An Analysis of Marlow’s Choice in Heart of Darkness
The concepts of light and darkness have become synonymous with good and bad, especially in the realm of literature. Light is associated with Heaven, happiness and hope, while darkness symbolizes Hell, hatred and harm. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness however, these general conventions are broken in that light symbolizes a far more menacing evil than any form of darkness. While readers seek to view light in a positive way, Conrad’s progressive use of darker examples of light reflects the inner conflict and confusion of the novel’s protagonist, Marlow, and his continued search for light in the world.
At the beginning of the novel, the idea of light being a torch and beacon remains, but the purpose is no longer bright. Before Marlow reaches Africa, the Swedish captain remarks that “it is funny what some people will do for a few francs a month” (Conrad 10). The shining quest for civilising “savages” is reduced to the prospect of riches. Marlow has long realized that the company operates out of profit and is very hypocritical in its goals, thinking that the city it is located in is “a whited sepulcher”(Conrad 6). Nonetheless, Marlow is still a member of the society and considers himself “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle” (Conrad 8), despite realizing that they are not bringing any light. The doctor that checks up on Marlow suggests people change when they go to Africa, and this serves to foreshadow Marlow’s own later changes and perceptions.
The first obvious reference to a reversal in the traditional ideas of light being good and darkness symbolizing evil is in the passage:
Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister. (Conrad 17)
When Marlow first sees Kurtz’s painting in the cave of the blindfolded woman holding the torch, he is visibly disturbed, as it immediately attracts his attention by “arresting him” (Conrad 17). However, Marlow immediately turns his focus to further inquiring about Kurtz and brushes off his momentary discomfort. In many ways, the woman reflects Western civilization's advance into Africa. While the proceeds seem stately, closer inspection reveals ulterior motives and a sinister effect on the bearer of light. However, this sinister aspect is only revealed in the presence of light, and not the darkness that enveloped the background.
The role that light plays has already changed in this point of the novel in that objects of light are associated only with the unscrupulous characters. The manager’s spy not only has objects associated with Western society, “but also a whole candle all to himself.”(Conrad 16) Marlow remarks that “just at that time the manager was the only man supposed to have any right to candles.”...