Joseph Conrad, the author of the novel “Heart of Darkness”, uses the opposition of black and white to reflect the darkness that is present in all humans. This psychological aspect contrasts the fake illumination of the European civilization and the real heart of darkness. This aspect is shown through Kurtz, Marlow and the native society.
From the beginning of Marlow’s expedition into the African Congo it is obvious that he is the result of the colonialist European society, which is where the first oppositions of black and white evolve. Marlow understands the principle behind colonialism, but is not ready for the wilderness and the savagery of the heart of darkness. This is most evident when Marlow comes upon the “grove of death”, where many natives are sick and dying, yet Marlow is unable to deal with this unfamiliar situation. He meets a young boy with a piece of white European yarn around his neck. In this instance white is usually associated with purity, and innocence, yet Conrad challenges many of these assumptions, with the white piece of thread used as a symbol of the evil of colonialist practices. The white thread remains a constant reminder which forms a contrast to the black child, it looks out of place and artificial, and thus, is symbolic of the colonialist practices. Marlow responds to the situation with questions – “Why? Where did he get it?” (Conrad 14) – showed that he had not yet come into an understanding of the effects of imperialism on the wilderness. This is further emphasized when he gives the child a Swede’s ships biscuit, it is merely a nervous reaction to a situation he cannot understand or deal with. Marlow responds to his naiveté this by leaving the area, and continuing on his journey.
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The Accountant, who Marlow encounters immediately after the native boy provides a stark contrast, dressed entirely in neatly pressed white linen. This man is representative of the ideas that Marlow associated with the civilization before he enters the Congo. Marlow admires the accountant, calling him a “miracle” and “superb”, this is because he is not tainted by the darkness – the savage and the uncivilized nature of the Congo, and he has great devotion to his work despite this, saying “His books were in apple pie order”. Marlow stated that, in keeping clean and orderly, “the man had verily accomplished something” (Conrad 15). However, the Accountant, although devoted to his work lacks empathy, evident through his disregard of the calls of dying natives. The use of white represents the ideology of the colonialists, the façade of light, and the pristine human character, which are all challenged in Conrad’s reversal of these color associations.
Furthermore, the use of ivory throughout the novel as the main premise of the Company’s business, and reason for exploitation, is particularly important in its color association. The ivory was obtained through the enslavement of the jungle natives by the white imperialists. In this instance, the ivory represents exploitation and abuse of the people of the area by the white colonialists. The fact that the ivory was obtained with use of the black-skinned natives, people who are deeply connected to the nature of the jungle, further exemplifies the role reversal of the opposing forces of white and black. The ivory is symbolic of the destructive disposition of man that leads to an eventual downfall, while the black color of the natives’ skin represents the wilderness which allowed Marlow to make his self-discovering journey.
The use of the two contrasting races, the white Europeans and the black natives personify the opposition of white and black. The white Europeans are representative of civilization and the ‘light’ of humanity, the good side which is bringing the same light to the darkness of the native African’s, they represent an entire belief system of bringing civilization to the ‘savages’. The natives are the victims of this system being imposed upon them; they have strong links with the natural world and the darkness. Although there is a level of brutality and savagery in each culture the clear distinction is that the whites act under the pretence of civilization whereas the natives do as custom and tradition. The best example of this is the contrast of the cannibals and the pilgrims. The cannibals on board Marlow’s steam ship are given the characteristics of rationality and decency while the civilized pilgrims are the more aggressive and violent of the two groups. While Marlow has to blow a whistle when he, “saw the pilgrims on deck getting out their rifles with an air of anticipating a jolly lark” (Conrad 62) the pilgrims are the ones preparing to massacre the technologically slower natives, and they are the people that have to be controlled and restrained.
Kurtz is clearly representative of a similar contrast, with the idea of civilization as a means of preventing man from reverting to the darkness, clearly endorsed through the characterization. Kurtz enters the Congo as an educated and civilized man, yet still makes the decent into savagery. Kurtz still however maintains a dual nature. While metaphorically on his deathbed, Kurtz preferred crawling on hands and knees back to the native camp to being dragged back to Europe. However, Kurtz writes a report on the natives that is written in eloquent and civilized speech, showing his remaining ties with the civilized world he thought he had left behind. Kurtz’ last words were, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 64), perhaps displaying his remaining shelter of civilized society in contrast to the intensity of the terror of the jungle. Kurtz removes himself from the restraints of civilization and reverses his personal evolution into a primitive state. Kurtz represents what every man has the potential to become if left to his own fundamental desires without the protection of a civilized environment. Marlow is an opposition to the state Kurtz reverts to. Marlow remains a civilized man of high morals and doesn’t descend into the same madness or evil as Kurtz. It is through these opposing forces, built up by the more basic oppositions, that the theme of the heart of darkness is conveyed to the reader.
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Through the opposition of white and black, Joseph Conrad displays the darkness present within humanity. Kurtz, Marlow, and the native society show the opposing forces of civilization, and the pretence, or façade that humanity utilizes to resist the darkness. Conrad proves that behind every man there is a heart of darkness. However, this is often obscured by the false “light” of the European society.
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