In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , fog and mist on the River Congo represent the incomprehensibility of the rainforest’s “darkness”; they obscure the truth that Marlow seeks through his journey to Kurtz’s station. Yet at the same time, Marlow’s steamboat and the colonists’s guns and torches generate smoke and steam that add to the obfuscation of the wilderness. Conrad uses the contradictory image of Marlow amplifying his own problems to depict colonialism as a force that exacerbates the disorder it attempts to correct.
Early on in the novella, Conrad introduces the imagery of fog as an impediment to Marlow’s expedition. Marlow draws attention to the wetness of the air as a constant characteristic of his time on the river: “An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm thick, heavy, sluggish” (136). The audience can easily imagine the Congo’s humidity as a mist enveloping all the scenes in Marlow’s narration, concealing small details and causing Marlow to doubt his own vision. Before he has even begun the journey, the haziness of the situation forces Marlow to question the clarity of proceeding. The forest is certainly “impenetrable” if Marlow can’t even see past the heaviness and apparent blankness of the air.
As Marlow nears Kurtz’s station, he describes a morning on the river where he and colonists are frightened by the “complaining clamour, modulated in savage discords,” in the “opaque air,” of Africans on the riverbank (143). The colonists cannot judge the intentions of the Africans: “‘Will they attack?’ whispered an awed voice” (144). Using the fog, Conrad challenges the colonists’ preconception that Western civilization always knows the most: in this situation, the Africans have the upper hand. The colonists aboard the ship, “behind the blind whiteness of the fog,” cannot predict what will happen next (146). In fact, Marlow says, “I did not think they would attack, for several reasons. The thick fog was one,” and is proven wrong later on. By upending Marlow’s predictions, the fog shows that Marlow’s assumptions are fallible: his ability to perceive the truth correctly becomes increasingly uncertain.
In the midst of the Africans’ attack on the steamboat, the colonists open fire on the riverbank, releasing a “deuce of a lot of smoke” and preventing Marlow from resolving the boat’s snag: “the snag was somewhere very near ahead in the that confounded smoke” (149-150). The supposed technological superiority of the colonists over the Africans—in the form of their firearms—only adds to the confusion in the air and worsens their problems. This crucial moment demonstrates Conrad’s criticism of colonialism: the colonists cannot correct any “problems” with the Africans. Instead, they end up harming everyone in the process of trying, including themselves. Furthermore, steam from the steamboat contributes to the humidity along the river. Whether he realizes or not, Marlow’s choice to pilot a steamboat preemptively slows his own progress. The overall inefficiency of Marlow’s expedition is reflective of colonialism being a misguided and counterproductive venture.
At the inner station, Marlow leaves the ship at night when he discovers Kurtz is missing. He finds Kurtz along the trail: “[Kurtz] rose...like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me” (173). Conrad’s description of Kurtz as a “vapour” takes on a dual meaning. Like the mist emanating from the wilderness, Kurtz himself becomes a property of the darkness; he travels too far into the reality of colonialism and deteriorates into vapour. Moreover, Kurtz serves as the last obstacle to Marlow’s expedition into the truth. Kurtz acknowledges the “horror” at the moment of his death, but Marlow fails to do the same after he almost dies. In Marlow’s own battle with the fog of death—the “impalpable greyness”—he recounts, “Perhaps all the widom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that appreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible” (178-179). He finds he cannot make the final judgement and recognize his own “horror” deep inside of him. After encountering Kurtz, the final “vapour,” Marlow ultimately fails to traverse the greyness and reach the truth.
Ironically, although Conrad uses imagery of fog and smoke to criticize colonialism’s self-impairing nature, he is not immune to the obscuring effects of the fog. In Chinua Achebe’s critical essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ,” Achebe writes, “travelers can be blind” (25). Indeed, Conrad was a blind traveler: similar to how Marlow willingly makes his journey more difficult, Conrad lets his own biases prevent him from seeing Africans as anything other than a savage and rudimentary people. The fog makes Marlow search harder for Kurtz’s knowledge in the exterior while the real knowledge lies within him. Likewise, Conrad criticizes the colonialism around him but fails to confront the racist beliefs inside of him. Even Conrad’s use of the fog in the setting of the novella contributes to the dehumanization of Africans, casting “Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity” (Achebe 21). Clearly, readers must see past the metaphorical fog of Western preconceptions encapsulating Heart of Darkness . Only then can they recognize Conrad’s dangerous racism and perceive the truth of his novella.