“A Sinister Back-Cloth”: The Fabrics of Heart of Darkness

by Harry Heuser

Raising a Tattered Curtain

Since its first publication in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s conspicuously symbolic novel Heart of Darkness appears to have been under such close scrutiny that any attempt to provide further reflections on darkness and light, penetrating ventures into fog, or excavations of hidden truths entombed in “a whited sepulchre” must seem shopworn and threadbare.  And yet, scholars laboring in the confines of such discussions have proven oblivious to a certain set of images that runs through the narrative like a red thread.  Even those who set out to look for patterns in Heart of Darkness—whether they comment on the monochromatic description of “trade goods” such as “ghastly glazed calico” and confounded cotton handkerchiefs” or point out, in their study of animal imagery, that the “ominous ladies knitting in the waiting-room have a cat” (Mandel 308, 312)—overlook the obvious that is already beginning to unfold here before our eyes.  Still others—whether discussing the “juxtaposition of civilized Europe with the wild forests of Africa [,which] suggests that barbarism lurks not so much in the African natives as in the hearts of the Europeans, who conceal a savagery of greed and violence” with “[v]eils of benevolent rhetoric” (Harrison 137), or the “African catacomb, from whose labyrinth no moral thread leads to the light” (Wilcox 11)—pick up and employ, be it consciously or otherwise, the very linguistic fibers of Heart of Darkness, without making them the focus of their analysis.

After examining Conrad’s concrete and figurative references to cloth and clothes, which go far beyond relatively commonplace expressions such as “truth stripped of its cloak of time” (51) or “as though a veil had been removed from my eyes” (60), one cannot but conclude that fabric imagery serves as a leitmotif in Heart of Darkness.  Although references to cloth and clothes are already of great importance—and indeed far more frequent—in Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly, it is in Heart of Darkness that fabrics, carefully select, become a dominant aspect of a novel’s design.  Rather than merely dressing up his novel in cotton and calico, in wool and worsted, Conrad addresses the doubts and discontents of the civilized European at the turn of the twentieth century.  The author’s application of cloth imagery—from fabric manufacture to textile trade, from a patch to apparel—reveal what is at the very core of Heart of Darkness, namely Conrad’s ambivalence toward and profound skepticism of Western civilization.

Since Conrad’s approach to the writing of fiction was to “start with definite images” (Karl and Davies, Collected Letters 2: 158), his skepticism often finds its expression in details, such as descriptions of qualities and uses of cotton and wool.  All fabrics mentioned in Heart of Darkness, from brown holland to linen, from worsted to flannel, are related to cotton and wool.  Any references to silk or satin (a silk, nylon, or rayon cloth), which appear in Conrad’s other nineteenth-century novels, are missing here.  This allows Conrad to establish a closer link between fabrics and Western rather than Eastern civilization.  Starting with definite images enables Conrad to question even the most basic assumptions about nature and civilized life, so that a mere heap of cotton-wool, generally perceived as soft and comforting, or at least innocuous, can serve as a symbol of entrapment:

Keep a look-out? Well, you may guess I watched the fog for the signs of lifting as a cat watches a mouse; but for anything else our eyes were of no more use to us than if we had been buried miles deep in a heap of cotton-wool.  It felt like it too—choking, warm, stifling.  (58)

Conrad fabricates this intricate simile—being in an all-enveloping fog feeling like being buried in a heap of cotton-wool—by choosing properties of raw cotton (choking, stifling) which are opposed to the purposes generally assigned to cotton products (to comfort, to protect).  The potentially favorable, or benign quality of cotton-wool, conveyed by the passive, static adjective “warm” (not “warming”), is literally enveloped by the active, dynamic adjectives “choking,” “stifling,” and consequently corrupted by this association.  A sudden sense of helplessness and loss of control—the cat and mouse roles are dismantled as soon as they are established—springs from the discovery that the very fibers of nature appear to defy human appropriation or ascendancy.

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