Themes of Heart of Darkness

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Main article: Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a short novel written by Joseph Conrad, presented as a frame narrative, about Charles Marlow's job as an ivory transporter down the Congo River in Central Africa. This river is described to be "... a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land." In the course of his commercial-agent work in Africa, the seaman Marlow becomes obsessed by Mr. Kurtz, an ivory-procurement agent, a man of established notoriety among the natives and the European colonials.

The story is a thematic exploration of the savagery-versus-civilisation relationship, and of the colonialism and the racism that make imperialism possible. Originally published as a three-part serial story, in Blackwood's Magazine, the novella Heart of Darkness has been variously published and translated into many languages. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as the sixty-seventh of the hundred best novels in English of the twentieth century.[1]

Themes and motifs[edit]

Light to dark[edit]

At the end of the day we find Charlie Marlow aboard a sailboat anchored in the Thames Estuary with a close group of men. From dusk on into the night, the passage of time and the darkening sky provides the atmosphere and tone for Marlow's upcoming narrative. After sunset, Marlow begins to tell a tale of an exotic adventure. He speaks of a time when for a European company he captained a steamboat up and down a large river deep within a mysterious wilderness; he was to transport supplies, company personnel, and ivory—all in the name of "progress" so as to veil the company's true intent of merely raping the countryside in pursuit of profit. What Marlow shares exposes the dark side of imperialistic endeavours—and its brutally cruel treatment of the African people, the natives, when at the hands of these company men. In the black of night, the symbolic nature of Marlow's tale expresses the unfathomable darkness within every human being, and their potential to commit heinous acts of evil.[2][3]

But being that for Marlow: "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out"—ultimately, as a whole, 'Heart of Darkness' reminds the reader that the dark underbelly of civilisation is built on top of incomprehensible cruelties. As enveloping Marlow's tale, the story opens with the location being England, a loose reference to its worldwide empire, and a kind of glorification, a tribute of sorts, to the Thames River and its "ages of good service"—"It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud"—"Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch"—the light of civilisation—"bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!... The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires."

After this introduction, and after the sun sets, Marlow provides his own, more personal, introduction; with a description of white spaces on maps being filled in—where in a way, he almost insinuates that the world is becoming a darker place:

"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.'""I have been in some of them, and... well, we won't talk about that. But there was one yet—the biggest, the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after."
"True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness."

Following Marlow's tale there is a dark shift in sentiments as we learn a little more about the current conditions of their location in England on the Thames; and read at the story's end: "The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."

—As if the "flicker" of civilisation, the light that "came out of this river" has already begun to dim...

Contrasting nature[edit]

He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—"The horror! The horror!"

— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

T. S. Eliot's use of a quotation from Heart of Darkness—"Mistah Kurtz, he dead"—as an epigraph to the original manuscript of his poem The Hollow Men contrasted its dark horror with the presumed "light of civilization," and suggested the ambiguity of both the dark motives of civilisation and the freedom of barbarism, as well as the "spiritual darkness" of several characters in Heart of Darkness. This sense of darkness also lends itself to a related theme of obscurity—again, in various senses, reflecting the ambiguities in the work. Spirituality is ambiguous: that which is traditionally placed on the side of "light" is in darkness, and vice-versa.

People gathered in the forest, at the passage of the steamboat "Roi des Belges" ("King of the Belgians") in 1888.[4]

In the Victorian Era Africa was known as "The Dark Continent" and Europeans attributed many negative connotations to Africans. One of the possible influences for the Kurtz character was Henry Morton Stanley of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, as he was a principal explorer of "The Dark Heart of Africa", particularly the Congo. Stanley was supposedly infamous for his violence against his porters while in Africa, although records indicate this was perhaps an exaggeration[5] and he was later honoured with a knighthood. An agent Conrad met when travelling in the Congo, Georges-Antoine Klein, could also have served as a model for Kurtz (in German klein means "small" and kurz means "short"). Klein died aboard Conrad's steamer and was interred along the Congo, much like Kurtz in the novel.[6] Among the people Conrad may have encountered on his journey was a trader called Leon Rom, who was later named chief of the Stanley Falls Station. In 1895, a British traveller reported that Rom had decorated his flower-bed with the skulls of some twenty-one victims of his displeasure (including women and children) resembling the posts of Kurtz's Station.[7]

