Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness: Motifs 2 key examples

Definition of Motif
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... read full definition
Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—Civilization and Savagery:

Throughout Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad repeatedly challenges and rejects the binary opposition between “civilization” and “savagery.” By showing “civilized” Europeans act with far more cruelty and brutality than the Africans they view as “savages,” Conrad suggests that “civilization” and “savagery” are really just Europeans’ arbitrary labels for “us” and “them.” Europeans may believe that their values are superior to Africans’, Conrad argues, but this scarcely matters if they don’t live up to those values in the first place.

While Conrad begins the novella by using these terms in the way that his readers are likely to expect—he associates civilization with Europeans and savagery with Africans—he quickly starts to turn them on their heads. Early in his journey down the Congo River, Marlow starts to notice that Europeans working in the Congo hide their profound cruelty and indifference to human life behind a veneer of “civilization.” For instance, in Part 1, the Accountant claims about having to keep track of how many enslaved Congolese people his bosses work to death:

When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to the death.

The Accountant isn’t frustrated that men are dying, but rather that he has to go to the effort of writing it down. In fact, he blames the “savages” for their own deaths and uses his perception that they are “savages” as a justification for placing no value in their lives. This shows how the formalities, power structures, and incentives that come from organized “civilization” can actually make people far more violent and inhumane than they would be otherwise. In contrast, Marlow realizes in Part 2 that many of the Africans he views as “savages” and “cannibals” are actually far more reasonable and diligent than the supposedly “civilized” Europeans:

Fine fellows—cannibals—in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face.

Notably, while Marlow has been taught to view these men as “cannibals,” he also points out that he never saw any cannibalism. It’s likely that these men aren’t truly cannibals at all, but rather that Europeans called them cannibals in order to denigrate them. A few lines later, he makes a similar point by noting that Europeans have been taught to view themselves as “the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance,” when in reality, there are already established societies throughout the Congo. These societies have their own institutions, follow their own rules, and manage their own resources. Thus, in the Congo, the native Congolese are the ones with true “civilization,” while the invading Europeans are the ones behaving like lawless “savages.”

Of course, the maniacal Inner Station chief, Mr. Kurtz, represents the most extreme version of this trend. Through his erratic behavior, random acts of violence, and nonsensical speeches, he completely inverts the meanings of savagery and civilization. By turning Kurtz into a monster with no sense of morality, while the native people around him simply try to preserve their existing social order, Conrad demonstrates that there is no inherent difference between “savagery” and “civilization”—instead, anyone is capable of either, depending on the situations in which they find themselves.

Explanation and Analysis—Blindness:

The motif of blindness represents Europeans’ failure to understand Africa or its people, even as they claim to be helping and “civilizing” them. Marlow actually points this out at the very beginning of his story in Part 1, when he describes colonialism this way:

It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

Marlow argues that imperialism actually cannot succeed unless the people leading it willingly blind themselves to the atrocities they’re committing. While Marlow never does this himself, surely enough, he recalls going losing his sight at crucial moments throughout his journey—and almost always when he has some kind of interaction with native Africans. For instance, when he first starts his journey up the Congo River in Part 1, he remembers seeing that:

A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants. A jetty projected into the river. A blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare.

It’s significant that the “blinding sunlight” affects Marlow’s eyesight at the exact moment when he sees African people in the flesh for the first time. This represents his inability to truly understand who the Congolese are, how they live, or what is best for them. Throughout the book, he and his fellow Europeans lose their line of sight several more times, especially when they cannot see into the dense forest, or when thick fog covers the river. For instance, in Part 2, he recalls that one morning:

When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid.

The fog prevents Marlow and his crew from doing much of anything—but while they wait, they hear local people screaming from beyond the fog. Surely enough, shortly after it lifts, they get into a battle. Yet again, the white men’s inability to see represents their failure to understand the land they are conquering and shows that, even if they truly do want to “civilize” the local people, they are woefully unprepared to do it.

