Themes in Heart of Darkness
Consequences of Imperialism: At the time of writing, Conrad’s novella reflected a growing awareness of Europe’s role in exploiting foreign lands and resources. With depictions of violence and the abuse of land and people inherent to the ivory trade, the novel condemns European colonization in the Congo. However, both Marlow and Kurtz believe that imperialism is justified if the intention is that of a ‘civilizing’ mission, that is, to bring European values and beliefs to the supposedly savage and immoral native populations. To modern readers, this reasoning is flawed because it is based in inherently racist beliefs used to justify further European violence and dominance over native populations. While the novel’s original intention was to condemn Europe’s colonial project, it also asserts that the Congo is a place of “darkness” and the people there are inferior and inherently savage, a fundamental ideology that propelled European colonization.
The Battle Between Good and Evil: Conrad uses light and dark as symbols to represent the battle between good and evil in this novel. In the novel, light represents morality and goodness and is aligned with European society and Christian values. Darkness represents immorality, sin, lust, and greed and is aligned with the Congo. This imagery was often used by imperialists to justify their excessive use of oppression, violence, and enslavement of native populations.
Themes Examples in Heart of Darkness:
"we listeners could hardly see one another..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Marlow discusses the difficulty of conveying information accurately. It is ironic that he speaks of clarity while his crew cannot even seem him in the darkness. Obscurity is an aspect of hollowness, as an outer shell “obscures” the fact that there is nothing inside. Consider how this theme of obscurity runs throughout Heart of Darkness and how this affects the perception of truth and reality.
"Men who come out here should have no entrails..." See in text (Chapter 1)
This relates to the novella’s theme of hollowness. Men must be devoid of their “insides,” their human characteristics such as morality, empathy, and compassion, to participate in the inhumane practice of imperialism. Take note of other images of hollowness as they appear throughout the story.
"He did not ask me to sit down..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Through this small and seemingly insignificant action, Conrad points out the deterioration of social conventions, of European-ness in the Congo. The Europeans claimed to be bringing civility to the colonies, but in the process, they lose their own. This relates to the theme of European hypocrisy in the novella.
"I did not see the real significance of that wreck at once..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Marlow’s myopia is brought up again, as well as the Europeans’ method of self-deception as a way to deny their wrongdoings. Marlow almost unknowingly downplays the severity of the wreck, much like how the Europeans fabricate narratives about instilling civility in their colonial ventures. By altering the reality of the situation, it becomes easier to ignore what’s wrong and continue their exploitative business.
"To make money, of course..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Despite claims that colonialism was an effort to “civilize” native people, to teach them Christian morals, it has generally been understood as a capitalist venture. Marlow’s partner, representing the unskilled labor force, perpetuates the capitalist notion that the opportunity to make money is readily and equally available to everyone, while disregarding those who are oppressed and exploited through the system (in this case, the Congolese). The man’s statement shows how removed he is from the human lives at stake in this business.
"sound of bells..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Conrad pairs the cacophonous and chaotic with the harmonious and orderly again, but this time he does this to create irony and criticize organized religion. He compares the sound of church bells to the chaotic cacophony of the jungle he describes the sentence prior. Conrad suggests that the Europeans’ idea of order—organized religion—is no more civil than the their violent imperialist ventures.
"to be out of the chaos..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Conrad’s description of the accountant’s hut reveals an attempt to create order from the disorder of European colonial affairs. The accountant tries to furnish his hut to represent the European-ness that has been emphasized in the novella thus far, yet his actions feign civility and proper social behavior.
"The work!..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Throughout much of Heart of Darkness, Conrad is critical of the Protestant work ethic, a concept that argues that one achieves salvation through hard work. This exclamation is followed by Marlow’s observation that this “workplace” is where men go to die. Conrad is critical of religiously-fueled work because it alienates the laborer from the reality of his work. While Marlow believes he benefits from his work because it brings him closer to salvation, it actually benefits the European colonial system.
"impossible to divine..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Like the man-of-war firing into the jungle, the purpose of this hole is unknown. It represents only the appearance of progress, not any true advances. It is merely a facade that obscures the regression of European morality in their colonial efforts. There are several images of follies like this throughout the novella.