Some of Conrad's experiences in the Congo and the story's historic background, including possible models for Kurtz, are recounted in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost.[8]

Duality of human nature[edit]

But theory is one thing, practice is another. Idealism, which has a Utopian quality, is inappropriate in a world where corrupt interests abound and where there are many who go on all fours. The last sentence in the report, an added footnote--"Exterminate all the brutes"--refers us to the dark other side of his personality, "the soul satiated with primitive emotions"; it shows a descent and that his "civilizer's" concern for the distressed savages has turned to hatred. Of particular relevance is the significance of the portrait he has painted, the blindfolded torchbearer against the black background which could suggest (among other things) the simplicity of the ideal and the complexity of reality, the illusion of light and the truth of darkness. The monstrous prevails and the human and artistic potential miscarries. There is a downward tug in Kurtz's involvement with the wilderness and he descends into a brute existence. He is reduced to madness and his aggressive impulses take control of him.


In conclusion, Kurtz, no less than other neo-primitives, is an evolutionary throwback, the "man-that-was" (Dracula 231). He is an exemplification of the duality of human nature, of how darkness is a component of light, and when it prevails, brings anarchy and corruption of others as well as self. Appropriately, he ends up ignominiously: "Suddenly the manager's boy probably burlesquing the manager~ put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt: 'Mistah Kurtz – he dead'" (71). Jung's definition of the "experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression" could well apply to Heart of Darkness and to each of the other novels: "It is something strange that derives its existence from the hinterland of man's mind, as if it had emerged from the abyss of prehuman ages, or from a superhuman world of contrasting light and darkness. It is a primordial experience which surpasses man's understanding and to which in his weakness he may easily succumb".


To emphasise the theme of darkness within mankind,[9] Marlow's narration takes place on a yawl in the Thames tidal estuary. Early in the novella, Marlow recounts how London, the largest, most populous and wealthiest city in the world, was a dark place in Roman times. The idea that the Romans conquered the savage Britons parallels Conrad's tale of the Belgians conquering the savage Africans. The theme of darkness lurking beneath the surface of even "civilized" persons appears prominently and is explored in the character of Kurtz and through Marlow's passing sense of understanding with the Africans.

Kurtz embodies all forms of an urge to be more or less than human. His writings show in Marlow's view an "exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence" and they appeal to "every altruistic sentiment." His predisposition for benevolence is clear in the statement "We whites...must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings....By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded". The Central Station manager quotes Kurtz, the exemplar: "Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing". Kurtz's inexperienced, scientific self in the fiery report is alive with the possibility of the cultivation and conversion of the savages. He would have subscribed to Moreau's proposition that "a pig may be educated".[9]

Themes developed in the novella's later scenes include the naïveté of Europeans (particularly women) regarding the various forms of darkness in the Congo; the British traders and Belgian colonialists' abuse of the natives and man's potential for duplicity.[11] The symbolism in the book expands on these as a struggle between good and evil (light and darkness), not so much between people as in every major character's soul.


  1. ^ 100 Best, Modern Library's website. Retrieved 12 January 2010.
  2. ^ Naik, Srinivas. "Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Search, Read, Study, Discuss." The Literature Network: Online Classic Literature, Poems, and Quotes. Essays & Summaries. Web. 18 August 2010.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Delcommune, Alexandre (1922). Vingt Années de Vie Africaine. 1874–1893; Récits de Voyages, d'Aventures et d'Exploration au Congo Belge [Twenty years of African life. 1874–1893; Accounts of travels, adventures and exploration in Belgian Congo] (in French) 1. Brussels: Ferdinand Larciers. p. 258. Retrieved 6 March 2011. 
  5. ^ Henry Morton Stanley
  6. ^ Sherry 1980
  7. ^ Conrad 1998
  8. ^ Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998. 144–145.
  9. ^ a b c 'Heart of Darkness' and late-Victorian fascination with the primitive and the double – novel by Joseph Conrad, p.4.
  10. ^ 'Heart of Darkness' and late-Victorian fascination with the primitive and the double – novel by Joseph Conrad, p.10.
  11. ^ Hayes, P. (1997), 'Conrad, Male Tyranny and The Idealization of Women', ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 28 (3): 97–117.


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