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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Titles of novels mostly relate to their main themes or motifs. In Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, the theme is the discovery of darkness, not only physical, more pronouncedly moral and spiritual. The word 'heart' signifies the innermost core, and the word 'darkness' refers to the moral-spiritual vacuum that the ivory trader Kutz got himself trapped in.
Conrad weaves a complex narrative in which Marlow tells the story of his visit to the deep dark heart of Congo to see and rescue Kutz from the 'Inner Station'. When after a long and arduous journey from the 'Central Station', Marlow reaches the darkest part of Congo, Kutz is found among the black Africans who attack Marlow's vessel, for they wouldn't allow their god-like Kutz to be taken away. Infirm, indisposed and crawling through the forests, Kutz is rescued. But he succumbs on the way back, uttering the words-'horror! horror!' Perhaps, Kutz could see into the deep darkness of his own mind.
The title "Heart of Darkness" can be interpreted in two different ways:
- In reference to the physical place of the Congo in Africa. Congo is described as the heart of the African continent and a place shrouded in mystery with its savage people and plentiful ivory. Thus, the "heart" refers to the center of the continent where the Congo is located and the "darkness" speaks to the people and uncivil habits of the people.
- in reference to the abstract concept of sin in the human heart. Marlow's story describes many of his expedition peers as morally corrupt. They have no qualms about lying or manipulating so long as they receive the power and wealth they so crave. Thus, the "heart" refers to the human heart and the "darkness" refers to evil or sin.
Heart of Darkness was set in the Belgian Congo. There are a number of ways one can decode the title. Simplistically, Congo is at the heart of Africa - known as the dark continent by authors & the like around 100 years ago. Obviously, the dark continent is linked to the language of colonial exploitation & it is considered bad form to refer to Africa as 'dark' nowadays. The dark heart of Kurtz whose methods & practices have become 'unsound' (Coppola), due to his prolonged exposure to Africa (Europeans widely thought that 'madness' could result if white men who operated in the colonies spent a long time outside the familiar constraints of their own societies, giving rise to concerns that mad Europeans could threaten their image of superiority - read Sadowsky, McCulloch, Vaughan etc.), again, fairly simplistic, but easy to back up. A more radical approach would be to explore the dark hearts of those who tried to legitimise colonialism by claiming that Africans were inferior to Europeans in terms of intellect - the travel writers, anthropologists & ethno-psychiatrists such as Virey, Cuvier, De Blainville & later Carothers. These guys facilitated, rationalised & justified colonialism in the name of pseudo-science concurrently with missionaries in the name of religion. Conrad has been accused of facilitating notions of the inferiority & savagery of Africans (Achebe), although Hearts of Darkness is generally viewed as an indictment of colonialism. Read Sartre's preface in Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, however, be warned, this is controversial stuff & may not be suitable for 12th grade. Probably the safest thing to do is read some scholarly reviews on H of D & remember that darkness can also be seen as not illuminated as in the dark ages where knowledge of what happened through that period was scant.