Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness: Imagery 4 key examples

Definition of Imagery
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... read full definition
Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Sepulchral City:

When he first sets out on his expedition, Marlow visits the Company’s headquarters in Brussels, and he uses imagery (sight, sound, and touch) to describe the “sepulchral city”:

A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting between the stones, imposing carriage archways 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.

The visual imagery in this passage emphasizes the city’s emptiness and inhumanity. For instance, the phrases “deserted street,” “dead silence,” and “as arid as a desert” suggest that the city is not even properly inhabited. It appears to be not a place where human beings actually live, but rather a place where they stockpile their wealth and leave their empty property. In this sense, it’s the opposite of the Congo, which is full of tumultuous, unpredictable, and occasionally terrifying life—which Europeans like Kurtz are destroying by trying to plunder the Congo for inanimate material resources like ivory.

This passage particularly emphasizes the city’s grandiose but ominous proportions: its “narrow” street is bounded by “high houses,” “imposing carriage archways,” and “immense double doors.” Put differently, the streets are too small for human beings, while the buildings are far too large for them, which makes the city seem simultaneously hollow and claustrophobic. This creates a sense of foreboding and danger that foreshadows Marlow’s journey to the Congo. After all, during his time there, Marlow will discover that, with the exception of Kurtz, nearly all of the people who work for the Company are just as hollow and passionless as the sepulchral city.

Explanation and Analysis—The Living Jungle:

The novella’s striking imagery of the Congo emphasizes its liveliness and motion, which contrasts with the total stagnation of European cities like London and Brussels. For instance, when Marlow first arrives in the Congo in Part 1, he observes that:

The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam.

Here, Conrad makes the Congo more vivid for his European readers by mixing visual imagery (like the jungle’s color and the glittering sea) with tactile imagery (like the sweltering sun and dripping land, which suggest sweat). The jungle is so dense that it’s “almost black,” and Marlow can’t even see into it. This represents his inability to understand it—indeed, in this passage Conrad contrasts the “Dark Continent,” which Marlow and his colleagues will struggle to conquer, with the white, shining sea, which they have crossed without a hitch. But Marlow can tell that the Congo is full of heat and activity, as it appears to “glisten and drip with steam.” In other words, it’s clear that he will find something in Africa, just not precisely what—after all, the rest of the book will bring the reader along on his journey. As it does, Marlow will again emphasize Africa’s impenetrability later in Part 1, by highlighting its seeming contradictions. For instance, he observes the contrasts between life and stagnation, or fullness and emptiness:

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not. A deadened burst of mighty splashes and snorts reached us from afar, as though an icthyosaurus had been taking a bath of glitter in the great river.

This is typical of Conrad’s descriptions of the forest. For instance, he suggests motion by presenting the forest as “exuberant and entangled,” then juxtaposing a series of nouns—“trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons”—but then immediately shuts down this movement by clarifying that it’s all “motionless in the moonlight.” Similarly, he describes the plants as on the brink of motion, “ready to topple over the creek,” even though “it move[s] not.” The sounds of “mighty splashes and snorts” in the distance suggest that there’s some significant motion in the forest, but again, it’s not clear exactly what. These contrasts between movement and stagnation represent the consistent struggle in this book between nature—which tends toward life, creation, and motion—and civilization—which tends toward death, destruction, and stagnation. Later, Conrad more explicitly links imagery to human life in Part 2:

I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes—the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement, glistening of bronze colour. The twigs shook, swayed, and rustled, the arrows flew out of them, and then the shutter came to.

