Animal Imagery in Heart of darkness 1

Animal Imagery in Heart of darknessAnimal Imagery in Heart of darkness

Joseph Conrad uses animal imagery to show aspects of Marlow’s personality in “Heart of Darkness,” his novel. Conrad uses this device to reveal Marlow’s adventurous personality and dehumanization the natives in his novel.
Christopher Cooper has already mentioned that symbolism is a way for authors to incorporate a theme or morality into their texts.

To enhance the symbolic meaning of a character, descriptions of animal behavior or animal looks can be used depending on the story’s purpose, this is what is known as animal imagery. A description of domestic animals such as dogs or kittens can show loyalty. Similar to farm animals like horses, descriptions of domestic animals give the impression that the reader expects a character will be hardworking and sometimes stubborn.

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The Online Dictionary of Symbolism states that animal imagery aims to depict generally negative characteristics and instincts relevant for human nature. Samir Elbarbary says that all creatures exist in the primitive natural state and the hierarchy between the highest and lowest is blurred. . .” (1). This is evident when you read Conrad’s short story, “Heart of Darkness,” in which animal descriptions are used to depict men of all shapes, colors and inanimate objects and machines.

In “Heart of Darkness”, animal behavior and appearances are also inextricably linked to darkness and evil. Conrad also has a unique and interesting habit that he uses in his short stories and novels. Conrad often starts his stories by describing characters who have relatively harmless animal traits such as horses or dogs.

Conrad begins to replace his descriptions of the “earlier evolutionary forms” as the story progresses and the evil characters begin to display their ‘evilness’ (Palmer 193). For example, in the 1903 short story “Falk”, there are examples of animal imagery which include centipede’s scorpions and even lizards (ibid. 88). However, I found that “Heart of Darkness” uses images of domestic animals throughout the story to describe both good and evil men, while images of early evolution forms, which signify evilness in characters, are rare.

Animal Imagery in Heart of darknessAnimal Imagery in Heart of darkness: The serpent

The serpent is the most common animal imagery in Conrad’s works, “Heart of Darkness”, and other works (ibid.) this symbol is the most complex and well-known.

The serpent may represent any number of negative aspects of life, including death, destruction, poisonous behavior and death, temptation, and deceit, depending on the cultural and social contexts. This is particularly evident in Christian tradition. For example, the Genesis story shows Satan tricking Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Eve gives the fruit to Adam, who loses their innocence.

Marlow’s first major incident occurs when he arrives in Congo to find his boat “at bottom of the river”. He takes several months before he can continue his search. Marlow is ready to witness death close up. Marlow’s first encounter with death is in a camp full of black slaves. Many of them have fled into the shadows to live peacefully. Marlow stumbles upon Fresleven’s dead body, which he hides in the tall grass.

Marlow’s boat is attacked near Kurtz station by savages. The black man who controls the boat is also killed. Marlow finds Kurtz and dies in his hut at the end of the story. This is the last part of the story. Marlow feels so overwhelmed by all these events that he loses his sense of hope and relief. Again, it is clear that there is a connection between the animal imagery which is the serpent (in this case the river) as well as moral difficulties (such passively facing acts cruelty towards slaves). Marlow says that it took him 30 days to reach the “mouth of the big river”. (21).

It is interesting to see the waterway described as a snake with a body. According to ODS, the mouth is the entry 13 to the human soul. Marlow is an example of this. Marlow not only travels down a river to find adventure, but he also explores his own self in search for answers. “[It] assumes that the word mouth means a gate or door, which gives access to another realm of existence, when it is used in context of a river”. Olof Lagercrantz suggests this other realm to be the Underworld (21).

The serpent imagery is used again in the story not long after it was introduced. This time, the serpent’s bodily movements are in focus. Marlow is now in the sepulchre-city, which most critics believe to be contemporary Brussels. Later in the analysis, we will explore the possibility that the city acts as another symbol.

