Heart of Darkness Symbols | Motif of Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness Symbols Motif of Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad is among those writers who use symbols both in words and in images. “Heart of Darkness” contains such symbols that have more than one literal meaning as the symbolism of fog is for dominant evil, the Congo River and its related parts symbolise both life and death and colour has been used for different purposes at different locations. Some of them are words whereas the remaining are images. In addition, the tone, mode, feelings of the characters, their actions, and description of their clothes and colours also contain many important symbols in “Heart of Darkness”.

Words are just symbols that indicate something. It depends on the reader how he perceives their meanings. The notion that a writer simply describes images through words to express something and they do not possess any hidden meanings is entirely wrong and one who believes in this notion is either not a student of literature or lacks rational understanding. Readers should go in depth to find real meanings of words and images that a writer describes in his work.

“Heart of Darkness” Symbols:

Readers should understand each and every symbol of the novel in order to get the real motif of the writer. Furthermore, it helps a person to know more about hidden meanings that are mentioned in a literary work. “Heart of Darkness” is an indirect attack on colonialism and Joseph Conrad made it possible only through symbols and meaning. Following are some prominent symbols of “Heart of Darkness”.

  • Symbolic title of the novel.
  • Civilizations and Primitivism
  • Fog and Darkness
  • Congo River
  • Ivory
Heart of Darkness Symbols | Motif of Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness | The Title:

The title of the novel is highly symbolic. The direct meaning of “Heart of Darkness” is that it is the journey of a person named Marlowe but its symbols give it a new definition. He tells his own story and explains his circumstances. Especially, those circumstances that he experienced during his visit to the darkest content of the world. The heart is an important organ and is the most vital part of the body. If darkness is personified as the body then the heart is something that is the most important element of darkness.

The novel is about a person who goes into the heart of darkness. Artists have been using darkness as a symbol of death, destruction, decay, cruelty, danger and hopelessness for centuries. Joseph Conrad also uses it for the same purpose. He calls Africa the heart of darkness. If darkness is dangerous then Africa is the most dangerous continent of the world because it becomes the heart of danger. If darkness means death then one can freely see it in Africa without any hurdle because of the same reason mentioned earlier. The heart also symbolises the core hence if darkness is a symbol of destruction then Africa is the core of destructed parts of the world due to the circumstances elaborated in the novel. In this way, the writer interlinks “heart and darkness” with each other, which become the most important symbols of the novel. However, when he separates darkness from the heart, it becomes another type of symbol.

Civilizations and Primitivism:

Marlowe describes his journey from darkness to light. Joseph Conrad has described the Thames River and Congo River as two distinct things. Marlowe’s journey starts in Europe. He goes to Africa and then ends his journey in Europe. It is called a journey from one colour to another (apparently from light to the heart of darkness), the symbolism of which has been used to describe two different nations. One has been painted as civilized and the other is uncivilized. Light indicates civilization whereas darkness specifies primitivism.

Marlowe’s journey is a journey from civilization to primitivism. In direct words, he tells us that Romans once ended the primitivism of Europe. However, now it has become a civilized country. On the other hand, Europe has culminated Africa’s primitivism in order to make it a civilized country. It is one of the ironical yet important symbols of “Heart of Darkness”. Ironical in the sense that we nowhere find white men making Africa a civilized country.

The symbolism of Fog and Darkness in Heart of Darkness:

Lots of symbols have been associated with it in “Heart of Darkness” but the symbolism of fog and darkness has been used for the darkness of Europeans and not of Africans. In order to make Africa a civilized country white men entered there but they did nothing for their welfare. Instead of giving them benefits, they imposed cruel masters on them and made them slaves. On many occasions in the novel, we see Africans being treated as slaves which proves that darkness is a symbol of the so-called civilization of Europeans.

Darkness is also a symbol of fear. It is not the case that Marlowe was in Africa and he was afraid of African inhabitants. Fear means the fear of greed and an insecure future for humanity. We observe no humanity in Europeans. If they start treating every continent of the world in the way they treated Africans then it means that they are renewing the slavery system. Hence, darkness is a symbol of fear from brutality in the guise of civilization.

Congo River:

“What does the Congo River Symbolise in the heart of Darkness?” It is the most important symbol of the novel so far as descriptive writing is concerned. It plays the role of a divider and separates Marlowe from the evil and cunning tricks of Kurtz. The river also allows Marlowe to see both sides of the continent. The difference between so-called civilization and humanity, evil and good, white men and Africans. In literature, mostly the sea and rivers symbolise life and in Heart of Darkness too, somehow Congo River symbolises life for reason that it is a mixture of good and evil. In addition, when Marlowe reaches the centre of the Congo river, it slows his boat’s speed. It gives us a hint that the process of recognising innersole is slower. In this way, Congo and the climate of the novel are also two important symbols of “Heart of Darkness”.

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What Does the Congo River symbolize in the heart of Darkness


Ivory is simply the symbol of greed. As discussed above, white men entered Africa, not for the purpose of making it a civilized country but to get more and more ivory. Apparently, they were working for their welfare but in a true sense, they wanted their resources. An evil attitude of whites is evident in different parts of the novel and ivory is a symbol of it. Africans have resources and white men know how to grab them. Hence, in the guise of civilization and colonialism, they entered Africa and grasped their resources.

Numerous other symbols are also there in “Heart of Darkness”. Joseph Conrad has command in using the technique of symbolism. He has revealed the inner truth of his experiences only through symbols in “Heart of Darkness”. He is a genius in portraying different types of symbols when it comes to descriptive writing. Wonderful meanings of symbols are obvious from images, description, words and in-depth analysis of “Heart of Darkness”.

Related Questions:

  • What does the Congo River Symbolize in the heart of Darkness?
  • Explain fog symbolism in “Heart of darkness”.
  • For what purpose symbolism of colour has been used in “Heart of Darkness”?
  • Define the meaning of “Heart of Darkness”.