In this description, as a group of Congolese people attacks Marlow’s steamship, the rainforest is still a tangled mess. But the native people on the riverbanks blend in with the jungle itself, so that outsiders like Marlow cannot tell where plants end and humans begin. This continuity between native people and native plants represents the way that, in Conrad’s mind, rural non-Europeans live a more natural, “primitive” lifestyle. In contrast, Conrad sees the complex societies of urban Europe as obsessed with freezing things in place in order to own them—such as the ivory that they kill to obtain. While these ideas are no longer commonly accepted today, they are still the foundation for Conrad’s critique of European civilization in this novella, and he consistently incorporates them into his descriptions of the physical environment throughout it.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Thames:

The novella opens and closes with imagery of a great river—not the Congo, where most of the plot is set, but rather the Thames in London. This is where the book’s frame story takes place, as Marlow tells his tale to a group of fellow sailors. The book’s second paragraph in Part 1 sets the scene:

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

The Narrator uses these rich visual descriptions to portray the Thames as a passage linking London to the open sea and then the rest of the world. He evokes a sense of infinity by calling the river an “interminable waterway” and describing the sea and sky as one vast, continuous expanse of blue. After all, when Conrad published this book in 1899, London was the world’s most powerful city, mainly because it was the capital of England’s vast colonial empire. Thus, Marlow and his compatriots are anchored in the spot that, more than any other, has shaped the global power balance they live under. This detail is key to understanding Marlow’s critique of colonialism in the novella: his country is both one of its main beneficiaries and the nation with the most power to undo it. Generations of colonial plunderers, administrators, and troops have left from the exact spot where Marlow is now warning his fellow sailors about the perils of imperial conquest. Of course, this setting also simply foreshadows the tale that Marlow is about to tell, which begins with him setting out from London for Brussels and then the Congo. 

In this opening passage, Conrad also contrasts the river’s motion (it “ran out to sea”) with the stagnation of the idle tide and the sails on the boats that represent Europeans’ colonial ambitions. This passage is also structured by the contrast between light and dark: the “luminous space” of “the sea and the sky” under the setting sun contrasts with the “mournful gloom” that “brood[s]” over London. Of course, this visual imagery foreshadows the association between light, Europe, and morality (on the one hand) and Africa and darkness (on the other) that recurs throughout the novella. By one interpretation, Conrad uses both of these contrasts to suggest that the era of European imperialism is—or ought to be—coming to an end: the setting sun, stagnant boats, and idle tide all suggest that colonialism is fading and giving way to a new world order. By another, darkness is overtaking London itself, which represents Conrad’s view that plunder, corruption, and deceit are the core reasons for England’s global imperial power and economic success. But a third interpretation is that the bright clouds in the distance could represent the Narrator’s faith in English colonialism at the beginning of the book—a faith that he will gradually lose as it advances.

This imagery of a graying Thames at sunset returns at the very end of the novella, in Part 3. But now, the Narrator’s perspective changes. Instead of seeing a shining light in the ocean and dark clouds over London, he now sees everything as dark: 

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.

This shifting sunset imagery supports all three interpretations of the opening passage. The darkness leading out to sea could represent the Narrator’s newfound recognition that colonial conquest is morally evil (dark) rather than good (light). Alternatively, the growing cloud of gloom could symbolize Conrad’s conclusion that all of humanity is inherently selfish and corrupt, including the Europeans who often think of themselves as superior to other groups. Finally, the spreading darkness could simply represent how Europeans and their societies have spread their corrupt practices around the globe through colonialism.

Thus, while this visual imagery about light and dark clearly represents the novella’s central idea about the evils of colonialism, exactly how it does this is still up for debate. Indeed, Conrad deliberately leaves scenes like these ambiguous, so that his readers can reach their own conclusions.

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Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Living Jungle:

The novella’s striking imagery of the Congo emphasizes its liveliness and motion, which contrasts with the total stagnation of European cities like London and Brussels. For instance, when Marlow first arrives in the Congo in Part 1, he observes that:

The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam.

