Characters, Setting, Themes, and Symbols of Heart of Darkness
Deep within the chest of every man, woman, and child beats the heart of darkness. On the surface, mankind has achieved a sophisticated level of civilization. Joseph Conrad forces the reader to peel away the pristine layer of sweetness and see the unaltered truth. Heart of Darkness reveals the true nature that lurks behind every smile, handshake, and conversation. Conrad's portrayal of the characters, setting, symbols, and ironies allow the reader to reflect on the true nature of man.
Each of the main characters in Heart of Darkness plays a significant role in the overall theme of the novel. The central character is a thirty two year old sailor, Charlie Marlow. He is a dynamic character who essentially controls the development of the theme. Through Marlow's experiences and revelations, the author illustrates how forces of light and darkness serve to weave the human soul together; thus, essentially how good and evil are reflected in an individual. Marlow's journey leads him in an urgent search for Kurtz, the one man who can provide him with the truth about himself. Like Marlow, Kurtz came to the Congo in hopes to bring "light" and civilization to a backwards society. He is a highly-educated, refined gentlemen; yet, in the end, the brutal nature of the Congo forces him to resort to the life of a murderer and pilferer. The name Kurtz itself has symbolic meaning. "The physical shortness in Kurtz implies a shortness of character and spirit" (Heart of Darkness: A systematic evaluation). Conrad greatly contrasts between Kurtz's two mistresses. He portrays the black mistress as being fierce and magnificent. "She is an impressive figure and importantly, her human feelings are not denied. She faces the truth of the situation and the pain because she is able to endure it" (Mistress). On the other hand, his white mistress is depicted as being soft-tempered and patient: "an illusion of the European society" (Mistress). These two women serve the purpose of emphasizing the two images of Kurtz: a barbarous and savage man of an uncivilized society vs. a refined gentleman from civilized Europe. The manager of the ivory company in Africa is essentially the villain of the plot. He is the dark force indirectly responsible for the corruption and decadence in the Congo.
Setting is also relevant to the overall theme of the novel. As the plot opens up, Marlow begins to compare and contrast the Thames River to the Congo. He describes both rivers to be connected like "an interminable waterway" (Conrad 65). Marlow means to say that the two are connected symbolically. Both represent the continual passage for the ivory trade. The ivory is carried out of Africa through the Congo and into Europe through the Thames. The Thames is depicted as being peaceful and tranquil while the Congo is it's antithesis. Both are associated with darkness, however, the Thames has "conquered" it's darkness...