Grass Symbolism in Heart of Darkness
In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the very first observation that the narrator Marlow makes about his African experiences is that when he came upon the remains of his predecessor, Fresleven, "the grass growing through his ribs was tall enough to hide his bones." This juxtaposition of grass and mortal remains may remind many readers of several powerful scriptural images of mortality and the vanity of earthly endeavor--for instance
All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower fadeth away.
Marlow's striking image resonates not only with these scriptural connotations, but also with suggestions of the paradoxical natural vitality of the grass growing through the bones, and with overtones of moral judgment for the culpable neglect of Fresleven's remains by his survivors.
Images of death are associated with grass repeatedly in Heart of Darkness. Long grass half conceals but ultimately reveals the bodies of dead carders, still in harness, in final repose beside the paths on which they labored (23). When Marlow's native helmsman is killed, Marlow says that the dead body is "heavier than any man on earth," yet when Marlow tips it over the side, it is swept back in the current "like a wisp of grass" (51). Here, if not earlier, a reader may realize that Conrad is combining images of death and grass systematically.
This motif is carried forward in two more strands. First, grass is associated with impermanence and futility in a series of increasingly intense images of material things, beginning with the almost comic picture of "wallowing in the grass" at the Lower Station, more like a hog than a corpse (19). More poignantly, Marlow describes rains of grass walls as somehow "pathetically childish" (23). Readers may recall this impression ironically when Marlow later describes the reactions of the other Europeans at the Central Station to the burning of a grass shed full of contemptibly cheap trade goods. The "pilgrims" futilely fight the fire with a single small, leaking bucket and then vent their frustration by beating a native who may or may not be guilty of starting the fire (26).
This strand of the motif is concluded powerfully in Marlow's description of Kurtz's Inner Station: "a long decaying building . . . half buried in the grass," with gaping holes in the roof (perhaps recalling the spaces between Fresleven's ribs) and--as Marlow eventually recognizes with a shock--a row of human heads on slender posts standing before it (52). The series of posts in the grass, too, may remind readers of Fresleven's ribs. In these images of Kurtz's station, the motif's earlier connotations of mortality, neglect, and unsuccessful concealment are compounded with overtones of the most profound moral revulsion.
Yet another thread of the motif begins...