Marlow describes the narrow, dark streets that he must cross to get to the head office. Marlow says, “I slipped through one these cracks” (14). This is an unusual use of vocabulary to refer to a human. This movement could be considered to suggest that it is a snake. Therefore, we will be focusing our attention on Conrad’s use of serpent imagery to connect to Marlow’s movement in this passage.

Lagercrantz observes that this sentence has an erotic feeling to it, which sets the story into motion (29). “Sneaking through one of these cracks” could be interpreted as a sexual act, or the act of lovemaking. While I don’t agree with the purely sexual interpretation of the passage, Lagercrantz mentions Frederick Crewe’s criticism in his book. Crewe interprets the mouth in the previous quotation to be a mother’s womb. In that scenario, the journey would signify Marlow facing his past and a controlling mother.

We know that the serpent can also be interpreted as a phallos symbol. This adds validity to this type of sexual interpretation. However, my personal interpretation is slightly different. Marlow’s movement should be taken to mean his inner self, which is his sexuality and not his morality, if we continue on the “evil path”. Marlow is about to enter a new realm. It’s the office in the graveyard city. His destiny will be determined by those who are interested in exploiting African land or animal life. His motion in the alley could be considered a sign that he is guilty.

Marlow doesn’t want to be noticed so he “slips through” the door and no one notices him. Another possibility, which is more likely, is that Marlow assumes the form of a snake and takes on the evil characteristics. After reading the story, it is no surprise that Marlow is not regarded as a nice person by critics. He exhibits strong characteristics of racism and bigotry as he travels through the jungle.

For example, he doesn’t consider black slaves equal to whites. Their movements are even strange to him. This passage is from Marlow’s scene where he finds slaves in shadows near the riverside. I was horrified when one of these creatures got up and started walking towards the river to drink. He took his hand and sat down in the sun, crossing his legs in front of him. After a while, he let his woolly head rest on his breastbone.

This makes it easy for the reader to imagine a four-legged animal. Marlow later refers to the black fireman on the boat as an “improved specimen”, explicitly using the same animal imagery (52). Further, he says that “[h]e were there below me, but, upon my word to him, to look at them was as edifying than seeing a dog wearing a parody of feather hat and breeches, walking on his hind legs.” (52).

Animal Imagery in Heart of darknessAnimal Imagery in Heart of darkness: The Dog

As we all know, the traditional animal imagery interpretation of a dog is not negative. Dogs are often used to represent “loyalty, vigilance,” and the acts of a protector and guardian. Conrad’s use animal imagery of dogs to represent the negative aspects of humans.

Marlow, who is in a hut talking to a jungle station manager, describes the blacks as: A caravan of slaves arrived and the flies buzzed with great peace. There was suddenly a murmur of voices, and great foot tapping. A caravan had come in. On the other side of planks, a loud babble of uncouth sounds erupted. All the carriers were talking together and the lamentable voice from the chief agent could be heard saying, “Give it up” for the twenty-first time that day. He slowly rose. He said, “What a frightening row!” (27)

 Animal Imagery in Heart of darkness: Insects

It is obvious that flies are connected to the noises made by slaves. Marlow first speaks of buzzing flies disrupting the quiet inside the hut. Conrad’s use of flies in his description is another form of animal imagery. Then he complains about an identical sound, “a growing murmur,” and “violent bang of uncouth noises” from the outside. Conrad repeats the following sentence, “A steady drone sound of many men singing. . . It was derived from. . . The woods sound like the buzzing of bees coming from a hive. . .” (92).

The ODS interpretation of insect imagery(animal imagery) seems very appropriate considering the situation of black slaves in jungle. This source says that insect imagery is used in fairy tales to symbolize precision. “Insects are often called upon to perform impossible tasks,” but they can also symbolize plagues.

One example is the Bible’s illustration of grasshoppers taking over Egypt. This information is applied to “Heart of Darkness” and we see that the story uses insect imagery. The story doesn’t say which, but the black slaves were either hired or bought to work for white exploiters. They work in terrible conditions: “Brought from every recess of the coast in all legality of time contract, lost in uncongenial environments, fed on unfamiliar foods, they became sickening, became inefficient and were then allowed crawl away to rest” (24).

