Light vs. Dark in Heart of Darkness Essay

Light vs. Dark in Heart of Darkness Essay

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Light vs. Dark in Heart of Darkness


The realism movement of the late nineteenth century produced works in literature that were marked by reduced sentimentality and increased objectivity. The goal was to let details tell the story, and remove noticeable bias of the author through scientific and detailed descriptions. While this form of storytelling undoubtedly is most accurate, it creates difficulties for authors to incorporate their themes into the story. This resulted in an increase in symbolism in realist works. The objects and descriptions within the story are the author’s vehicle for displaying the values and themes of the work. Light and darkness are symbols commonly used in literature, and have held specific symbolic meanings for hundreds of years. Simply stated, light commonly symbolizes good, while darkness symbolizes its antithesis - evil. (Cooper) For centuries light vs. dark has been quite possibly the most common symbol in all literature. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad uses detail to create a feeling that transcends the literal text - most notably through his use of light and dark and the inversion of their traditional meanings. The end goal of this inversion is the establishment of the theme that not everything is as it seems. More specifically, Conrad uses detailed imagery of light and dark to show often times white men can be more savage than the natives.

The use of darkness in the title of Conrad’s work immediately alludes to it’s relevance to the story, but in an unexpected way. While the contrast of light and dark, white and black, and good and evil is a common theme in his novella, Conrad essentially reverses the meanings of the two. Conrad’s story is about the penetration of a corru...


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...Conrad removes Marlow’s bias, but through the inclusion of careful details he is able to establish his themes. The cruelty of white man to the natives, appearances being deceiving, the nobility of the Africans – all are clear messages of this text that come across not from Marlow’s opinion, but rather the careful inclusion of details and symbolism. No bigger symbol helps Conrad reinforce his theme than the continuous battle of light and dark, and his use of the two is the cornerstone from which he builds meaning from symbolism.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch, New York: Pearson. Copyright 2004.
(pp. 948-1001)

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson. Copyright 1987.

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