Light and Dark in Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad's repeated use of darkness in his novel Heart of Darkness has been widely interpreted. Readers have arrived at many different conclusions about the use of darkness throughout the novel. The critics themselves cannot agree what the darkness means.
The critics draw different conclusions about the use of darkness. For some critics, the use of darkness is seen as an intentional literary device. For example, Gary Adelman and Michael Levenson discuss the use of darkness and comment upon Conrad's purpose. Gary Adelman suggests that Conrad used darkness as a means to tie together various elements of the novel. Adelman says, "the most elaborate of Conrad's devices for controlling several dimensions of his story is his metaphorical use of darkness" (85-86). Adelman talks about how "[d]arkness characterizes the hero's psychological state at each stage of his journey" (86). In Adelman's opinion, "it functions as a symbol of Marlow's self-enlightenment and political awareness" (86). According to Adelman, it is important to "interpret its various meanings" (86) in order to understand the "scope of Conrad's vision and the design of the novel" (86). He points to the fact that darkness is first associated with England and imperialism through the gloom that hangs over London and the tribute that is made to British imperialism. When Marlow starts talking about the Roman conquest of Britain, however, the darkness is associated with "savagery, disease, and solitude that threaten the colonizer" (86). As Marlow's journey progresses, darkness is associated with "savagery, cannibalism and human sacrifice" (87). Marlow, according to Adelman, "is described as journeying … into the darkness at the beginnings of time, the darkness of Africa--a regression that threatens his sanity" (87). When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, he is faced with a "shocking revelation" (87) writes Adelman; "that the darkness . . . is not African, but European" (87).
While Adelman talks about darkness and how it links many elements of the novel together, Michael Levenson concludes that Conrad chose to use darkness throughout the novel because of the sense it conveyed to the reader. Levenson sees darkness as the "perfect moral term" (404), conjuring up a certain impression that is conveyed from beginning to end of the story. As the story unfolds, the reader is meant to associate darkness with facts and values. Levenson reasons that the "transitions" (404) from one scene to another are almost "seamless" (404) as a result of the way in which Conrad uses words like darkness and gloom and what those words come to mean to the reader. To illustrate his point, he talks about "the transitions from the literal gloom of the African jungle to Kurtz's gloomy horror . . . from the black bank of clouds above the Thames to the heart of darkness" (404). They appear seamless, says Levenson "because this darkness is a metaphor which...