"The sun too much for him..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Conrad introduces nature as somewhat of an antagonist to mankind in the novella. For example, fog and mist can prevent men from seeing clearly, both literally and figuratively. Nature has a great deal of influence over humanity’s thoughts and actions. Take note of the other interactions between mankind and nature, as nature’s power will be of greater significance later.
"particularized impression..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Impressionism was a late-19th-century art movement whose style was intended to represent an “impression” of a scene, rather than a highly detailed depiction of it. Impressionism greatly influenced Modernist writing styles, as it marked a shift away from realism. It also entertained the idea of ambiguity, a major theme in Heart of Darkness. Marlow can only get an “impression” of the Congo, suggesting that the ethics of European dealings there were ambiguous.
"the merry dance of death..." See in text (Chapter 1)
The “dance of death” (“danse macabre”) is a late-medieval allegory for the universality of death. Trivial distinctions over race, gender, and class are not worth fighting over when death comes for everyone. Conrad extends this idea to colonization, criticizing Europe’s justification for exploiting people based on race. This relates to the theme of the illusion of appearance.
"a world of straightforward facts..." See in text (Chapter 1)
The theme of appearance versus reality is a major one in the text. Marlow reflects that his reality before going into the Belgian Congo, one influenced by a European world narrative, was perhaps illusory and not representative of what the world is actually like. In his first moments in the colony, he felt superior to the Congolese, yet hints that his view later changes. The morality of the situation and his view of the people grow more ambiguous.
"my isolation amongst all these men..." See in text (Chapter 1)
As Marlow travels closer to the Congo, the assumed eponymous heart of darkness, he begins to feel more detached from his crew. Conrad details the alienation of man as Marlow travels closer to a site of concentrated evil. He may be suggesting that for one to participate in the inhumane practices of colonialism, they must also deny their own humanity and their relationships with other humans. This theme of isolation intensifies as the novel progresses.
"the changes take place inside, you know..." See in text (Chapter 1)
The doctor practices the once-popular pseudoscience of phrenology, which evaluates and judges people based on the shape and measurements of their head. The doctor has been characterized as a “harmless fool,” so the reader is not intended to take his practice seriously. Conrad suggests that attempts to judge what is inside a person, their character and intelligence, from the outside, their physical features, is ridiculous. Take note of whether or not Conrad extends this thinking to the ill-treatment of people based on the color of their skin.
"a place of darkness..." See in text (Chapter 1)
If Africa had once been a “white patch,” Conrad suggests that European contact and influence had a negative effect on it. Note how darkness and lightness are not qualities inherent to any peoples or places, but they can change. They are mobile and transferable, opening up possibilities to apply these terms to anyone or any place.
"blank spaces on the earth..." See in text (Chapter 1)
This is one of several variations on the theme of light versus dark: empty versus full. “[B]lank” implies that a space is not populated, but was Africa unpopulated? The dichotomies like this in the novel can be simply reduced to a conflict between the self and the other. Africa was obviously not unpopulated, but it was not European. Thus, it was void of the European-ness that Marlow suggests is necessary to make a place worthy of consideration. Note how this disrupts the common association between light and goodness.
"What redeems it is the idea only..." See in text (Chapter 1)
Marlow claims imperialism is good but only in theory. This sentiment is echoed as a theme throughout the text, leading some scholars (most notably, Chinua Achebe) to criticize Heart of Darkness on account of its racism and xenophobia towards African people. It’s important to take a text’s historical context into consideration when reading, but it can’t be denied that the image of Africans in the novella is rather derogatory and potentially reflects the author’s own views.
"We live in the flicker..." See in text (Chapter 1)
In this passage, Marlow describes England as being uncivilized during the time of Roman colonization. In the 19th century, the British Empire also could have been considered a world power due to its extensive colonization. By creating this parallel, Conrad emphasizes the theme of history’s cyclical nature and hints at Britain’s potential downfall; it could be just a “flicker” of power in history.
"Erebus..." See in text (Chapter 1)
The Erebus was one of the ships John Franklin commanded on his infamous Arctic expedition. In Greek mythology, Erebus is used to refer to either a deity that is personified darkness or a region of the underworld the dead pass through before entering Hades. Both references suggest a relationship between darkness and movement. This early allusion points to a major theme in the novella: the spread of darkness. Take note of who or what is bearing darkness.
