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Key Symbols in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Authors will often weave key symbols into the text to convey the deeper meanings of the novel. Joseph Conrad, a writer who has English as a third language, was aware of the effect colonialism had on all those involved. With his novel, "Heart of Darkness", Conrad scrutinizes the practices exhibited by early European colonisers and through symbols enveloped in the story delivers the main messages to the reader of the colonialism and ivory industries are misguided and deadly and that even the most supposedly civilised of people have that primal being inside of them which can emerge when there are no consequences to their actions.

Early in the text, Marlow refers to the city where he visited to sign the contract enlisting him as an employee of the company as a "whited sepulchre". In the context of 1899, when "Heart of Darkness" was first published, a sepulchre was known as a tomb and a whited sepulchre was used to describe a person who was inwardly evil but was virtuous in appearance. As the Company Headquarters was "the biggest thing in town" one assumes that the tomb like sombreness was reflected off these offices unto the rest of the city. This line depicts the entire institution as being displayed as the honourable people who are there to humanise the uncivilised to the public but under the lid which is tightly shut by the signing of a contract where the employees undertake "amongst other things not to disclose any trade secrets" is the world of death, dehumanisation and demoralisation of the colonisation business. Inside the company and especially in Africa, the possession of ivory is the driving incentive of existence and in modern day context is comparable to a drug. The workers are all desperate for ivory and the more they gain the more they want and the more insane they get in the process. As the trade in bones is their driving force this is another metaphor used by Conrad to relate the company to a tomb.

As Marlow delves deeper into the heart of Africa his mental state deteriorates with the conflicting thoughts he has. With his mind swinging like a pendulum between whether he thinks the natives are human or not and the changing thoughts on his opinion of Kurtz, Marlow finds that his mental path is unclear. Conrad represented this through the introduction of fog into their journey. When the steamer reaches a section of the river that completely obscures their vision with fog it finds that the safe path through the middle of the river is now indistinguishable from the dangerous shallow areas that surround them. The passengers on board the steamer are unable to differentiate between friend and foe while trapped in the suffocating fog, both literally and figuratively. With Marlow his thoughts are still contradictory as he ponders on the classification of the natives and almost shows some sympathy for the cannibals as he considers their lack of food with his thoughts of "I looked at them as you would on any human being". When the steamer is threatened by invisible enemies on the shore the steamer is literally threatened and is used by Conrad to metaphorically represent the battle or right and wrong in Marlow's mind. At one point in the time when they are sitting in the fog a pilgrim suggests to haul in their anchor and desert their reasonably safe position in the river to battle up into the unknown and face their chances travelling blind, Marlow shuts the idea down within seconds and uses his authority as captain to order the steamer to stay for the time being. This is metaphoric for how some of the Europeans that travel into the African continent lose their anchor on civilization get dragged into the insanity that follows, Marlow has so far proved that he will not allow the same to happen to him and cemented this belief once more with his statement "I refuse to take any [risks]" thus keeping his grip on reality and his anchor in the bank.

"Heart of Darkness" shows groups of civilised Europeans sent to the core of Africa to educate and enlighten the natives enough to be able to utilise them as slaves

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