Magazine: Explicator, Summer, 1992


In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Charles Marlow relates to his listeners aboard the Nellie the story of his service with a European company operating in the African Congo. Arriving in this European country to interview for employment, Marlow recalls, "I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a white sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt" (73). But whose prejudice is he speaking of: his or that of the citizens of that commercial center? Either way, his image is prophetic. The white sepulchre contains the remains of the countless Africans slaughtered by these colonizers--not in the form of corpses, but in the wealth that has been stolen from the African continent. The significance of the sepulchre's whiteness (and that of the longed-for ivory) lies in the contrasting images of a piece of white worsted and the starched white collars that Marlow comes upon in the jungles of the Congo. While the collars represent the violence, oppression, and hatred that dominate the European's treatment of the African, the white worsted is an attempt by an enslaved African native to gain the magical powers that he believes the white collar possesses.

On his way to the company's station, Marlow decides to seek some shade from the daytime heat and the sun's direct rays: "My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within it than it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno" (81). In this shaded place, Marlow comes to understand the situation in which he has placed himself. The starving black men he finds huddled together there are victims of a white plague that has enslaved them to do work that has no purpose, such as the blasting away of the cliffs. It is all part of a process in which the white man intends to kill either the natives' resistance or the natives, whichever comes first.

Among the group, Marlow encounters a black man who has tied a piece of white cloth around his neck, an act that Marlow does not understand:

Why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge--an ornament--a charm--a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it? It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas. (82)

To the black man, this "bit of white thread" symbolizes the power and magic that the white man has used to enslave him and his people. In it are contained the powers of the white deities, powers the black man hopes to possess. But to Conrad, the white cloth is nothing more than the manacles worn around the necks of criminals that Marlow has seen on his trek to the station. It is a yoke that reduces the man to a beast of burden.

Marlow, sickened by the sight, walks away, only to meet a white man, the company's accountant. While he pities the black man for his tattered collar, Marlow says of his new, white acquaintance, "Yes; I respected his collars" (83), which symbolize civilization, not subjugation.

The black man's attempt to imitate, with the white worsted, the collar of the accountant is ironic. The collar possesses no power. The accountant, however, represents a society hungry for the wealth contained in the natural resources of the African continent. The true power is contained in the account books filled with "correct entries of perfectly correct transactions" (85) over which he labors every day.

Conrad's talismanic white collars serve as a reminder not only of the abusive power that the white man has used against the Africans through the exploitation of those people's superstitions and fears, but also of the political and economic domination of underdeveloped countries that pervades European history. The black man is wrong in believing that the piece of white cloth may hold any power. The power lies in the heart of darkness hidden behind the oppressor's deeds of horror and buried within the white sepulchre of Marlow's imagination.


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. New York: New American Library, 1983.


By ROGER WEST, Georgia Southern University

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Source: Explicator, Summer92, Vol. 50 Issue 4, p222, 2p.