Allegory in Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness has a dense text. There is much more to it than meets the eye. Jaques Darras, the French critic, coined the term “allegorical shortcuts” to describe Conrad’s use of symbolic imagery to quickly expand the text and allow for deeper understanding. (Darras, P 79). He advises that you “read between the lines” (ibid., p. 87). This essay aims to provide a deeper understanding of Heart of Darkness’ meaning and purpose through exploration of a few of its allegorical shortcuts.
- The city of the dead
- The offices of the Company
- Black wool knitters
- The grove of Death
- Kurtz’ oil sketch
Short-cuts in Heart of Darkness
The Sepulchral City
Marlow must sign his contract before he can travel to Africa. He says that Marlow is always reminded of a whited graveyard (13). Marlow dismisses the comment in typical Marlow fashion and calls it “a prejudice without doubt” before continuing the story. There is no reason to stop. It is biblically ambiguous that “a whited burial ground” was used. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus criticized the Pharisees and the scribes for hypocrisy and compared them with whited graves, Joseph Conrad uses that as an allegory in heart of darkness.
Woe to you, Pharisees and Scribes, hypocrites! You are likened to whited sepulchres that look beautiful from the outside, but are full of bones of dead men and all uncleanness. Although you may appear righteous to men outwardly, ye are full if hypocrisy. (Matt. 23:27f) allegory in heart of darkness is used to show hypocrisy.
Conrad suggests that there is something unclean and rotten in Brussels, this is another allegory in heart of darkness. This is the heart of Civilization below its impressive surface. The colonialism agents are just like the Pharisees. They are eager to be seen as righteous men. Their words are full of enlightenment and altruism, but their actions are dark, egoistic, and iniquitous. There is a hidden unrighteousness and signs of death in the midst imposing architecture.
The streets are deserted and in deep shadow, and there is a dead silence. There is also “grass sprouting among the stones”, which shows that civilized varnish is not only superimposed upon a hidden iniquity but also on a suppressed Nature that refuses to be controlled.
The Company’s Offices
Conrad allows Marlow to describe the Company’s staircase as “swept, ungarnished” upon entering the offices. This is another allusion at Matthew.
He walks through dry places looking for rest when the unclean spirit has left a man. He then says, “I will return to my house from where I came out.” And when he returns, he finds it empty, cleaned, and garnished. He then goes and takes seven more sprits that are worse than he is, and they enter the house and live there. It will be the same for this wicked generation (Matt 12,:43-45).
Conrad may have made a mistake in altering the original. However, Conrad might have used the word “ungarnished” rather than “garnished” to create a feeling of emptiness and putting emphasis on allegory in heart of darkness. The stairs leading to the offices could be even more empty and welcoming to unclean spirits, as they are emptier than the biblical house. The allusion suggests that the Company’s offices could be interpreted as a place of wickedness and a heart of the heart of Darkness.
Marlow’s description supports this interpretation. Marlow’s description of the building, which includes “double doors” as well as “archways left and right” and two rooms, the waiting-room (13) and the sanctuary (14), reminds us of the human heart. Two rooms (the ventricle and atrium) are separated by double doors (the flaps on the pulmonary valve) and connected by archways left and right. This image can be used to depict the company as a wicked heart, a heart full of Darkness, which pumps people to Africa in search for enlightenment, Civilisation, and deep down, with zealous plunder.
Conrad, in “Geography” and “some explorers”, describes the Belgian venture in Congo as “the most vile scramble for loot ever 9 disfigured history of human conscience” (Joseph Conrad’s Letters, page 151); harsh words like those Jesus uses to the Pharisees above in the first quote from Matthew.
The knitters and cricketer’s of black wool
The Company’s offices are not only described by the image of the wicked heart. Conrad also mentions the image of a knitting machine in his letters to Graham.
Two women are sitting in the outer room, one young and one old, and they are both knitting black wool on straw-bottomed chairs (13). The younger of the two knitting ladies is described as walking in a very mechanical manner. She “went straight at me, still knitting with downcast eyes, and just as I was beginning to think about getting out of her way […] stopped, looked up […], and […] turned back without a word, and followed me into a waiting area” (13). Later, she is depicted repeatedly moving “back-and-forth”, “introducing continuously to the unknown” (14).
An older knitter, who sits still and looks at everyone who comes into the room, can be seen as a cog of the cosmic knitting machine. This symbolizes a part the indifferent mechanical powers that universe, which “knits us up and knits us out” (Joseph Conrad’s Letters, p. 57; cf. above, p. 2). Conrad creates an image of a heart filled with darkness at the heart Europe’s, bringing down the evil on the African continent. The image of the giant knitting machine, as drawn in the letters to Graham, is linked to the above image, but on a larger scale. Joseph Conrad used allegory in heart of darkness and imagery to show the social injustice at the time.
Marlow saluting the knitter is a sign of this. In the words of gladiators who entered the Coliseum before Marlow, “Ave!” Old black wool knitter. Morituri Te Salutant”3 (14) could also be understood as a commentary on the indifferent, blind “knitting machine”, which mercilessly determines our fates. Marlow’s observation that later in Africa, he thought of these two, who guard the door to Darkness, supports the idea that the heart and soul of Darkness are located in the Company’s offices. Allegory in heart of darkness is used to show irony in religion.
The grove that leads to death
Marlow arrives at the Company’s station and finds appalling signs and decay. “An undersized railway-truck lying flat on its back with its wheels in midair,” “pieces decomposing machinery” and “objectless blasting” (19). He suddenly discovers he is in a grove looking for Shadow.
