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Free Study Guide for Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad-BookNotes/Summary
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SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS - COMPARISONS AND CONTRASTS

Heart of Darkness is filled with comparisons and contrasts that help to develop the plot, theme, and characters in Conrad's novel. The story opens on the tranquil Thames River aboard the cruising yawl called the Nellie. All is calm on the water as the lights of London twinkle around the boat. This river is an obvious contrast to the Congo River that Marlow navigates in Africa. The Congo is snaking, treacherous, and full of darkness, danger, and mystery at every turn. Ironically, the tranquil Thames is described similarly to the Congo. In the opening chapter of the novel, Harlow, on board the Nellie, says of the river that flows through London, "this has been one of the dark places on earth." In the closing lines of the novel, the Thames seems to be flowing "into the heart of an immense darkness." No matter where the white man exists, in civilized London or deepest Africa, he seems to bring darkness: inhumanity to his fellow man.

In contrast to the greed and cruelty of the white men in Africa, who voraciously and recklessly seize ivory at any cost to human life, Conrad depicts the black natives as having more self-control. The Manager is starving the cannibals on board Marlow's steamer to death, and although they eagerly eye the body of the dead helmsman and also the physique of the plump Russian, they restrain their native urges and do not attack the living or the dead. In a similar manner, the "savages" along the Congo do not attack the steamer bearing the greedy Europeans even though they know the intent is to be evil and destructive. It is only a white man's command, at the urging of Kurtz, that the natives attack the steamer. It is intentionally ironic that the black man in the novel has a purer (whiter) heart than the white man, whose heart is dark, cruel, and destructive (black).


There is also an obvious contrast between the vision of who Kurtz is and the reality behind the vision. Gifted with eloquence, Kurtz speaks, writes, and paints about the horrors of the ivory trade in Africa and the resulting savagery that the white men inflict on the natives. In total contrast to what he verbalizes, Kurtz's actions are totally ruthless. He proudly displays the skulls of black natives that he has conquered while seizing their ivory and makes the superstitious natives treat him like a god, crawling into his presence on all fours. The two women in Kurtz's life are also contrasted. His black mistress in Africa is very demonstrative, wearing bright clothing and jewelry and acting in a loud, wild manner, clearly displaying strong emotions.

In contrast, Kurtz's Intended in Belgium is fair, mild-tempered, and draped in black. She is the picture of calmness and patience. Despite their differences in appearance and temperament, the love they feel for Kurtz is very similar. The black mistress is devoted to her man and stretches out her arms to him in a show of great grief as he is taken away from her on the steamer. In a similar manner, the Intended is grief-stricken when Kurtz is taken away from her by death and still wears black and daily mourns his passing after more than a year.

The end for these two women in Kurtz's life, however, is a stark contrast. The departing Europeans on board the steamer needlessly gun down the beautiful black mistress in total inhumanity. The white girl, on the other hand, is brought from a seeming deathly existence to life by Marlow's lies about Kurtz. In essence, Marlow has saved her.

In a similar manner to the two women, a comparison and contrast exist between Kurtz and Marlow. They both espouse an idealistic vision behind imperialism, which is why Marlow is drawn towards Kurtz throughout the novel. Both men realize the truth, the darkness, and inhumanities behind the idealism, but their reactions are very different. Kurtz totally succumbs to the dark side, becoming more greedy and ruthless than any other agent working for the ivory company. In denying his idealism through his actions, he is so tortured by his behavior and by his treatment by the Manager, that he seems to go insane.

Marlow also succumbs, to a much lesser degree, to the imperialist behavior. He does not stand up and fight against the inhumanity to the Africans, as he knows he should. In fact, he usually sees the black natives as lesser beings in a typically European, inhumane manner. He also perpetrates the lie of imperialism, when he tells the Intended at the novel's end that Kurtz died pursuing noble goals in Africa and uttered her name on his deathbed. But in lying to her, he also heals her and saves her and thus, redeems himself to some degree.

The two men, Kurtz and Marlow, almost become one being -- the light side (Marlow) and the dark side (Kurtz) of the same person. There are also many minor comparisons and contrasts throughout the novel. The burial of Kurtz in a muddy hole beside the Congo is a reflection of the burial of the black helmsman into the river itself. The flies that buzz over the dying agent in the accountant's office are similar to the flies that inhabit the messroom of the steamer at the time of Kurtz's death. The women at company office, dressed in black and knitting a garment that looks like a shroud, are similar in appearance to the Intended, who is dressed in black and who knits a shroud of grief around herself.

The joy that Marlow feels in finding the English book in the house by the Congo is similar to the joy that the Russian feels when he discovers his book has been found and returned to him. All of these contrasts and comparisons help to develop Conrad's well- written novel into a tightly woven tale.

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