Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Heart of Darkness can help.

Heart of Darkness: Metaphors 4 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—Marlow as Buddha:

At three different moments in the novella, Conrad’s Narrator briefly compares Marlow to a Buddha. He uses this metaphor to highlight the unique insight that Marlow has gained from travels—including through his journey into the Congo, which has shown him the uncomfortable truth about European colonialism. Moreover, since the Buddha is a non-Western paragon of wisdom and benevolence, this comparison points to the moral and intellectual sophistication that Conrad sees in other cultures. Indeed, it underscores his belief that Europeans are foolish and arrogant to view other cultures as uncivilized and inferior to their own. The Narrator uses this device for the first time when he describes the four other men who are on the ship Nellie with him. In Part 1, he introduces the reader to Marlow for the first time:

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.

Even though the Narrator compares Marlow to “an idol” instead of a Buddha, Marlow’s cross-legged position, upright posture, and “ascetic aspect” clearly connect him to classic depictions of the Buddha. The Narrator makes this connection explicit three pages later in Part 1, as Marlow begins his story:

“Mind,” he [Marlow] began again, 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.

This description suggests that, despite his “European clothes,” Marlow possesses a special kind of Eastern wisdom that he will impart on his listeners (and readers) over the course of the book. Similarly, his first word in this paragraph (“mind”) foreshadows the novella’s focus on how imperialism distorts the psychology of the people who participate in it. This foreshadows Marlow’s ultimate message at the end of the book. Indeed, this comparison returns at the end of the novella, after Marlow reveals the disturbing truth about Kurtz—a legendary ivory trader who is rumored to be a noble pilgrim devoted to  Western civilization’s highest ideals, but who turns out to be a bloodthirsty maniac instead. In the novella’s very last paragraph in Part 3, the Narrator recalls:

Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time.

Now, Marlow seems to be leading the rest of the group in meditation. This suggests that, with his tale about Kurtz, he has shown the other sailors his wisdom and won them over to his way of thinking. In short, he has convinced them to heed his warning against Eurocentrism (or the common assumption that Europe and the U.S. are the center of the world and inherently superior to other places).

Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—Helmsman as Instrument:

After his steamship’s Congolese helmsman dies on the way to the Inner Station, Marlow mourns the man’s death but also compares him to “an instrument.” This metaphor shows how European imperialists simply failed to view the non-white people they conquered, murdered, and enslaved as truly human. It’s telling that even Marlow, the only true anti-imperialist in the book, stops far short of seeing the helmsman as an equal. He remarks:

I missed my late helmsman awfully—I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house. Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don’t you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back—a help—an instrument. [...] The intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.

Marlow begins by reassuring his audience that the helmsman was insignificant, like a grain of sand in the desert. While readers today might be horrified to hear Marlow talking so callously about the death of a man he helped enslave, white European readers in Conrad’s era may have been surprised to see him think of the helmsman as an individual human being at all. There’s little doubt that the sailors listening to Marlow’s story probably would have thought the same way. Thus, Marlow’s first lines underline how cold-blooded, corrupt, and racist European colonialism truly was: it was an exception to treat Africans as human, and a norm to treat them as objects—like interchangeable “grains of sand” or “instrument[s].”

Marlow even emphasizes that he only cared about the Helmsman because he was useful. Of course, the implication is that Africans who don’t advance the cause of European colonialism have no value at all. In fact, this passage is just one clear example of Conrad’s consistent tendency to describe Africans as though they were objects throughout the entire book. For instance, when Marlow first reaches the Congo, he describes a group of dying Congolese people as “bundles of acute angles.”

After explaining his fondness for the helmsman, however, Marlow shares his sneaking suspicion that he shared a “distant kinship” with the man. This is his way of saying that he nearly felt as though the helmsman were human. Of course, with this line, he gestures toward a conclusion that would have seemed radical in his time and place: that Europeans and Africans are equal. Yet critics and scholars still don’t agree about whether Conrad genuinely believed this. Some argue that he used passages like this to point out and criticize how European colonial rule dehumanized Africans. Others think that he and his protagonist, Marlow, are only thinking about human equality as a surprising hypothetical designed to challenge Europeans’ arrogance.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—The Heart of Darkness:

The novella’s title appears several times in the book as a metaphor for both the Congo itself and humans’ innate capacity for evil. Indeed, this metaphor helps set up the consistent symbolic link between the Congo and human nature throughout the novella. The “heart of darkness” metaphor first appears a little under halfway through the book, when the General Manager’s uncle declares that he trusts that the jungle will kill Kurtz (who is the General Manager’s main rival for power within the Company). Then, he gestures toward the jungle. (Soon thereafter, he leaves with the ill-fated Eldorado Exploring Expedition, never to be seen again.) In Part 2, Marlow recalls:

I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river—seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

This passage foreshadows Marlow’s disturbing meeting with Kurtz at the end of the novella and sets up the symbolic link between the depths of the jungle and the depths of the human spirit. Conrad declares that there is “death,” “evil,” and “darkness” in the depths of the jungle. He suggests that its mysteries and riches drive white men crazy, revealing the darkest, most corrupt corners of their souls (and human nature in general). Specifically, Conrad presents the Congo as an empty, inhuman place where people act in line with their true nature because they do not need to obey social norms. Thus, he suggests that European imperialists’ horrific crimes in the Congo reflect a deep, hidden truth about human nature. He assumes that the Congo’s impenetrable jungle keeps the Congolese people who live there in a kind of primitive natural state, while scaring the civilization out of the Europeans who visit it.

