The Light in the Darkness
Author James Conrad, in his short story Heart of Darkness, uses light in an attempt to symbolize the civilization of the European world and those things which, by appearances, are generally accepted as good. To emphasize the acceptability of good or light, it is often contrasted to the symbolization of darkness, which Conrad shows as uncivilized, savage or bad. Conrad uses the character s reactions to light, bright or otherwise colorful things and events to encourage the reader to concur that these symbols represent the civilization he s left in Europe and the goodness of that civilization.
The use of light as good is seen early in the story when the narrator comments on the setting sun. He says the glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men (345). The narrator is comparing the light to life and the darkness to the gloom and death that follows.
As Marlow begins recounting his arduous trip through the Congo, he reflects upon times past other rivers that, once uncivilized and dark, are now teeming with civilization and brightness. He states, Light came out of this river since you say Knights? But darkness was here yesterday (346). Here, Marlow is referring to the Thames as at one time being uncivilized and dark, but since the time of the Knights exploration and resulting development of the river s banks and surrounding land, is now referred to as good, or light. Marlow also refers to the light reflecting on the water. The reader gets a sense that Conrad is trying to relay that the passengers of the Nellie represent civilization for the voyages they undertake.
Conrad later compares Marlow s boyhood idealism of adventure and spirit with light. He does this as Marlow is reminiscing about his childhood and says [I would] lose myself in all the glories of exploration (348). No longer a boy, Marlow discovers a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over” (348) has now been charted on the map and becomes a place of darkness (348). Conrad effectively symbolizes youthful innocence and adventurous spirit with lightness through this comparison of uncharted and charted maps.
As Marlow seeks to take refuge from the heat in the shaded area at the Company s station, Conrad shows again the symbol of light as representing civilization. This time it is a bit of white worsted (356) tied about the neck of one of the dying criminals. The reader is left to think that the criminal may be coveting the civilization he assisted to create in the Congo, and thus giving his life to the cause, by wearing this representative whiteness.
One of the most obvious representations of light as civilization and goodness is seen when Marlow first meets the Company s chief accountant. This man s clothes are immaculately clean and white. Marlow respects and admires him. The respect Marlow feels for the accountant is not one of respecting the man, so much as the accountant s ability to keep up his appearance (356) and thus his civilized manners in the midst of the uncivilized surroundings. Marlow justifies the ill treatment of this man s female worker for the purpose of keeping civilization at the forefront of the minds of those he serves and those served by him through his representative cleanliness and whiteness of his clothes.
Conrad also employs the use of light as representative of civilization and goodness when Marlow meets the young man that left a stack of firewood down river from Kurtz s camp. Marlow describes the young man as wearing clothes covered with bright patches. He comments the sunshine made him look extremely gay and wonderfully neat withal (385). Marlow goes on to describe the man s physical characteristics and alluding to the civilized look and character this man carries even though he was living an uncivilized existence in the Congo for the past two years.
It s ironic the goal resulting from the white men s conquering of the savages, and thus becoming savage-like themselves, is to secure ivory, an item held to be white and pure. Perhaps the most telling symbolization of light within the story is Kurtz s argument in his diary that whites must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings . By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded (383). This statement lays the basic principle for all other references to light as representing civilization of the European world and those things, which by appearances, are generally accepted as good. Here, Kurtz is referring to the accepted savagery of the civilized white men simply because they are of fairer skin than the natives. Kurtz is indicating the natives are uncivilized and thus justifiably treated as worthless beings, and that not only are the white men civilized, but viewed as the ultimate good and light a deity (383).