Heart of Darkness Analysis

  • Heart of Darkness is structured as a story within a story. In the frame narrative, Marlow is sitting on the deck of a ship with three other men, relating the events of his trip up the Congo River. This journey forms the central narrative of the novel.
  • Conrad tackles themes of imperialism and colonialism in Heart of Darkness. Both Kurtz and Marlow are white outsiders benefiting off the exploitation and denigration of African natives. The language Conrad uses (including racial epithets) reinforces the evils and the inhumanity of colonialism.
  • Kurtz himself is a symbol of Western civilization. His descent into madness comes after many years of imperialism, which brings out evils in him that might not otherwise have surfaced. His mental deterioration symbolizes the decay of Western civilization.

Analysis

Point of View
Heart of Darkness is framed as a story within a story. The point of view belongs primarily to Charlie Marlow, who delivers the bulk of the narrative, but Marlow's point of view is in turn framed by that of an unnamed narrator who provides a first-person description of Marlow telling his story. The point of view can also be seen in a third consciousness in the book, that of Conrad himself, who tells the entire tale to the reader, deciding as author which details to put in and which to leave out. Beyond these three dominant points of view are the individual viewpoints of the book's major characters. Each has a different perspective on Kurtz. These perspectives are often conflicting and are always open to a variety of interpretations. Whose point of view is to be trusted? Which narrator and which character is reliable? Conrad leaves these questions to the reader to answer, accounting for the book's complexity and multilayered meanings.

Setting
The novel takes place in the 1890s and begins on a boat sitting in the River Thames, which leads from London to the sea, waiting for the tide to turn. Marlow's story takes the reader briefly onto the European continent (Belgium) and then deep into Africa by means of a trip up the Congo River to what was then called the Belgian Congo, and back to Europe again. The Congo is described as a place of intense mystery whose stifling heat, whispering sounds, and strange shifts of light and darkness place the foreigner in a kind of trance that produces fundamental changes in the brain, causing acts that range from the merely bizarre to the most extreme and irrational violence.

Structure
The book's structure is cyclical, both in geography and chronology. It begins in the 1890s, goes back several years, and returns to the present. The voyage describes almost a perfect circle, beginning in Europe, traveling into the heart of the African continent, coming out again, and returning almost to the exact spot at which it began. The novel was originally published in serial form, breaking off its segments at...

(The entire section is 867 words.)