Joseph Conrad’s use of light and darkness to represent good and evil in the Heartof Darkness helps in developing the theme and the plot of the novel. Conrad uses thesymbol of light and darkness repetitively throughout the novel in order to disclose hisinsight to the reader; Conrad uses light and darkness when referring to the Thames andCongo river, the skin color and hearts of the whites and blacks, and the black mistress andthe Intended. Conrad’s use of light and darkness is evident from the opening of the novel. Thestory opens on the tranquil Thames River aboard the cruising yawl called the Nellie.
All iscalm 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 thatMarlow navigates in Africa. The Congo is full of darkness and fractiousness. Ironically,the bright Thames is described similarly to the dark Congo. In the closing lines of thenovel, the Thames seems to be flowing “into the heart of an immense darkness”( ). Duringthe onset of the novel, in which none of Marlow’s story is disclosed, the narrator isignorant to the horrors of European imperialism, and he subsequently describes theThames 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 strikinglydifferent: immensely dark. Through the use of lightness and darkness Conrad inveighsthat regardless of where the white man exists, in civilized London or deepest Africa, heseems 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 greedand cruelty of the white men in Africa, who voraciously and recklessly seize ivory at anycost to human life, Conrad depicts the black natives as having more self-control.
TheManager is starving the cannibals on board Marlow’s steamer to death, and although theyeagerly 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 similarmanner, the savages’ along the Congo do not attack the steamer bearing the greedyEuropeans even though they know the intent is to be evil and destructive. It is only a whiteman’s command, at the urging of Kurtz, that the natives attack the steamer. It isintentionally ironic that the black man in the novel has a purer (light) heart than the whiteman, whose heart is callous, cruel and baleful (dark). The two women in Kurtz’s life are also described with the use of light anddarkness.
Kurtz’s black mistress in Africa is very demonstrative, wearing bright clothingand jewelry and acting in a loud, wild manner, clearly displaying strong emotions. Incontrast, Kurtz’s Intended in Belgium is fair, mild-tempered, and draped in black. Thebrightness and passion of Kurtz’s black mistress are revealed from her bright attire whilethe passiveness of Kurtz’s intended is evident from her dark clothing. However, despitetheir differences in appearance and temperament, the love they feel for Kurtz is verysimilar.
The white Intended’s attire of black shows her bond with the black woman, whilethe black mistress’s bright clothing and jewelry display this common bond as well; inherentin both is a love for Kurtz. The use of the symbols of light and darkness assist in developing many majorthemes in the Heart of Darkness. Many of these themes, if not grasped by the readerthrough the use of symbols and other literary devices, generate a misinterpretation of thenovel. Therefore, the allegations deeming Conrad racist are merely the result of ignorantreaders who do not comprehend the style of writing which he employs.