Symbolic Language in Heart of Darkness

Conrad loves him his symbolic language. And given the amount of symbolism, given the way his pen leads his thought toward references from his past literary experiences and his understanding of history, you can’t help but see some of the metaphors as organic while others seem quite intentional. Let’s take a look at a few important moments from part I.

Before Conrad passes the narration from one of the seamen to Marlow, he uses direct characterization not once but twice to make Marlow a transcendent figure. As he introduces the characters on the deck of the Nellie, he writes:

Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns—and even convictions. The Lawyer—the best of old fellows—had, because of his many years and many virtues, the only cushion on deck, and was lying on the only rug. The Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones. Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.

This would be one of the references that doesn’t seem organic. He places Marlow in a meditation posture, contrasts the apparent weakness of sunken cheeks and yellow complexion with the disciplined strength of a straight back, and offers him as an ascetic and an idol. After Marlow follows this introduction with his first extended speech, in which he connects the story present, when the British are the civilized power exploiting the “savages” of Africa, to the past, when civilized Romans were setting about the exploitation of the savage natives of what became England, Conrad breaks his speech with an intentional pause, filling the silence of a moment with the description of Marlow “lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.” Just in case you didn’t get the Eastern connection before, Conrad here gets a bit more explicit in his imagery, directly connecting Marlow to Buddha and thereby suggesting that Marlow’s point of view is enlightened.

To foreshadow the nature of Marlow’s journey into the heavily symbolic Heart of Darkness, Conrad brings him to the Continent, to the dark offices of the sinister Company, where two specific allusions are the lens through which Conrad establishes the moral tension of the story. Initially, it appears that Conrad is relying on imagery to characterize the trading company where Marlow is seeking employment:

A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting right and left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar. I slipped through one of these cracks, went up a swept and ungarnished staircase, as arid as a desert, and opened the first door I came to. Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight at me—still knitting with downcast eyes—and only just as I began to think of getting out of her way, as you would for a somnambulist, stood still, and looked up.

Marlow is closed in by the “narrow” street with “high houses,” perhaps spied on from the “innumerable windows with Venetian blinds,” haunted by “a dead silence” as he encounters the “immense” (Conrad likes this word a lot), “ponderously ajar” (what could they be thinking about?) double doors. He walks in from “deserted street” to a “staircase as arid as a desert,” where he encounters two women “knitting black wool,” instead of any other color of wool. Eyes down, the woman somewhat creepily approaches Marlow, “still knitting.” It doesn’t take much time in the company offices for Marlow to pay more attention to the knitting women, and to once again offer more explicitly the impression he intends to make:

An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again—not half, by a long way.

“Eerie, uncanny and fateful” are words directly describe the feeling alluded to in the preceding imagery of the office, but more telling to Conrad’s purpose is the developing allusion to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a novel that juxtaposes the bloodlust of Madame Defarge, who knits the “register” of nobles whom she has sentenced to death once the uprising begins with the light of love that the heroine Lucie Manette, who inspires rebirth and sacrifice in all those who come in contact with her. Dickens, whose language in this novel requires you to wear your reading helmet as you are banged over the head with symbolism, concludes the ominous chapter “Still Knitting” with the foreshadowing of the impending violence of the French Revolution thusly:

Darkness closed around, and then came the ringing of church bells and the distant beating of the military drums in the Palace Courtyard, as the women sat knitting, knitting. Darkness encompassed them. Another darkness was closing in as surely, when the church bells, then ringing pleasantly in many an airy steeple over France, should be melted into thundering cannon; when the military drums should be beating to drown a wretched voice, that night all potent as the voice of Power and Plenty, Freedom and Life. So much was closing in about the women who sat knitting, knitting, that they their very selves were closing in around a structure yet unbuilt, where they were to sit knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads.

In HoD, the two women “knitting black wool” are “guarding the door of Darkness;” in AToTC, “the women sat knitting, knitting,” as “Darkness closed around”, as “Darkness encompassed them,” as “another darkness (the Reign of Terror) was closing in as surely,” and their “knitting, knitting” is connected directly to the “dropping heads” of the guillotine. Marlow cannot resist a little irony, and in paying his respects to the fateful (an overriding theme of A Tale of Two Cities) woman, brings in some Latin as a little suggestion of the past-present connection through “Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant, replacing Caesar with “old knitter of black wool” in the famous line, “Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you.” The ennobled emperor is replaced by the knitter of Fate, a fate that involves the systematic execution of the First Estate in Dickens’ novel, and a fate that is mirrored in the Europeans’ systematic exploitation of the people and resources of Africa in Conrad’s book. Stylistically and thematically, it makes sense that Conrad would channel Dickens for this part of his own work, as he too is striving to be intentionally symbolic, trying to elevate his text beyond the context of a moment in European history, and that he is dealing with the same kind of darkness where a certain kind of advancement (here, economic rather than societal) is counterbalanced by grotesque violence.

