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Symbols and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness - The Symbol of Ivory

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The Symbol of Ivory in Heart of Darkness

 

        In Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad often uses vague,"muted"

descriptions, leaving a melange of possible meanings in the reader's lap.

One exception to this trend is Conrad's symbolic use of ivory. Within the

frame of the story,  his references to ivory can obviously be seen as a

representation of the white man's greed. Towards the end of the book ivory

comes to symbolize the oozing evil that drips from the heart of darkness.

     

      It isn't long before Conrad makes a commentary on the greed of the

whites. By the thirty-seventh page via Marlow associates them with a "false

religion." He says that the men at the Central Station are, "like a lot of

faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. Pilgrims are usually

people who travel to a holy place, so why the choice of words? Conrad

further explains in the following lines when he says, "The word 'ivory'

rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were

praying to it." In their rapacity the "pilgrims" have placed ivory as their

God, a realization that has greater meaning towards the end of the book.

     

      The significance of ivory begins to move away from avarice and

takes on a purely evil connotation as Marlow approaches those hearts of

darkness: the Inner Station and Kurtz. Kurtz's relationship with ivory

seems to have been reiterated by every company member through the course of

the story. Of course Kurtz "harvested" more ivory than all the other

stations combined, and therefore it almost seems appropriate that Conrad

would use extensive ivory imagery in describing Kurtz. Earlier, during his

digression on Kurtz, Marlow says, "The wilderness had patted him on the

head, and, behold, it was like a ball-an ivory ball". By the time that

Kurtz is carried out on a stretcher the evil has so overtaken him that, "I

could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arms waving.  It

was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been

shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and

glittering bronze". The evil has now grown to encompass his entire body,

and soul. Kurtz's lust for ivory is recounted by the Russian. Once he

threatened to shoot the Russian, who was squirreling a small quantity of

ivory-"because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was

nothing on earth to prevent him from killing whom he jolly well pleased."

The almost god-like power that Kurtz wields is unchecked, save for disease.

 

      In Heart of Darkness ivory plays a dual role in significance. On

one hand it is representative of evil and greed, and on the other, it is

representative of the measures taken to acquire it in the first place (i.e.

mistreatment of blacks). Conrad's use of ivory in order to symbolize

darkness is also in keeping with his occasional reversal of the colors

normally associated with good and evil, white and black. Ivory as a

material is one of the purest and whitest found in nature, while Kurtz's

soul is purely black.

 

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