Words are just symbols that indicate something. It depends on the reader how he perceives their meanings. Notion that a writer simply describes images through words to express something and they do not possess any hidden meanings is entirely wrong and one who believes on this notion is either not a student of literature or lacks rational understanding. Readers should go in depth to find real meanings of words and images that a writer describes in his work. Joseph Conrad is among those writers who use symbols both in words and in images. “Heart of Darkness” contains such symbols that have more than their literal meanings. Some of them are words whereas remaining are images. In addition, tone, mode, feelings of characters, their actions, description of their clothes and colours also contain many important symbols in “Heart of Darkness”.

“Heart of Darkness” Symbols:

Reader should understand each and every symbol of the novel in order to get real motif of the writer. Furthermore, it helps a person to know more about hidden meanings that are mentioned in a literary work. “Heart of Darkness” is an indirect attack on colonialism and Joseph Conrad made it possible only through symbols. Following are some prominent symbols of “Heart of Darkness”.

  • Symbolic title of the novel.
  • Civilizations and Primitivism
  • Darkness
  • Congo River
  • Ivory

Heart of Darkness | The Title:

Title of the novel is highly symbolic. “Heart of Darkness” is about journey of a person named as Marlowe. He tells his own story and explains his circumstances. Especially, those circumstances that he experienced in his visit to the darkest consent of the world. Heart we know that is an important organ and symbolizes for the most vital part of the body. If darkness is personified then heart is something that is the most important element of darkness.

Novel is about a person who goes in the heart of darkness. Artists have been using darkness as a symbol of death, destruction, decay, cruelty, danger and hopelessness for centuries. Joseph Conrad also uses it for the same person. He calls Africa heart of darkness. If darkness is danger then Africa is the most dangerous continent of the world because it becomes heart of danger. If darkness means death then one can freely see it in Africa without any hurdle because of the same reason mentioned earlier. Heart also symbolizes core hence if darkness is symbol of destruction then Africa is core of destructed parts of world due to the circumstances elaborated in the novel. In this way, “heart and darkness” are interlinked with each other and are the most important symbols of the novel. However, when darkness is separated from heart, it becomes another type of symbol.

Civilizations and Primitivism:

Marlowe describes his journey from darkness to light. Joseph Conrad has described Thames River and Congo River as two distinct things. Marlowe’s journey starts from Europe, he goes to Africa and then ends his journey in Europe. Light indicates civilization whereas darkness specifies primitivism. Marlowe’s journey is a journey from civilization to primitivism. He in direct words tells us that Romans once ended primitivism of Europe. However, now it has become a civilized country. On the other hand, Europe has culminated Africa’s primitivism in order to make it a civilized country. It is one of the ironical yet important symbols of “Heart of Darkness”. Ironical in the sense that we nowhere find white-men making Africa a civilized country.


Lots of symbols have been associated with it in “Heart of Darkness” but primary meaning of this symbol is the darkness of Europeans and not of the Africans. In order to make Africa a civilized country white-men entered there but they did nothing for their welfare. Instead of giving them benefits, they imposed cruel masters on them and made them slaves. On many occasions in the novel we see Africans being treated as slaves which prove that darkness is a symbol of so called civilization of Europeans.

Darkness is also a symbol of fear. It is not the case that Marlowe was in Africa and he was afraid of African inhabitants. Fear means the fear of greed and insecure future of humanity. We observe no humanity in Europeans. If they start treating every continent of the world in the way they treated Africans then it means that they are renewing the slavery system. Hence, darkness is a symbol of fear from brutality in guise of civilization.

Congo River:

It is the most important symbol of the novel so far as descriptive writing is concerned. It plays the role of a divider and separates Marlowe from the evil and cunning tricks of Kurtz. River also allows Marlowe to see both sides of the continent. The difference between so-called civilization and humanity, evil and good, white-men and Africans. In literature, mostly sea symbolizes for life. Somehow, in this novel too it is symbolism of life. It symbolizes life for the reason that it is mixture of good and evil. In addition, when Marlowe reaches at the center of Congo river, it slows his boat’s speed. It gives us hint that the process of recognizing innersole is slower. In this way, Congo and climate of the novel are also two important symbols of “Heart of Darkness”.


Ivory is simply the symbol of greed. As discussed above, white-men entered in Africa not for the purpose of making it a civilized country but to get more and more ivory. Apparently, they were working for their welfare but in a true sense they wanted their resources. Evil attitude of whites is evident in different parts of the novel and ivory is symbol of it. Africans have resources and white-men know how to grab them. Hence, in the guise of civilization and colonialism they entered in Africa and grasped their resources.

Numerous other symbols are also there in “Heart of Darkness”. Joseph Conrad has command in using the technique of symbolism. He has revealed inner truth of his experiences only through symbols in “Heart of Darkness”. He is genius in portraying different types of symbols when it comes to descriptive writing. Wonderful meanings of symbols are obvious from images, description, words and in-depth analysis of “Heart of Darkness”.

"Heart of Darkness" Symbols | Motif of Joseph Conrad
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"Heart of Darkness" Symbols | Motif of Joseph Conrad
"Heart of Darkness" is indirect attack on colonialism and Joseph Conrad made it possible only through symbols. He shows his truthful experiences via symbols
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