Heart of Darkness

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Dark and White Symbol Icon
Darkness is everywhere in Heart of Darkness. But the novella tweaks the conventional idea of white as good and dark as evil. Evil and good don't really apply to Heart of Darkness, because everyone in the novella is somehow complicit in the atrocities taking place in Africa. Rather, whiteness, especially in the form of the white fog that surrounds the steamship, symbolizes blindness. The dark is symbolized by the huge and inscrutable African jungle, and is associated with the unknowable and primitive heart of all men.

Dark and White Quotes in Heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness quotes below all refer to the symbol of Dark and White. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Colonialism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of Heart of Darkness published in 1990.
Part 1 Quotes
'And this also,' said Marlow suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the earth.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dark and White
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow interjects here on two levels—first into the silence aboard the ship and second into the narrator’s descriptions—to make this stark comment on the history of England.

Whereas the narrator praises English explorers and conquerers for bringing light to dark and foreign lands, Marlow locates darkness within England itself. To support this point, he references the land’s more ancient history when it was taken over by the Romans—thus constructing a parallel between the Roman invasion and Europe’s current colonialism in Africa. In this way, he stresses the relatively small time scale in which the Thames has served as the launch-pad for the world power, subtly undermining the narrator’s focus on European civilization.

His choice of the term “dark” is critical. Conrad could have certainly opted for the more descriptive adjectives “savage” or “uncouth,” but instead he selects a metaphorical term that contrasts directly to the fire-bearing image of the narrator, that implicates race, and that refers directly to the novel’s title. If the narrator might locate the “heart of darkness” in the Congo, Marlow already hints that England holds its own corresponding darknesses. The symbolic and geographical lines, he implies, cannot be drawn as simply as the listener or reader might desire.

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Part 2 Quotes
The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dark and White
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Marlow has begun the final stage of his journey toward the Inner Station. He offers a series of poetic descriptions of that journey, trying to pin down the physical environment and the psychological experience of this new and uncanny realm.

These lines subtly trade agency between the environment and the humans. At first Marlow anthropomorphizes (gives human-like characteristics to) the forest. It can open and close as if it has a will of its own; the simile of "stepping" to block the group's access casts the environment as explicitly human. The adverb “leisurely” focuses our attention on the casualness of this behavior, and Marlow repeatedly stresses the indifference of the surrounding environment to the human presence. Yet the final line shifts a bit of control back to the boat with the term “penetrated.” The aggressive, even phallic, verb highlights the way the expedition is intruding into the Congo, and makes their cohort seem less aimless than some of the travelers depicted before.

Finally, Marlow delivers the titular phrase “heart of darkness” to refer directly to Inner Station. But what is meant by darkness at this point in the text is far from self evident. Recall that Marlow describes London as a place of darkness and has repeatedly pointed to the darknesses in the behaviors of various Europeans. The Inner Station may be dark because it is the center of the Congo, but its darkness also stems from the hideous moral truth Marlow will uncover there, and because it epitomizes the evil actions of European colonists.

Part 3 Quotes
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dark and White
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In its final moments, the text steps outside of Marlow’s story and returns to the frame narrative. The narrator ruminates once more on the surrounding landscape, yet his imagery deviates sharply from the one used to open the text.

Whereas the narrator had previously used metaphors of fire and sparks to describe the Enlightenment brought by Europeans to distant lands, here he focuses on images of darkness: the alliterative “black bank” that “barred” the offing; the waterway that “flowed sombre”; the “overcast sky.” As Marlow told his story, the light aboard the ship gradually darkened, and here that literal and metaphorical obscuring reaches its conclusion. The waterway is no longer the route to sharing London’s brilliance, but rather only carries the darkness of England into the darknesses of distant lands. No real distinction can be made between civilized and uncivilized.

Yet despite this lack of light, the Thames is still deemed “tranquil,” a consistency that reiterates once more the scale of the natural world in comparison to those existing among it. Though the narrator may now see colonial pursuits as more horrific, the water will stay consistent. Note, too, the addition of “immense” to the title “heart of darkness.” At the novel's end, the narrator implies that the horror of the Congo is not simply located at its core. Rather, it is an extensive, perhaps universal, darkness that can be found at any point on the globe.

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Dark and White Symbol Timeline in Heart of Darkness

The timeline below shows where the symbol Dark and White appears in Heart of Darkness. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Suddenly Marlow interrupts the silence. "And this also," Marlow says, "has been one of the dark places of the earth." He imagines England as it must have appeared to the first... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
...unnamed European city where the Company has its headquarters. He describes the city as a "whited sepulcher." (full context)
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
...least "see more than I could then." The Narrator observes that it was now so dark they couldn't see Marlow at all. (full context)
Part 2
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
The morning reveals a thick white blinding fog enveloping the ship. A roar of screaming natives breaks the silence, then cuts... (full context)
Part 3
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
...he just couldn't get himself to tell the Intended the truth—it would have been too dark. (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
...the "uttermost ends of the earth," seems to lead "into the heart of an immense darkness." (full context)