Yet this view plays into the centuries-old racist myth that Africans (and non-white people in general) lack sophisticated societies and cultures, which makes them more “primitive” or less “evolved” than Europeans. In this book, like in much literature from the era of European colonial expansion, when Europeans go to Africa, they start to embody this stereotype: they become lawless, corrupt, and sadistic. This is particularly true of the maniacal Inner Station chief, Mr. Kurtz, but it also happens to all of the other European administrators Marlow meets in the Congo (like the General Manager and Brickmaker), as well as even Marlow himself.

It also feeds on the common misconception, stemming from Enlightenment philosophy, that human beings are closer to their true inner nature when they live alone in the wilderness (as opposed to when they participate in organized society with other humans). But social scientists have widely disproven this myth: we now know that humans have always lived in organized communities, and even small-scale communities have complex norms and customs. Still, by assuming that adventuring alone in the wilderness is more “natural” than living a settled life in society, Conrad sets up the Congo (the heart of Africa, the so-called “Dark Continent”) as a metaphor for people’s capacity for evil (the darkness in the human heart).

The “heart of darkness” metaphor appears again in Part 3, after Marlow finds Kurtz and turns back down the river toward the ocean:

The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time.

Again, “the heart of darkness” is the depths of the jungle, the place that corrupted Kurtz. Meanwhile, Marlow’s journey out of the jungle to save Kurtz represents humanity’s attempts to save itself from its corrupt inner nature. Of course, it doesn’t work: Kurtz dies before he ever returns to civilization. And when he dies, he is as mad, sadistic, and corrupt as ever.

Finally, at the very end of the novella in Part 3, the Narrator describes the view out over the Thames at sunset:

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.

Now, the “immense darkness” is visible from the Nellie, which suggests that colonialism is revealing the human spirit’s corruption in London as well as in the Congo. The Thames is the link between London and the rest of the world, and from this perspective, it seems like the entire universe—or all of humanity—has “an immense darkness” at its core.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Part 3
Explanation and Analysis—Marlow as Buddha:

At three different moments in the novella, Conrad’s Narrator briefly compares Marlow to a Buddha. He uses this metaphor to highlight the unique insight that Marlow has gained from travels—including through his journey into the Congo, which has shown him the uncomfortable truth about European colonialism. Moreover, since the Buddha is a non-Western paragon of wisdom and benevolence, this comparison points to the moral and intellectual sophistication that Conrad sees in other cultures. Indeed, it underscores his belief that Europeans are foolish and arrogant to view other cultures as uncivilized and inferior to their own. The Narrator uses this device for the first time when he describes the four other men who are on the ship Nellie with him. In Part 1, he introduces the reader to Marlow for the first time:

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.

Even though the Narrator compares Marlow to “an idol” instead of a Buddha, Marlow’s cross-legged position, upright posture, and “ascetic aspect” clearly connect him to classic depictions of the Buddha. The Narrator makes this connection explicit three pages later in Part 1, as Marlow begins his story:

“Mind,” he [Marlow] began again, 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.

This description suggests that, despite his “European clothes,” Marlow possesses a special kind of Eastern wisdom that he will impart on his listeners (and readers) over the course of the book. Similarly, his first word in this paragraph (“mind”) foreshadows the novella’s focus on how imperialism distorts the psychology of the people who participate in it. This foreshadows Marlow’s ultimate message at the end of the book. Indeed, this comparison returns at the end of the novella, after Marlow reveals the disturbing truth about Kurtz—a legendary ivory trader who is rumored to be a noble pilgrim devoted to  Western civilization’s highest ideals, but who turns out to be a bloodthirsty maniac instead. In the novella’s very last paragraph in Part 3, the Narrator recalls:

Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time.

Now, Marlow seems to be leading the rest of the group in meditation. This suggests that, with his tale about Kurtz, he has shown the other sailors his wisdom and won them over to his way of thinking. In short, he has convinced them to heed his warning against Eurocentrism (or the common assumption that Europe and the U.S. are the center of the world and inherently superior to other places).

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—The Heart of Darkness:

The novella’s title appears several times in the book as a metaphor for both the Congo itself and humans’ innate capacity for evil. Indeed, this metaphor helps set up the consistent symbolic link between the Congo and human nature throughout the novella. The “heart of darkness” metaphor first appears a little under halfway through the book, when the General Manager’s uncle declares that he trusts that the jungle will kill Kurtz (who is the General Manager’s main rival for power within the Company). Then, he gestures toward the jungle. (Soon thereafter, he leaves with the ill-fated Eldorado Exploring Expedition, never to be seen again.) In Part 2, Marlow recalls:

I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river—seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

This passage foreshadows Marlow’s disturbing meeting with Kurtz at the end of the novella and sets up the symbolic link between the depths of the jungle and the depths of the human spirit. Conrad declares that there is “death,” “evil,” and “darkness” in the depths of the jungle. He suggests that its mysteries and riches drive white men crazy, revealing the darkest, most corrupt corners of their souls (and human nature in general). Specifically, Conrad presents the Congo as an empty, inhuman place where people act in line with their true nature because they do not need to obey social norms. Thus, he suggests that European imperialists’ horrific crimes in the Congo reflect a deep, hidden truth about human nature. He assumes that the Congo’s impenetrable jungle keeps the Congolese people who live there in a kind of primitive natural state, while scaring the civilization out of the Europeans who visit it.