Yet, while an inconquerable evil seems to pervade the Company headquarters, Conrad characterizes Marlow as a competing force via biblical allusion. After Marlow has had his head examined for some mysterious purpose, he says:

“I was going to take charge of a two-penny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital—you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.
“‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

The “enlightened” Marlow here has a different light cast upon him, the light of an apostolic mission. If the Christian connection between being an emissary of light and an apostle wasn’t clear enough, Conrad supplements it with a Bible quote, courtesy of his aunt: “the labourer is worthy of his hire.” In the Gospels, both Luke and Matthew cite this teaching from Jesus, and the early Christian Timothy cites it in one of his exhortations to the missionaries who are trying to spread the Gospel through the Mediterranean world in the early days of Christianity.

But once Marlow leaves the Continent, he leaves Dickens and redemption behind, and his initial encounter with Africa is told through the lens of Dante the pilgrim’s initial encounter with the damned souls of Hell in The Inferno. Marlow is shocked by what he sees on his arrival at his destination, and his initial reflection is “I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men—men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.” The devil evolves from a conceptual one – the evils of violence, greed and desire – into a manifest form of the “lusty, red-eyed devils that swayed and drove men – men, I tell you.” The devils are the Europeans, the men the Africans, and Marlow repeats the word “men” to emphasize their humanness. Moments later, however, as Marlow walks toward the trees, those men turn into “shades” or “shadows,” which is the form that the damned souls take in The Inferno, and once more, Conrad makes explicit that which he had moments before suggested:

My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near, and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the mournful stillness of the grove, where not a breath stirred, not a leaf moved, with a mysterious sound—as though the tearing pace of the launched earth had suddenly become audible.

“Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.

“They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air—and nearly as thin.

The “shade” comes from the trees; “shades” from The Inferno. But the idea that these things that were once men are now shadows, now shapes with no substance, signifies a change from the idea that these are men. The various shapes of their suffering are taken from the images that Dante uses to depict the suffering of the unredeemed sinners, punished by the devils (devils are the minions of Satan; there isn’t only one Devil). In canto VI of The Inferno, Dante grows acquainted with the suffering of the denizens of Hell:

At the return of consciousness, that closed
Before the pity of those two relations,
Which utterly with sadness had confused me,

New torments I behold, and new tormented
Around me, whichsoever way I move,
And whichsoever way I turn, and gaze.

In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new.

Huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow,
Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this.

Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,
With his three gullets like a dog is barking
Over the people that are there submerged.

Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;
He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.

Howl the rain maketh them like unto dogs;
One side they make a shelter for the other;
Oft turn themselves the wretched reprobates.

When Cerberus perceived us, the great worm!
His mouths he opened, and displayed his tusks;
Not a limb had he that was motionless.

And my Conductor, with his spans extended,
Took of the earth, and with his fists well filled,
He threw it into those rapacious gullets.

Such as that dog is, who by barking craves,
And quiet grows soon as his food he gnaws,
For to devour it he but thinks and struggles,

The like became those muzzles filth-begrimed
Of Cerberus the demon, who so thunders
Over the souls that they would fain be deaf.

We passed across the shadows, which subdues
The heavy rain-storm, and we placed our feet
Upon their vanity that person seems.

They all were lying prone upon the earth,
Excepting one, who sat upright as soon
As he beheld us passing on before him.

(Inferno VI, 1-39)

The imagery from this scene guides Conrad’s description of Marlow’s observations, from the lusty, red-eyed devils’ association with the demon Cerberus, through the postures of the suffering souls, up to the one who sat upright:

Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone.

Let me stop here, as I’ve gone far beyond where I intended to go in the first place. This sampling of analysis is not intended to tell you the main theme of the story, or to define specifically what you should be looking for as you read. Indeed, the biblical language, the allusions, run far beyond what I have presented here. What I am trying to do is provide a model of the ways you might follow a reference in a text to its contribution to meaning in that text, to demonstrate once again the dialogical quality of literature, and to show how what is on the page can be legitimately explored well beyond a glancing observation.



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