What is the “Heart – or ‘Hearts’ - of Darkness” that Conrad describes, and what is the horror that Kurtz expressed in his dying words? And how do these two images – the heart(s) of...

What is the “Heart – or ‘Hearts’ - of Darkness” that Conrad describes, and what is the horror that Kurtz expressed in his dying words? And how do these two images – the heart(s) of darkness, and the horror(s) – come together in one of the most concise and influential critiques of European imperialism ever written?

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iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The heart (or hearts) of darkness at the center of Joseph Conrad's influential story are up to interpretation, as is the horror (or horrors) that Kurtz references on his deathbed. Indeed, one could argue that Conrad purposefully makes the meanings behind these phrases murky in order to increase the sense of "darkness" in the tale. However, we can generally assume that the heart of darkness is both the physical "heart" or center of white imperialism in Africa and the inherent evil lurking within all human's psyches. Accordingly, the "horror" is the realization of this reality. Both images work together to critique European imperialism by illustrating how participating in colonialism encourages the unchecked growth of evil within men's hearts.

Africa is often known as the "Dark Continent," often for racist reasons, and often simply because, for much of its history, African cultures didn't make it into European dialogues. As such, it was more or less unknown to Europeans, and so we can see Kurtz' station as physically located within an unknown geographical reason, hence the "darkness." By toiling in this location, and by exploiting the natives in relative isolation, Kurtz soon learns that he can do what he likes without any repercussions, and he accordingly becomes drunk with power. The atrocities he perpetrates while managing his trading post drive him mad and ultimately lead to his death, and the "horror" he talks about before he dies refers to the dormant evil that he awakened within himself through the completion of his colonial duties. As such, the "darkness" and the "horror" is brought on by participation in colonialism, and so Conrad ultimately reveals the inherently evil premise behind imperialist ventures.

Kathryn Draney eNotes educator| Certified Educator
  • The heart of darkness that Conrad describes is both the physical "heart" or center of white imperialism in Africa and the inherent evil lurking within all humans.
  • The "horror" that Kurtz expresses in his dying words is the realization of this reality. 
  • The "darkness" and "horror" are both brought on by participation in colonialism, so Conrad ultimately reveals the inherently evil premise behind imperialist ventures.

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Heart of Darkness

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