Yet this view plays into the centuries-old racist myth that Africans (and non-white people in general) lack sophisticated societies and cultures, which makes them more “primitive” or less “evolved” than Europeans. In this book, like in much literature from the era of European colonial expansion, when Europeans go to Africa, they start to embody this stereotype: they become lawless, corrupt, and sadistic. This is particularly true of the maniacal Inner Station chief, Mr. Kurtz, but it also happens to all of the other European administrators Marlow meets in the Congo (like the General Manager and Brickmaker), as well as even Marlow himself.

It also feeds on the common misconception, stemming from Enlightenment philosophy, that human beings are closer to their true inner nature when they live alone in the wilderness (as opposed to when they participate in organized society with other humans). But social scientists have widely disproven this myth: we now know that humans have always lived in organized communities, and even small-scale communities have complex norms and customs. Still, by assuming that adventuring alone in the wilderness is more “natural” than living a settled life in society, Conrad sets up the Congo (the heart of Africa, the so-called “Dark Continent”) as a metaphor for people’s capacity for evil (the darkness in the human heart).

The “heart of darkness” metaphor appears again in Part 3, after Marlow finds Kurtz and turns back down the river toward the ocean:

The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time.

Again, “the heart of darkness” is the depths of the jungle, the place that corrupted Kurtz. Meanwhile, Marlow’s journey out of the jungle to save Kurtz represents humanity’s attempts to save itself from its corrupt inner nature. Of course, it doesn’t work: Kurtz dies before he ever returns to civilization. And when he dies, he is as mad, sadistic, and corrupt as ever.

Finally, at the very end of the novella in Part 3, the Narrator describes the view out over the Thames at sunset:

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.

Now, the “immense darkness” is visible from the Nellie, which suggests that colonialism is revealing the human spirit’s corruption in London as well as in the Congo. The Thames is the link between London and the rest of the world, and from this perspective, it seems like the entire universe—or all of humanity—has “an immense darkness” at its core.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—Kurtz as a Voice/Shadow:

At different points in the novel, Marlow metaphorically compares Kurtz, the legendary Inner Station chief, to a voice and a shadow. By disconnecting Kurtz’s identity from his physical body, these metaphors show how myths about him have become more powerful than the real facts of his life. Indeed, before ever meeting him, Marlow is already looking forward to “the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz,” whom he imagines as “very little more than a voice.” And surely enough, when he finally meets the terminally ill Kurtz a dozen pages later, Marlow is unimpressed when he sees the man but thrilled when he hears:

A voice! a voice! It was grave, profound, vibrating, while the man did not seem capable of a whisper.

Too sick to use his body, Kurtz instead asserts himself through his voice, which comes to represent his entire identity for Marlow. (Specifically, this metaphor is an example of synecdoche, in which an author refers to a part of something in place of the entire thing.) Of course, this isn’t new for Kurtz—most of the other colonial officials who sing his praises focus on his extraordinary skills of persuasion. And yet Kurtz’s words simply don't match up with his actions: while he constantly talks about the need to “civilize” the “savage” people of Africa, he instead spends his time murdering them and chasing ivory. Marlow never quite figures out whether Kurtz ever genuinely believed in the “civilizing mission.” Indeed, even after Kurtz’s death, Marlow understands far more about Kurtz’s life from other people’s stories than from the man’s own words. He reflects on their strange connection by comparing Kurtz to a shadow:

He lived then before me; he lived as much as he had ever lived—a shadow insatiable of splendid appearances, of frightful realities; a shadow darker than the shadow of the night, and draped nobly in the folds of a gorgeous eloquence.

At first sight, Marlow may seem to be comparing the stories about Kurtz to a shadow of the real man. But actually, it’s the other way around: he’s saying that the real Kurtz he met is just a shadow of the stories he heard about him. In other words, for Marlow, the macho Kurtz of legend is more meaningful and real than the dying Kurtz he actually met.

Of course, since Kurtz represents European imperialism as a whole, this peculiar metaphor suggests that distorted myths about colonization often end up shaping people’s perceptions more than the truth. And Conrad suggests that, when it comes to their nations’ colonial empires, people in Europe learn such distorted myths, at best. He shows that, just like all of the people who idealize Kurtz throughout the novella, Europeans who admire colonialism are responding to a myth, not to reality. And this myth is particularly dangerous because it’s designed to serve the interests of particular people—those who, like Kurtz, have no scruples about lying, cheating, stealing, and even killing in order to turn a profit.

Unlock with LitCharts A+