Metaphors in Heart of Darkness

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Joseph Conrad's ''Heart of Darkness'' is loaded with dozens of metaphors that unfold throughout the novella. In this lesson, we will cover darkness, the Congo River, and women, three prominent metaphors in the novella.


Taking place in the final years of the nineteenth century, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness follows Marlow as he travels through Africa on the Congo River. Marlow is a thoughtful sailor traveling the Congo River to meet up with Kurtz. Marlow takes a job with a Belgian trade company working along the river. He witnesses the Company mistreat the natives and the efforts to force them into a 'civilized' way of life according to European traditions. Conrad uses darkness, the Congo River, and women as metaphors to represent issues surrounding imperialism and the human condition. A metaphor is a comparison in which one item is described in terms of another. In other words, the comparison of two seemingly unrelated items lends a better description to what is being discussed.


The novella opens and closes with darkness. Even when the sun is shining in this novella, everything is shaded in some degree of darkness. For example, Marlow says, 'sunlight can be made to lie, too,' which suggests that even what can be seen is clouded by uncontrollable factors. Although the metaphor is complicated and difficult to pin down to one explanation, it seems that darkness operates as a metaphor for the inability for one person to truly understand another person. In that aspect, darkness further represents the oppression placed upon one group by another group, which extends Conrad's criticism of imperialism.

The Congo River

The Congo River is a metaphor for the impact that the intrusion of European countries have on the African natives. The Congo River is described as dangerous; Marlow describes the river as a coiled snake readying to attack when one least expects it. The river as a coiled snake stands for the oppressed Africans who are forced to work in slave-like conditions for the Europeans as they take over parts of the continent. What this means is that eventually the snake will leap out and bite whoever is trying to control it.

Moreover, the Congo River always seems to be pushing the intruders out of Africa with its currents. The narrator notes that the current going into Africa is slow and arduous, while the journey back toward civilization is swift and easily accomplished. The river represents the attitudes of the Africans wanting the Europeans to stay out of their homelands.

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