Symbolism in "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad

Essay by dylan_bA+, August 2008

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Symbolism is an effective tool used by authors to construct meaning beyond the boundaries of literal understanding. It is the process by which ideas are expressed through the use of imagery that conveys meaning beyond its own physicality. In the novella ¬Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad uses symbolism to interrogate ideas and judgments of the imperialist ideology. Imperialism argues that colonization benefits both the colonized and the empire yet it looks to excuse its violent methods that ironically, defy its principles. In Heart of Darkness visual imagery and symbolic character construction such as, the Whited Sepulcher, the character of the accountant, the Thames and Congo rivers, Kurt's painting and the map of Africa are used to challenge the pretences of the imperialist ideology and expose the gap between its ideals and its practice. Symbols therefore become tools to interrogate entire concepts.

Marlow's recounting of arriving, "In a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulcher," within the context of a colonialist reading challenges the assumptions that surround the civilized cities of the world.

The image of a sepulcher is one of death and confinement defying the expectation of a peaceful and harmonious city. The attributes of death symbolize the inhumanity of the empire and, "The merry dance of death and trade," whilst the image of confinement highlights the rigid social expectations that enable and encourage both cruelty and dehumanization under Belgian rule. Under a biblical reading the book of Mathew describes "whited sepulchers" as something beautiful on the outside but containing horrors within, dead bodies. Through this religious symbolism Conrad interrogates that the, "redeeming idea," the "philanthropic pretence," that Imperialism draws its very foundations from is merely a cover for, the "horror," that continues behind the backs of the naive people.

The character of the...