

    Darkness is so important a symbol that it is highlighted in the novel’s title. As is expected, darkness stands for ideas such as evil, madness, and depravity. Marlow travels into the dark, uncharted parts of the world and discovers that evil lives there in the form of the Europeans who should, in theory, bring enlightenment. However, in their pursuit of ivory (something that is physically light), the white man has embraced the darkest parts of his nature.

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    Women

    Marlow says about his aunt, “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own . . . .” This is a point of view shared by Kurtz who says regarding women, “We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.” Women symbolize decency and purity. It is their potential for representing the goodness in humanity that both men see as being worth saving, especially after having seen the horrors of evil. However, it is the ability of society to whitewash these horrors and say that they are done in the name of progress that allows the atrocities to continue.

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    Kurtz’s painting

    Kurtz paints a picture of a woman who stands against a black background. She holds a torch and is blindfolded. While the image seems to resemble lady justice, there seems to be very little justice in Africa. Kurtz idealizes women and sees them as the keepers of all good things in the world. They must be kept from the truth of the dark world (thus the blindfold) even as they cast a light that is the only hope for changing the world. Here it is easy to see Kurtz’s idealized vision of women.

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    The Accountant

    The Company’s accountant who Marlow encounters is interesting because he manages to stand outside of his surroundings. His physical appearance is elegant and pristine in an environment that is filthy and chaotic. He goes on with his work no matter what is happening around him, including people dying. He is the physical representation of the philosophy of the Company.

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    The Knitting Women

    When Marlow arrives at the offices of the Company, he encounters two women, “one fat and the other slim,” who sit knitting with black wool. Marlow sees the two figures as “guarding the door of Darkness.” While these women appear only briefly, they are important in their symbolic meaning. The women correspond to the mythological Fates who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life. It is in the offices of the Company that Marlow’s life is being measured out as he begins his journey into the heart of Africa.

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    More Symbols

    Other symbols worth thinking about: The Eldorado expedition, ivory, the Congo river, the “whited sepulchre,” and fog.

Study Guide for Heart of Darkness

A study guide for high school level students on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
  1. Role of Women in Heart of Darkness
  2. Guide to Symbolism in "Heart of Darkness"
  3. Comparing the Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness

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