They are obviously able to do tasks that the whites cannot because they are less physically able to deal with heat and other tropical diseases. Kurtz, who is often described as a deity or super-human, does not have immunity to the climate. The story’s characters even believe that the climate could wipe him out (45).

The whites do not show any respect to blacks, but view them as more trouble than they are. The whites call them “criminals” or “savages”. However, Marlow does not treat black men as well as white men in certain instances. This makes it easy for the reader to dislike Marlow and view him as having the same characteristics as a serpent.

Marlow shows no empathy for a man who is afraid of being attacked by savages on their steamboat. Marlow says that Marlow was a fool-helmsman and “he was raising his knees high, stamping on the spokes, and champing his lips, like a reined horse.” (64). the symbol of a startled horse is used to symbolize stupidity.

 Animal Imagery in Heart of darkness: Kurtz

Kurtz, who Marlow admires for some unknown reason, is also included among the lower creatures at the end of the story when he is described as “crawling all-fours”. (93). Elbarbary recognizes that animal imagery can be used to indicate primitive behavior in humans. He says that a simple image shows Kurtz’s status. When left alone, he becomes a quadruped crawling on all fours back to his station. . . ” (8).

He ends his discussion on Kurtz with the following. Kurtz is no less than any other neoprimitives. He is an evolutionary throwback. . .” (9). In that he behaves and looks like an animal, Kurtz is a primitive criminal, similar to Dracula or Dr. Moreau. Kurtz also displays “the duality of human nature”, ibid. This is 16 of the most typical characteristics of this group. They are very intelligent but they have no control over the savage side of them.

Kurtz is one example. He is described by his friends as a great poet, orator, but at the same moment he acts like a madman and kills people in bizarre ways. Marlow doesn’t respect his former idol because Kurtz exposes his primitive nature and fear of “The Horror!”

 Animal Imagery in Heart of darkness:

We may conclude, regardless of the reason, that Conrad let Marlow “slip through” the crack because he wanted to draw attention to the negative characteristics Marlow exhibits throughout the story. Conrad could have, for instance, used the phrase “walking into an alley” instead. One thing that we also notice in “Heart of Darkness”, is the use of animal imagery by Conrad to give meanings to inanimate objects such as boats or carts. Marlow, for instance, sees a small, undersized railway truck on his back, with its wheels up, as he reaches a station in the Congo jungle.

One was wrong. It looked dead like a carcass of an animal” (22). It is unclear why Conrad chose this method of expression. Maybe he wants to demonstrate that objects can also have souls. This would explain Marlow’s extended animal imagery of Marlow as a crawling insect in many places. This is the first passage in the story. It occurs at the halfway point. “Trees and trees, millions of trees. Running up high. And at their feet, hugging against the stream, crept Marlow’s little steamboat, like a sluggish insect crawling on the ground of a high portico.” (50).

Conrad quickly repeats the phrase: “. . . Marlow [I] found myself watching the boat beat on tiptoe, as I knew that the poor thing would give up at any moment. It was like watching the last moments of your life. “But still, we crawled” (55).

This clearly shows that Conrad wants us to see the boat as an animated object, infused “life,” and which crawls further into jungle. Yelton discusses Vernon Young’s interesting theory about these passages and others in “Heart of Darkness.” Despite how unlikely this interpretation may seem, it is worth mentioning briefly. Young claims that the beetle image in Conrad’s 1897 story, The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, is linked to the ancient Egyptian religion of sun worship.

People who are familiarized with the subject will know that a honey beetle has a strong symbolic meaning.
Scarabs are symbolic of eternal life and resurrection. This is why scarabs were placed inside the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs (Yelton, note 138, 24). 17 It is not clear if Conrad meant this, but Yelton says: “. . . Conrad may have thought of it, but it is still a mystery why he didn’t do more. I find the criticism’s assertion that Young is ‘unquestionably confident’ (ibid.)