Light and Darkness Symbolism Essay

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1784 Words
Date:  2022-03-09


Authors have different ways of portraying different themes in their artistic work. Sometimes they use fiction, exaggerations, symbolism to express their views or develop different themes in their work (Qu & Li 1). Symbolism is the use of words, images, objects to emphasize the underlying emotions and meanings. For instance, Plato used "The Allegory of the Cave" (Peterson 278), to show that humans do not understand the actual reality of the world. They usually tend to believe what they are sensing or looking at (images and echo of voices in the cave), but in reality, they perceive shadows of the actual truth. People are trapped (chained their legs, necks, and eventually their mind for ages) in that they cannot move, think or see. Therefore, they do not know about what is happening outside the cave due to the dark in the cave. Those who (freed prisoner) find the light (truth and knowledge) are willing to lead others; however, they (fellow prisoners) refuse to follow suit due to their limited knowledge. This allegory helps to advance the idea that the majority of people are trapped in the general ideas and social norms they have followed since their childhood. Those who have chosen to go beyond these childhood ideas have explored limitless opportunities (Peterson 279).

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Imageries, in most cases, are used to reveal the underlying issues in the society metaphorically or to predict the future. Two of the most common symbols used by artists are light and darkness. They are used to foreshadow or advance the plot as well as the outcome in the real world (Forceville et al. 160). Usually, light is used to portray positivity, while darkness is used to predict negativity. Positivity means hope, life, and goodness while negativity such as the unknown, death, and evil (Forceville et al. 160). This trend is common in literature. Joseph Conrad is one of the authors who have used light and darkness symbolism in their stories. This paper analyses Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and how he used darkness and light to advance his plot, represent the then current state in society.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is about a Belgian company that trades at the Congo River, which insisted on bringing civilization in the region but instead focused on making profits. The main character in the story, Marlow, goes deeper into the company and discovers decay and brutality of imperialism. Conrad develops the themes: the evil side of human nature and hypocrisy of imperialism.

In this short novel, Joseph uses several literary techniques in his storytelling, but the most outstanding is light and darkness symbolism. Throughout the story, Marlow (the narrator), describes Europeans and Europe in terms of white and light relating them to civility and knowledge. On the other hand, Africans and Africa are described in terms of blackness and darkness representing savagery and mystery (Morzinski 228). However, as the plot advances, darkness and light symbols are infused with other distinct meanings contrary to the common public perception. Conrad uses "the Whited Sepulture," African jungle and fog to overthrow people's collective knowledge on those symbols.

The Whited SepultureSepulcher portrays confinement and death. Conrad borrows whited sepulcher from the bible Matthew 23:27-28:

For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside, you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Holy Bible, New Testament 46).

In verse, Matthew describes something beautiful and righteous outside and evil inside as whited sepulcher. In the story "Heart of Darkness," the same can be said of Brussels (headquarters of the company). Although the company's mission was enlightening and civilizing the native people, in reality, their projects are profit-driven. The methods employed by the company are dehumanizing and result in deaths and decay to both colonial subjects and white men. The company offices have a map which when Marlow looks at it sees:

Blotches of color, a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn't going into any of these; I was going into the yellow. Dead in the center. And the river was there-fascinating-deadly-like a snake" (Conrad 38).

Conrad uses the comments by Marlow to depict disparities between the white and their light and black and their darkness in Africa.

Historically, the Belgians were perceived to be less cruel than other colonial powers. Therefore, they were believed to bring civilization benefits of colonialism, giving hope, and reducing savagery in the continent (the light) something Marlow's aunt, a friend to the company's administration, espoused encouraging Marlow to take a job in the company. Marlow's aunt saw taking the job as an opportunity of bringing light which will promote "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways" (Conrad 40). However, Marlow is aware of the objective of the company is to make profits and not to bring goodness to humanity in the region. The presence of the Belgians in the Congo River was marked by multiple blood-shed. Therefore, underneath the mission associated with light, there is corruption and decay associated with darkness.