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Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—Civilization and Savagery:

Throughout Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad repeatedly challenges and rejects the binary opposition between “civilization” and “savagery.” By showing “civilized” Europeans act with far more cruelty and brutality than the Africans they view as “savages,” Conrad suggests that “civilization” and “savagery” are really just Europeans’ arbitrary labels for “us” and “them.” Europeans may believe that their values are superior to Africans’, Conrad argues, but this scarcely matters if they don’t live up to those values in the first place.

While Conrad begins the novella by using these terms in the way that his readers are likely to expect—he associates civilization with Europeans and savagery with Africans—he quickly starts to turn them on their heads. Early in his journey down the Congo River, Marlow starts to notice that Europeans working in the Congo hide their profound cruelty and indifference to human life behind a veneer of “civilization.” For instance, in Part 1, the Accountant claims about having to keep track of how many enslaved Congolese people his bosses work to death:

When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to the death.

The Accountant isn’t frustrated that men are dying, but rather that he has to go to the effort of writing it down. In fact, he blames the “savages” for their own deaths and uses his perception that they are “savages” as a justification for placing no value in their lives. This shows how the formalities, power structures, and incentives that come from organized “civilization” can actually make people far more violent and inhumane than they would be otherwise. In contrast, Marlow realizes in Part 2 that many of the Africans he views as “savages” and “cannibals” are actually far more reasonable and diligent than the supposedly “civilized” Europeans:

Fine fellows—cannibals—in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face.

Notably, while Marlow has been taught to view these men as “cannibals,” he also points out that he never saw any cannibalism. It’s likely that these men aren’t truly cannibals at all, but rather that Europeans called them cannibals in order to denigrate them. A few lines later, he makes a similar point by noting that Europeans have been taught to view themselves as “the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance,” when in reality, there are already established societies throughout the Congo. These societies have their own institutions, follow their own rules, and manage their own resources. Thus, in the Congo, the native Congolese are the ones with true “civilization,” while the invading Europeans are the ones behaving like lawless “savages.”

Of course, the maniacal Inner Station chief, Mr. Kurtz, represents the most extreme version of this trend. Through his erratic behavior, random acts of violence, and nonsensical speeches, he completely inverts the meanings of savagery and civilization. By turning Kurtz into a monster with no sense of morality, while the native people around him simply try to preserve their existing social order, Conrad demonstrates that there is no inherent difference between “savagery” and “civilization”—instead, anyone is capable of either, depending on the situations in which they find themselves.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—Blindness:

The motif of blindness represents Europeans’ failure to understand Africa or its people, even as they claim to be helping and “civilizing” them. Marlow actually points this out at the very beginning of his story in Part 1, when he describes colonialism this way:

It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

Marlow argues that imperialism actually cannot succeed unless the people leading it willingly blind themselves to the atrocities they’re committing. While Marlow never does this himself, surely enough, he recalls going losing his sight at crucial moments throughout his journey—and almost always when he has some kind of interaction with native Africans. For instance, when he first starts his journey up the Congo River in Part 1, he remembers seeing that:

A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants. A jetty projected into the river. A blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare.

It’s significant that the “blinding sunlight” affects Marlow’s eyesight at the exact moment when he sees African people in the flesh for the first time. This represents his inability to truly understand who the Congolese are, how they live, or what is best for them. Throughout the book, he and his fellow Europeans lose their line of sight several more times, especially when they cannot see into the dense forest, or when thick fog covers the river. For instance, in Part 2, he recalls that one morning:

When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid.

The fog prevents Marlow and his crew from doing much of anything—but while they wait, they hear local people screaming from beyond the fog. Surely enough, shortly after it lifts, they get into a battle. Yet again, the white men’s inability to see represents their failure to understand the land they are conquering and shows that, even if they truly do want to “civilize” the local people, they are woefully unprepared to do it.

Unlock with LitCharts A+