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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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What is the meaning of the title Heart of Darkness and how does it relate to the story?

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The title can be understood in a number of ways, depending on how you understand the word “darkness.” Here is a short list:

  1. Kurtz’s mysterious encampment is the ”heart” of darkness, the most mysterious place.
  2. The “darkness” is akin to wildness, or nature untamed by man; Marlowe’s journey into...

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The title can be understood in a number of ways, depending on how you understand the word “darkness.” Here is a short list:

  1. Kurtz’s mysterious encampment is the ”heart” of darkness, the most mysterious place.
  2. The “darkness” is akin to wildness, or nature untamed by man; Marlowe’s journey into the jungle is a journey into the “heart” of this wildness.
  3. “Darkness” can also be understood as moral corruption or greed; Marlowe’s journey up the river reveals the Company’s decay as a result of a force for “civilization."
  4. “Darkness” can be thought of as a kind of madness or psychological condition; in this sense, the title might refer to an inward journey from sanity to madness.
  5. ”Darkness” might mean a kind of primitive essence present in all men. The “heart” of this essence lies in Kurtz’s fate.
  6. ”Darkness“ can be understood ironically, in that the “dark” element of the story is the Europeans; the station in this case becomes the “heart” of darkness (or perhaps the Company offices in Belgium); at any rate, Marlowe’s journey becomes a flight away from this “heart.”
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The "heart of darkness" refers to both the enigmatic, foreboding Congolese jungle, as well as humanity's inherent wickedness, which is only suppressed by society's laws and regulations. Throughout the story, Marlow joins the Company and travels to the Congo in hopes of meeting the successful ivory trader named Kurtz. On his journey to the Inner Station, Marlow witnesses inefficiency, corruption, and depravity firsthand. His perception of Europeans as being enlightened individuals is shattered as he begins to understand that darkness is inherent in every man's soul. After meeting Kurtz, Marlow realizes the potentiality of mankind's wickedness. Kurtz was viewed as a god by the natives and used violent means to acquire valuable ivory. Through Kurtz and the Company's actions, Conrad illustrates the depravity and wickedness associated with colonial exploitation, inhumane practices, and crumbling sanity. Void of society's restraints, darkness prevails in each man's heart.

The darkness also applies to the African continent, which was referred to as the "dark continent." The unexplored, mysterious jungle is ominous and "dark." Marlow and his crew travel up the Congo River toward the Inner Station, which is located in the "heart" of the jungle. Marlow's journey can be interpreted as both a journey into the heart of the jungle, as well as mankind's soul.

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The theme of darkness is present throughout the novel, appearing in Marlow's first words: "And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth." He refers to the terrible things he has witnessed in his life, and to the darkness that he believes hides in the inner heart of every man, waiting for release. The first in-text example comes when Marlow overhears a conversation between the Manager and his uncle:

I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river—seemed to beckon with a dishonoring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness, eNotes eText)

The uncle doesn't seem to care about the atrocities that men perform when released from the bonds of civilization as long as his nephew is doing well. Throughout the novel, the imagery of a "heart of darkness" recurs, showing how Marlow comes to believe that every man has the potential for evil inside their hearts, and how it is bound only by civilization and convention. Kurtz is Marlow's prime example, being a person who lost his morality early and now has had his heart and soul all-but consumed by the overpowering darkness of the jungle.

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There are a number of ways to consider the meaning of the title on its own or as it relates to the story.  You may or may not be aware that Africa was frequently referred to as the "Dark Continent," and Conrad was almost certainly aware of that. The darkness of the continent could refer to its unknown quality or the darkness of the people who resided there. (Remember that the book takes place during a period of colonialism and great racism, and "darkness" in this context might very well have racist overtones today.) 

Another interpretation of the title that you might want to consider is the darkness of men's souls, which could refer to their lack of morality, the darkness of insanity, or the cruelty of colonialism. Remember also that this is a trip upriver, and the source of a river might be considered its "heart," hence the destination might be the source or heart of the darkness of Africa or the men who colonized it. 

Darkness might refer to the darkness of the insanity that the narrator finds at his destination, the darkness of the treatment that he observes on his way upriver, or the despair of the Africans who are so horribly mistreated. When you consider the plot of the entire book, there is little that could not be reasonably called dark. 

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Another interpetation of the title can refer to the character of Kurtz and his hunger for power which leads to his ultimate descent into madness. This concept can be related to the adage that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Kurtz was made into a god by the natives but his imperfect humanity was unable to support the weight of that obligation. Conrad makes the obvious point here about potential consequences of the imperialist mandate, but he also is speaking to the deeper notion of man's fundamental drive to be god of his own world and the danger inherent in that quest.

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The title can be understood both literally and symbolically.  Literally, the continent is dark and forboding, with an unexplored heart  (the Congo) in its depths.  Symbolically, the "heart of darkness," is the journey of Marlow and his companions.  Their travels  can be understood as a journey into the exploration of the darkness of the men's souls (sin) , reflected back to them by the "dark continent" which they explore. Their journey out of the Congo can be interpreted as a parallel to man's redemption from sin.   

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Throughout the novel, the motif of a "Heart of Darkness" recurs in Marlow's narration. The first proper mention, although both "hearts" and "dark[ness]" appear earlier, is in Chapter 2, when he overhears a conversation between the Manager and his uncle:

...the profound darkness of its heart.

Later, he cites the title properly, explaining his emotional reaction to the jungle:

We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there.
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness, eNotes eText)

Although there is no literal "heart" or center of the jungle where darkness can be found, Marlow discovers a sort-of literal "heart of darkness" in Kurtz, who is so damaged by his own hubris and ego that he believes himself a god above the native people. In Kurtz, Marlow sees the capacity of every man to become a dictator if given the opportunity, and so recognizes the "dark" potential in his own heart. Essentially, the title refers both to the "dark," or bad, acts that Kurtz has committed in the "heart," or center, of the jungle, and to the potential in all men to justify cruelty if left to their own devices.

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