Marlow discovers a lot of people who have “withdrawn to die” from their native work force in the grove (22). These people are described as “moribund forms”, “black bones retracted at full length with one side against the tree” and “bundles acute angles”. All over the grove, they are “scattered” in various poses of contorted collapse, like in “a picture of a massacre” or “a pestilence”. The text does not refer to Dante’s Inferno.
Kurtz’ sketch with oil
Kurtz’ oil sketch Marlow spots a sketch in oil near the Central Station and is informed that it was made by Kurtz. It depicts a woman blindfolded with a torch and draped in a dark suit (27). Frazer says that fire was a central part of the cult Diana. “During her annual festival […], her grove shone brightly with a multitude torches” (Frazer p 6).
Kurtz painted a woman that can be taken to mean Diana. The human sacrifices made to […] Diana are also important for understanding the painting (ibid. p 5). In Heart of Darkness, the grove is a place where human sacrifices can be made to the colonial enterprise.
The native African people are considered disposable, as material that can be sacrificed in the name of civilizing and enlightenment. However, the blindfold 11 actually contradicts the claimed enlightenment and indicates that colonial agents are not emissaries or light but rather of darkness. Allegory in heart of darkness is used by Conrad to bring out the irony in education. The painting also signals that colonialism has female agents.
Robert S. Baker claims that the Kurtz’ woman sketched is “motifically” sutured to Kurtz Intended. Darras also links the woman in Darras’ painting to Kurtz Intended and to “all the other female characters in this story who, like holy statues, have some of her immobility as well as her ritual solemnity.” (Darras p 80).
However, there are only two female characters in this story, Kurtz’ Intended (his African mistress) and Kurtz’ Intended (Kurtz’ Intended). Darras is the term for the blind devotion that Kurtz’ Intended and Kurtz’ Intended share (ibid).
Feder juxtaposes the Intended with the African mistress: “On either side of the stream, without understanding, the they devote themselves to Kurtz’s darkness Kurtz has created” [Feder], p. 290, my italics].Allegory in heart of darkness is used to show the role of women. However, the question is whether it really is Kurtz who has created the darkness. Kurtz is also a victim to the darkness that has been created by an economically and morally corrupt Europe. Baker appears to be thinking along these lines, seeing Kurtz’ Intended symbolizing a fatally corrupted European cultural culture (Baker p 344). Conrad, too, let Marlow comment that “[a]ll Europe contributed the making of Kurtz (50). This interpretation is consistent with the Company’s Brussels offices as the heart of Darkness. It also supports Marlow’s comment that “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (50).
Nature versus Man — An underlying theme
Marlow is “one of the Workers […] as an emissary or light” (15) and is transported to Africa by the Company’s throbbing heartbeats. He is shocked and appalled as he makes his way to the Company station. Conrad calls it “the merry dancing of death and trade”. (17). this detached description of Conrad’s attitude to Graham, “the attitude of cold unbeconcern”, is a representative of Conrad’s “the only reasonable one” (Joseph Conrad’s Letters, page 65) this is a good example of the way Conrad used allegory in heart of darkness.
This is a significant aspect of Marlow’s overall attitude throughout the story. Marlow 12 reflects on the dangerous African coast and says that it is “as though Nature herself had attempted to ward off intruders.” (17). Marlow’s view of man as an intrusion and threat to Nature is also evident in “Youth”. Marlow juxtaposes the serene, pure nature with the intruding, filching ship: The sky was a wonder of purity, a miracle in azure. The sea sparkled like a precious gemstone, and was blue as well. The Judea floated imperceptibly on the calm waters, enveloped by unclean vapours and languid light.
The contrast between pure Nature, and man’s defiling nature can be seen in “Youth”. It is also a key theme in Heart of Darkness. Kurtz’ talk about each station as “like a beacon along the road to better things, a center for trade of course but also for humanizing and improving, instructing” is dismissed as “pestiferous absurdity”. (34).
It is worth reading the passage from “Youth” in conjunction with it. This gives us a picture Kurtz’s defilement of the air with a “pestiferous clouds” of words. These words were dismissed in this manner by the central station manager in a man-to-man conversation with his uncle. They were however the official description of the Work in Africa. Marlow contrasts Kurtz’ egregious use of words by describing “[t]he Voice of the Surf” as “the Speech of a Brother”. It was natural and had a reason.
There are many more examples of the same conflict.
Marlow’s visit to the Intended is a fascinating scene. His vision of Kurtz, along with the “phantom bearers, wild crowd of worshippers, and the gloomy reach between the murky bends,” and the beat of the drum (regular and muffled as a heartbeat – the heart of a conquering dark) are all seen on a stretcher. Marlow refers to this as “a moment for triumph for the wilderness”, thus creating a link between “the wilderness and “the heart of a conquering darkness”. This could indicate that there are two hearts of darkness at Heart of Darkness. One representing Man and Civilization and a dark of evil and design, the other representing 13 Nature and a dark without thought or design, above good and bad.
The heart of Nature, or the Wild, is stronger than the other, and it is the heart that conquers darkness. This perspective is similar to Conrad’s letter to Cunninghame Graham. Man is a parenthesis. Humanity is doomed to die in due time. Marlow, in “Youth,” said that “You fight, sweat, almost kill yourself, sometimes even kill yourself trying to achieve something – but you can’t.” (Conrad 1999. p 3). It is futile to try to control the unstoppable forces of Nature.