"crowded with memories of men..." See in text (Chapter 1)
This phrase shows another aspect to memories; this time linking them to space. The apparent longevity of memories gives them a spectral quality, like they are ghosts of past events that can be recalled posthumously. This sentence closely ties memory to space, suggesting that space is a sort of vessel for the memories belonging to it. Thus, memories are not carried away with the individual, but are also rooted in where they took place; the two are inseparable.
"abiding memories..." See in text (Chapter 1)
The reliability of memory and hearsay is another theme in Heart of Darkness that will become more apparent as the novella progresses. Memories are unreliable and subject to change over time as one interprets the past according to their current bias. Some characters interpret memories as fact, and this leads to a sense of ambiguity throughout the novel about what is true and what has been fictionalized.
"an ascetic aspect..." See in text (Chapter 1)
To be “ascetic” is to have strict self-discipline, especially for religious reasons. A religious sort of faith in one’s purpose is a theme that runs throughout the novella. Various characters will use God, spirituality, and a claim to superiority to justify their actions.
"The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell?..." See in text (Chapter 2)
As the boat moves deeper into the "heart of darkness," it is as though Marlow and his companions are moving back in time—back to when humankind was at its most primitive. European colonialists often associated native people with primitive human history as a justification for colonizing their lands—and, of course, enslaving them. Conrad clearly invites us to question this justification.
"purely protective..." See in text (Chapter 2)
The men’s reactions to the attack is described like an animalistic survival mechanism, a bodily response to the situation. Without thinking, the men devolve and turn to the more primal aspects of humanity and thus reject the notions of civil European-ness.
"Who's that grunting?..." See in text (Chapter 2)
In this passage, Marlow’s familiar diction drastically changes, and he seems to go into a trance-like state. His short sentences give his speech a sense of rapidity, and he refers to and questions a mysterious “you.” The jungle (nature) seems to have triggered this, connecting to the theme of nature’s power over man. Nature has a negative effect on Marlow because it is an uncanny reminder of a primeval past that European-ness, its “civility” and customs, seeks to reject.
"The word ivory would ring in the air..." See in text (Chapter 2)
The ivory trade is the reason the Europeans are even in the Congo, and they regard it as a sort of magical good even though it is not physically present in this scene. Although Marlow finds stability in the material world, Conrad suggests that there is a power in the immaterial, the mystical clout of objects. The fact that they are obscure makes them valuable, possibly because it opens up opportunities for people to imagine what they want about these things. Consider how this idea relates to the mysticism surrounding Kurt’s character.
"You remember it..." See in text (Chapter 2)
Conrad suggests that the Europeans’ actions have a haunting longevity, and their violence will have future repercussions. It’s important to note that this ominous statement refers to effects on the mind, the psyche, of the individual. Again, Conrad’s stance on colonialism is ambiguous. While Marlow has continued to make racist remarks against the Congolese, this suggests that he is perhaps opposed to colonialism.
" But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad...." See in text (Chapter 3)
Kurtz is forced to look inward, deep within his soul, and discovers the darkness that resides in every human heart. When Marlow describes Kurtz's struggle as a madness of soul instead of a madness of the mind, he invites us to contemplate a darker side of human nature: the inclination toward selfishness. Kurtz has, in a way, exchanged his soul for power in the Congo—he is idolized by the native people and has become the center of his own world.
"I know that the sunlight can be made to lie too..." See in text (Chapter 3)
Light is usually associated with benevolence and darkness is usually associated with malevolence. In this passage, however, these associations are challenged. Conrad suggests that what we perceive to be right, what is light, is not necessarily transparent, truthful. Think about how this relates to how the Belgians purported that imperialism benefitted the Congolese, when in reality, the business of imperialism negatively affected Congolese society.
"“‘The horror! The horror!’..." See in text (Chapter 3)
There has been much debate about what Kurtz’s last words mean and, considering Conrad’s narrative thus far, it was most likely intended to be ambiguous. Kurtz may be referencing the negative effects of European colonization on the Congo, regretting his own involvement. As he is dying, Kurtz is finally able to reflect on the violence from a distance and recognize the atrocities of Europe’s involvement.