Here, Conrad makes the Congo more vivid for his European readers by mixing visual imagery (like the jungle’s color and the glittering sea) with tactile imagery (like the sweltering sun and dripping land, which suggest sweat). The jungle is so dense that it’s “almost black,” and Marlow can’t even see into it. This represents his inability to understand it—indeed, in this passage Conrad contrasts the “Dark Continent,” which Marlow and his colleagues will struggle to conquer, with the white, shining sea, which they have crossed without a hitch. But Marlow can tell that the Congo is full of heat and activity, as it appears to “glisten and drip with steam.” In other words, it’s clear that he will find something in Africa, just not precisely what—after all, the rest of the book will bring the reader along on his journey. As it does, Marlow will again emphasize Africa’s impenetrability later in Part 1, by highlighting its seeming contradictions. For instance, he observes the contrasts between life and stagnation, or fullness and emptiness:

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not. A deadened burst of mighty splashes and snorts reached us from afar, as though an icthyosaurus had been taking a bath of glitter in the great river.

This is typical of Conrad’s descriptions of the forest. For instance, he suggests motion by presenting the forest as “exuberant and entangled,” then juxtaposing a series of nouns—“trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons”—but then immediately shuts down this movement by clarifying that it’s all “motionless in the moonlight.” Similarly, he describes the plants as on the brink of motion, “ready to topple over the creek,” even though “it move[s] not.” The sounds of “mighty splashes and snorts” in the distance suggest that there’s some significant motion in the forest, but again, it’s not clear exactly what. These contrasts between movement and stagnation represent the consistent struggle in this book between nature—which tends toward life, creation, and motion—and civilization—which tends toward death, destruction, and stagnation. Later, Conrad more explicitly links imagery to human life in Part 2:

I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes—the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement, glistening of bronze colour. The twigs shook, swayed, and rustled, the arrows flew out of them, and then the shutter came to.

In this description, as a group of Congolese people attacks Marlow’s steamship, the rainforest is still a tangled mess. But the native people on the riverbanks blend in with the jungle itself, so that outsiders like Marlow cannot tell where plants end and humans begin. This continuity between native people and native plants represents the way that, in Conrad’s mind, rural non-Europeans live a more natural, “primitive” lifestyle. In contrast, Conrad sees the complex societies of urban Europe as obsessed with freezing things in place in order to own them—such as the ivory that they kill to obtain. While these ideas are no longer commonly accepted today, they are still the foundation for Conrad’s critique of European civilization in this novella, and he consistently incorporates them into his descriptions of the physical environment throughout it.

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Part 3
Explanation and Analysis—Heads on Stakes:

The novella uses visual imagery to describe the heads on stakes outside Kurtz’s hut. When Marlow reaches the Inner Station, he looks out at Kurtz’s hut through his binoculars while the Russian Trader tells him that Kurtz is no longer the same man as before. He notices curious decorations on the fencepots surrounding Kurtz’s hut—and when he realizes what they are, he “throw[s his] head back as if before a blow.” The decorations are severed human heads. Marlow continues:

I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.

For Marlow, this scene is the first clear indication that Kurtz isn’t the kind, principled man he was told to expect, but rather a bloodthirsty lunatic. A man who collects native people’s heads as trophies and uses them to decorate his house either never truly believed in the nobility of “civilization” or, as the Russian seems to believe, gave up on these beliefs long ago thanks to the wild, perilous jungle’s influence. In fact, headhunting is one of the most classic Western stereotypes about what is wrong with “savage” native people in the rest of the world. It was even frequently used as an example of why Europeans needed to “civilize” non-white people by force. Yet, historically, displaying heads on stakes is actually a predominantly European trend. Thus, by depicting Kurtz as a headhunter, Conrad turns this stereotype on its head and emphasizes how Kurtz has really become a “savage” through his time in the Congo (and how European colonizers’ customs are far more depraved and immoral than Congolese people’s).