As Marlow travels to the Central Station from the Outer Station, and finally up to the Inner Station, he comes across near-slavery, cruelty and torture. He sees a group of black prisoners being led by fellow Africans. Marlow says "...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" (Conrad 44). To Marlow, these evils are the darkness of imperialism instead of the light people made to believe.

The African Jungle

The African jungle also portrays the plight of the natives. To the Europeans, the jungles are a symbol of savagery and primitiveness. Besides, more people associate jungles with darkness. As Qu and Li wrote, "the jungle is the opposite of a moral symbol - it stands for the savage in man, for his utter isolation and his moral collapse" (2). As Marlow stepped into the jungle at the Outer Station, he felt like he had stepped into "the gloomy circle of some Inferno"; "rushing noises filled the mournful stillness of the grove." (Conrad 44).

Conrad used Marlow's horror and darkness in the jungle to advance the true evils of the colonial company, which resulted in deaths and dehumanization. The natives are left "half effaced within the dim light, ...all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair" (Conrad 44). While the whites considered the natives as retarded, those people were helpless, weak, starved, sick, and dying. On the other end, the chief accountant of the company is dressed luxuriously (Conrad 45).

When Marlow learned of Kurtz's cruel activities in the jungle, he blamed the dark; that is, a mysterious influence for Kurtz's actions and regarded savagery as a moral decay brought by nature. However, later, he realized that the African jungle was not to blame for Kurtz's madness and brutality but preferably the whole of Europe was responsible for making and raising people like Kurtz (Conrad 77).

According to Marlow, Kurtz is his inner id, and his action does not surprise Marlow. He says, "I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist - obviously in the sunshine." (Conrad 86). Marlow slowly realized that he had some experiences common with Kurtz. He recognized both of them were the product of the very places they were born.

The Fog

Darkness is also depicted in the fog. The fog represents obscurity and distortion in the novel; that is, throughout the plot the reader is given information, to begin with when making a decision but without tools to judge whether such a decision is accurate, and as such, the decision ends up being wrong. Marlow says:

When the sun rose, there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night- a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque me, it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise" (Conrad 67).

Here Conrad uses the fog, implying Marlow's vision is obscured, leaving him without knowledge of where he is heading and with no idea there is open water lying ahead. Besides, Marlow is left relying on the voices and words coming from all sides. As a result of the fog, Marlow does not think about the natives attacking since their cries sounded less warlike what he presumed turned out to be wrong.

Conrad used the fog metaphor to describe Marlow's situation for most of the story. Marlow relied on the secondhand accounts of Kurtz's personality and exploits, which turned to be enriching and dangerous as it provided a diversion from his hostile environment. When Marlow says that "It seemed to me I had never breathed an atmosphere so vile, and I turned mentally to Kurtz for relief- positively for relief," Kurtz is given a sense of positivity (Conrad 90). However, such a comment resulted in Marlow being disliked by the representatives of the company.


Conrad, in his story "Heath of Darkness" is an example of how authors can use elements such as light and dark to advance their plot. In his story, he showed how such elements could be used to reveal issues present in society using filtered expressions to prevent attacks that may arise when such matters are expressed plainly. From the story, it can be concluded that Brussels represents civil world splendid in the outside but evil in the inside. The African jungle is a representation of the savagery and primitiveness of the third-world countries. The fog describes the ambiguity which plunges people who visit the third-world countries. Through such symbols, Conrad developed the themes: the evil side of human nature and hypocrisy of imperialism.

Works Cited

Forceville, Charles J., and Thijs Renckens. "The good is light and bad is a dark metaphor in feature films." Metaphor and the Social World 3.2 (2013): 160-179.

Holy Bible, the New Testament. "Nanjing: National TSPM & CCC." 2000, 46.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Stories. Kent: Wordsworth Classics, 1999: 36-107.

Morzinski, Mary. "Heart of Darkness" and Plato's Myth of the Cave." Conradiana 34.3 (2002): 227-233.

Peterson, Valerie V. "Plato's Allegory of the Cave: literacy and 'the good'." Review of Communication 17.4 (2017): 273-287.

Qu, Caie, and Li, Xiaoxi. "Light and Dark Symbols in the Heart of Darkness." 2008,

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