Allusions in Heart of Darkness

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Many authors use allusion to tie their novel in to different aspects of the outside world. In this lesson, you'll learn about the different types of allusions that appear in Joseph Conrad's ''Heart of Darkness.''


Often when telling a story, you'll find that it can't be completely self-contained. Sometimes it's necessary or at least a good idea to bring in aspects of the outside world. One way you can do this is through allusions. Allusions are an indirect or passing reference to something, often biblical or historical, and they can add a lot of depth to a story; that's why they're so common in literature. One place we see several different types of allusions is in Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness.

Biblical Allusion

One of the most common types of allusion is biblical allusion, where the reference calls to mind some part of the Bible. One example of this in Heart of Darkness is when Marlow gets to France. He refers to the city as a 'whited sepulcher.' A sepulcher is a type of tomb or relic holder, which is decorated on the outside and hollow in the center. The phrase 'whited sepulcher' is actually an allusion to Matthew 23:27-28, which goes like this: 'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.'

'Whitewashed tombs' and 'whited sepulchers' are the same thing. By using this allusion to Matthew, Joseph Conrad is actually calling the city, and the European civilization it represents, completely hypocritical. European culture hides under the veneer, or whitewash, of civilization, yet in the Congo, all of that drops away and there is only the terrible center, full of savagery. By using allusion instead of description, Conrad (through Marlow) can say a lot in a very short phrase.

Greek and Roman Mythology

The Fates

Christianity is not the only religion Conrad alludes to; he also refers to Greek and Roman mythology. The first of these allusions is the Fates. We see this allusion in the Company's headquarters in France. Immediately after entering the building, Marlow encounters two women, dressed all in black, sitting and knitting. People must encounter them before going anywhere else in the building, and Marlow describes them as 'guarding the door to Darkness.' In Greek mythology, human life is governed by the three Fates: women who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life. These two women in the novel allude to the two Fates who spin and cut the thread of life. They are the ones responsible for how a person lives, and how and when they die. As a result, they determine who goes into the underworld, therefore guarding the door to Darkness.

The three Fates spin, measure, and cut the threads of life
The Fates


In addition to these indirect allusions, Conrad also uses direct allusions, where what he refers to is directly stated, but only in passing. One example of this occurs when Kurtz is being brought out of his house on a stretcher. Men follow him bringing his many guns, and Marlow refers to these guns as 'the thunderbolts of that pitiful Jupiter.' In Roman mythology, Jupiter is the main god, and thunderbolts or lightning bolts are his weapons of choice. This allusion shows that Kurtz has set himself up as a god in the Inner Station, but he has fallen so far and is so sick that he is only a shadow of the 'Jupiter' he used to be.

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