Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Marlow gains a great deal of information by watching the
world around him and by overhearing others’ conversations, as when
he listens from the deck of the wrecked steamer to the manager of
the Central Station and his uncle discussing Kurtz and the Russian trader.
This phenomenon speaks to the impossibility of direct communication
between individuals: information must come as the result of chance
observation and astute interpretation. Words themselves fail to
capture meaning adequately, and thus they must be taken in the context
of their utterance. Another good example of this is Marlow’s conversation
with the brickmaker, during which Marlow is able to figure out a
good deal more than simply what the man has to say.
Comparisons between interiors and exteriors pervade Heart
of Darkness. As the narrator states at the beginning of
the text, Marlow is more interested in surfaces, in the surrounding
aura of a thing rather than in any hidden nugget of meaning deep
within the thing itself. This inverts the usual hierarchy of meaning:
normally one seeks the deep message or hidden truth. The priority
placed on observation demonstrates that penetrating to the interior
of an idea or a person is impossible in this world. Thus, Marlow
is confronted with a series of exteriors and surfaces—the river’s
banks, the forest walls around the station, Kurtz’s broad forehead—that
he must interpret. These exteriors are all the material he is given,
and they provide him with perhaps a more profound source of knowledge than
any falsely constructed interior “kernel.”
Darkness is important enough conceptually to be part of
the book’s title. However, it is difficult to discern exactly what
it might mean, given that absolutely everything in the book is cloaked
in darkness. Africa, England, and Brussels are all described as
gloomy and somehow dark, even if the sun is shining brightly. Darkness
thus seems to operate metaphorically and existentially rather than
specifically. Darkness is the inability to see: this may sound simple,
but as a description of the human condition it has profound implications. Failing
to see another human being means failing to understand that individual
and failing to establish any sort of sympathetic communion with
him or her.
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