Symbols and their Meanings in “Heart of Darkness”
Symbols are a common literary device used by authors. Some authors use symbols to make the readers think and find the deeper meanings. Other authors use symbols to help tie together different parts of the story. In Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad many symbols are shown to the readers throughout the literary work. Three of the major symbols the author uses in this book are the color black, the color white, and buzzing flies.
In the book Heart of Darkness the color black is used to symbolize many different things. It symbolizes death, darkness, and evil but there is also times when it symbolizes good. For example when Marlow goes to sign his contract he sees two women knitting black caps, also known as funeral caps. The women were taking measurements of every member of the company and knitting the caps so that they would be ready to place on the head of a person who died while in the jungle. This shows the reader that death was expected once a person decided to go work on the Congo River because many people did not assume that they would make it out alive. The color black also symbolizes evil. Joseph Conrad describes the land by saying, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” (72). This shows the reader that the land was seen to be a very dark place and its evilness captivated people and drew them in into the very heart of its darkness. Although Conrad does, at times, follow the traditional use of black meaning evil he also strays away from that and in some cases portrays black as the color of good. For example in the book the black-skinned people are portrayed as the ones who are good at heart. Although they do violent things such as kill people they only do them because the white people are forcing them to and they have to do what they can to stay alive. Traditionally the black-skinned people would have been the ones that are violent and angry and portrayed as evil because the color black is associated with evilness. But Conrad reverses the mainstream way people think in order to draw his readers in and keep them thinking.
How it works
Another major symbol in Heart of Darkness is the color white. The color white traditionally symbolizes life and the goodness within but Conrad also uses it to symbolize evil. For example Conrad uses the color white to symbolize good when the Company is sending white people to civilize the areas around the Congo. This helps bring a light into the lives of people who otherwise live in complete darkness. Although there are many examples of white symbolizing good there are just as many of white symbolizing the evilness of the world. One example is the dying boy with the white string around his neck. Marlow describes the scene by saying, “It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas” (Conrad 14). The reader can interpret that the white string symbolizes his death and the way he died from this description. Another example is that the white-skinned people are the ones who are truly evil on the inside. They are overrun by greed and the need to be the best and most successful. So much so that they kill or get people to kill for them without hesitation if it means that they will be able to get ahead. Conrad’s use of reversal from white always meaning the goodness inside of people and life helps the readers think more in depth and develop a deeper understanding of the book.
Another major symbol is buzzing flies. Conrad uses the flies to symbolize death and the grim conditions that people are living in while on the Congo. For example when Marlow is living in the station for ten days he talks about how hot it was and how the flies were big and that they did not sting they stabbed (Conrad 15). This shows the reader how terrible the conditions are that Marlow is living in. Conrad also uses flies to symbolize death. While living at the station there was ill people scattered all throughout the huts, because of this the flies were constantly buzzing around. This shows the reader that death was near and that the flies are the symbol that death is coming. Another example of flies buzzing around death is when Kurtz has just died. Marlow describes it by saying, “A continuous stream of small flies streamed upon the lamp, upon the cloth, upon our hands and faces” (Conrad 64). This quote helps the readers get a better understanding of the how terrible the conditions are because they are constantly surrounded by flies because of the constant death of people that are on the Congo.
The colors black and white and the buzzing flies are three major symbols used in Heart of Darkness. The color black symbolizes death and the evilness of the Congo River, but it also is used to symbolize good when referring to the black-skinned people. The color white is traditionally used to symbolize good and life but Conrad also uses it to symbolize the greed and evilness of the white-skinned men. The buzzing flies symbolize death and the terrible conditions that are being endured while people are living on the Congo. Although they all have different meanings all of the symbols shown throughout this work of literature help develop the story and give the readers a chance to find their deeper meanings.