This passage depicts the dead man’s shrunken head in grotesque visual detail, which is designed to shock the reader with its brutality, just as it shocks Marlow. The head’s “sunken” and “shrunken” appearance emphasizes how Kurtz turned a human being into something less than human—something withered, distorted, and repulsive.This imagery serves as a key turning point in the book, because it marks the beginning of the end of Marlow’s illusions about Kurtz. Crucially, this is the only time in the entire novella that Conrad describes a native African person by referring to their actual facial features, rather than their mere bodies, actions, or even shadows. For instance, in one typical passage, he recalls seeing “vague forms of men running bent double, leaping, gliding, distinct, incomplete, evanescent.” In a way, then, the heads on stakes are the most humanizing depiction of Africans in the whole book—a fact that may be as disturbing to contemporary readers as the imagery itself. Thus, regardless of whether this reflects Joseph Conrad’s racism or just his characters’, this passage quite literally puts a face to the pervasive racism and dehumanizing attitudes toward Africans that predominated in the Belgian Congo.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Thames:

The novella opens and closes with imagery of a great river—not the Congo, where most of the plot is set, but rather the Thames in London. This is where the book’s frame story takes place, as Marlow tells his tale to a group of fellow sailors. The book’s second paragraph in Part 1 sets the scene:

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

The Narrator uses these rich visual descriptions to portray the Thames as a passage linking London to the open sea and then the rest of the world. He evokes a sense of infinity by calling the river an “interminable waterway” and describing the sea and sky as one vast, continuous expanse of blue. After all, when Conrad published this book in 1899, London was the world’s most powerful city, mainly because it was the capital of England’s vast colonial empire. Thus, Marlow and his compatriots are anchored in the spot that, more than any other, has shaped the global power balance they live under. This detail is key to understanding Marlow’s critique of colonialism in the novella: his country is both one of its main beneficiaries and the nation with the most power to undo it. Generations of colonial plunderers, administrators, and troops have left from the exact spot where Marlow is now warning his fellow sailors about the perils of imperial conquest. Of course, this setting also simply foreshadows the tale that Marlow is about to tell, which begins with him setting out from London for Brussels and then the Congo. 

In this opening passage, Conrad also contrasts the river’s motion (it “ran out to sea”) with the stagnation of the idle tide and the sails on the boats that represent Europeans’ colonial ambitions. This passage is also structured by the contrast between light and dark: the “luminous space” of “the sea and the sky” under the setting sun contrasts with the “mournful gloom” that “brood[s]” over London. Of course, this visual imagery foreshadows the association between light, Europe, and morality (on the one hand) and Africa and darkness (on the other) that recurs throughout the novella. By one interpretation, Conrad uses both of these contrasts to suggest that the era of European imperialism is—or ought to be—coming to an end: the setting sun, stagnant boats, and idle tide all suggest that colonialism is fading and giving way to a new world order. By another, darkness is overtaking London itself, which represents Conrad’s view that plunder, corruption, and deceit are the core reasons for England’s global imperial power and economic success. But a third interpretation is that the bright clouds in the distance could represent the Narrator’s faith in English colonialism at the beginning of the book—a faith that he will gradually lose as it advances.

This imagery of a graying Thames at sunset returns at the very end of the novella, in Part 3. But now, the Narrator’s perspective changes. Instead of seeing a shining light in the ocean and dark clouds over London, he now sees everything as dark: 

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.

This shifting sunset imagery supports all three interpretations of the opening passage. The darkness leading out to sea could represent the Narrator’s newfound recognition that colonial conquest is morally evil (dark) rather than good (light). Alternatively, the growing cloud of gloom could symbolize Conrad’s conclusion that all of humanity is inherently selfish and corrupt, including the Europeans who often think of themselves as superior to other groups. Finally, the spreading darkness could simply represent how Europeans and their societies have spread their corrupt practices around the globe through colonialism.

Thus, while this visual imagery about light and dark clearly represents the novella’s central idea about the evils of colonialism, exactly how it does this is still up for debate. Indeed, Conrad deliberately leaves scenes like these ambiguous, so that his readers can reach their own conclusions.

Unlock with LitCharts A+