Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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What is the main theme in the story Heart of Darkness? What is it that the author is trying to tell us because this story is somehow confusing.

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James Phillips eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The Heart of Darkness is a short novel by Joseph Conrad. It was first published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. It tells the story of Marlow and his time working as a riverboat pilot in the Belgian Congo.

There are a number of significant themes in the novel: Loneliness, Colonialism, Corruption, Work, Racism, Deception, Violence, and Sanity. The theme which I will consider here is loneliness. In particular, I will focus on what extended alienation and solitude can do to a man’s personality and sanity.

Many of the characters in the story are affected negatively by the silence and solitude. Captain Fresleven, once a very gentle man, becomes violent, and the Russian man begins to act and speak in a bizarre fashion. Kurtz is greatly changed as he forgets his basic principles and becomes a greedy, savage man with no conscience. Kurtz only wants power, money, and to be worshipped:

Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.

Marlow first experiences isolation when he visits Brussels for his interview. Although he is European, he feels alienated during his time in the city. He also spends much of his time alone on the boat, and his time away from home affects him in such a way that on his return he is no longer able to relate to the people around him.

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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People will disagree about this, but it is my opinion that the heart of darkness in the book is the darkness that inhabits a nation that colonizes another nation.  This is shown on many levels throughout the story.  For example, in each encounter, Marlowe finds colonials who try to keep up appearances, but who cannot stop the "rot" within them.  That rot is shown throughout the book in the inability of the colonials to truly conquer Africa, and ultimately, of course, in Kurz's madness.  It is the conquers who are conquered by their attempt to dominate another land and another people, with ignorance and inhumanity.