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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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The main themes of Heart of Darkness include darkness, alienation and loneliness, and chaos and order. 

  • Darkness: Marlow sees “darkness” in the practices of imperialism, though the book maintains the racist implication that it is the uncivilized land and people that led to Europeans’ corruption.
  • Alienation and Loneliness: Kurtz’s isolation in a remote area contributes to his madness. Marlow’s experiences in Africa likewise cause him to feel alienated from other men.
  • Chaos and Order: Colonialism’s false sense of order is contrasted with the chaos of the ivory trade and of African society in general, as Marlow sees it.


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Literal Darkness as Internal Darkness

Darkness shows up in both literal and figurative ways in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. There is the literal darkness, such as the darkness of the night as the men sail out of the Thames, which grows darker as the novel progresses. This darkness resembles the darkness of the Congo, where the sunlight cannot easily penetrate through the jungle canopy. Even when it does, it tends to be blinding, which leads to the same sense of obscured vision. A few key scenes in the novel also take place at night, such as Kurtz’s attempt to escape back to the African villagers.

The literal darkness parallels the psychological darkness of all the characters in the novel. This is most apparent in Kurtz’s character. He is said to have a heart of darkness, although he is supposed to bring virtue and morality to the trading efforts. Despite his ivory-like appearance, Kurtz is consumed by darkness, leading him to say that he is “lying here in the dark waiting for death” even when the light is right next to him. Marlow later calls him a shadow as he waits for Kurtz’s fiancée to answer the door.

The Sins of Imperialism

In Marlow’s account of his travels in the Congo, he is highly skeptical of the European imperialist attitude that the colonization of Africa will improve it. He shows how colonization is no different from conquest, except in the way that it is presented to the European public. Evidence for this view includes Marlow’s introduction to the tale, wherein he remarks that, “It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.”

This blunt indictment of imperialism, veiled in a reference to the Roman conquest of Britain, lays the foundation for the reader to be equally critical of what is said versus what is happening. When Marlow enters the Congo and sees the slave men being led by another white man, he realizes that he is complicit in imperialism. He ironically notes that he “also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings.”

Part of Marlow’s disgust towards imperialism stems from the disconnect he perceives between the alleged mission of the Europeans and their actual actions in the Congo. The Europeans believe that they are bringing order to Africa in the form of civilization, but when Marlow arrives at the European station, all he finds is chaos. The Chief Accountant ignores everything around him in lieu of making sure that the finances are always in order, but the work and supplies are not properly seen to. The Europeans claim civilized superiority, but their actions reveal only a chaotic desire for wealth through any means necessary.

Loneliness and Alienation

Although Marlow and Kurtz are surrounded by people, they are both affected by loneliness and alienation. For Marlow, the alienation begins while he is still in Europe. As he prepares to travel to Africa, the women in black never look him in the eyes. Instead they lead him wordlessly in and out of the director’s office as if he were already condemned to die.

Kurtz’s self-imposed isolation, signaled by his decision to return to the trading post rather than personally deliver the ivory, shows how much he has changed, almost as if he no longer belongs in Europe or around other white men. Marlow spends most of his time alone, working on the boat or attending to the highly engrossing task of navigating the treacherous Congo. His estrangement from what he might consider “normal” life in Europe impacts his emotional stability, especially when he throws his shoes off the steamboat after the helmsman is killed before his eyes.


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Conrad blends many of his recurrent themes in Heart of Darkness. Chief among them are the education of a young man in search of the meaning of self and society in an ambiguous universe, the solitary and necessary reliance upon self, the oppositions of the values of civilization and savagery as well as their intersections, and the oppositions of appearance and reality and of innocence and experience replete with the tensions inherent in those eroding oppositions that blur at times into sameness. In blending all of these themes into his narrative Conrad also molds them into his habitual and overarching theme of tale-telling, the communication of experience and a sense of reality, the ruminations of a narrator attempting to sort out reality so that his listeners may see it, and the power and imperfections of language as the instrument of thought.

This is a tale of many voyages. The voyage into the heart of an immense darkness is a voyage into the collective unconsciousness of the human race, a quest after the meaning of intelligent life in an alien and brutal universe. The voyage is also a descent into the underworld, not unlike the journeys in Virgil and Dante. This voyage is also one of self-discovery as Charlie Marlow attempts, many years later, to continue to make sense of his experience and to communicate his self-exploration to his listeners on board the yawl Nellie. Finally, there is the emotional voyage of one of Marlow's listeners, who is the chief narrator of the work and whose narrative frames Marlow's. He bears the burden of the inward voyage of one attempting to make sense of Marlow's discoveries.


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Alienation and Loneliness
Throughout Heart of Darkness, which tells of a journey into the heart of the Belgian Congo and out again, the themes of alienation, loneliness, silence and solitude predominate. The book begins and ends in silence, with men first waiting for a tale to begin and then left to their own thoughts after it has concluded. The question of what the alienation and loneliness of extended periods of time in a remote and hostile environment can do to men's minds is a central theme of the book. The doctor who measures Marlow's head prior to his departure for Africa warns him of changes to his personality that may be produced by a long stay in-country. Prolonged silence and solitude are seen to have damaging effects on many characters in the book. Among these are the late Captain Fresleven, Marlow's predecessor, who was transformed from a gentle soul into a man of violence, and the Russian, who has been alone on the River for two years and dresses bizarrely and chatters constantly. But loneliness and alienation have taken their greatest toll on Kurtz, who, cut off from all humanizing influence, has forfeited the restraints of reason and conscience and given free rein to his most base and brutal instincts.

Deception, or hypocrisy, is a central theme of the novel and is explored on many levels. In the disguise of a ‘‘noble cause,’’ the Belgians have exploited the Congo. Actions taken in the name of philanthropy are merely covers for greed. Claiming to educate the natives, to bring them religion and a better way of life, European colonizers remained to starve, mutilate, and murder the indigenous population for profit. Marlow has even obtained his captaincy through deception, for his aunt misrepresented him as ‘‘an exceptional and gifted creature.’’ She also presented him as ‘‘one of the Workers, with a capital [W] … something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle,’’ and Conrad notes the deception in elevating working people to some mystical status they can not realistically obtain. At the end of the book, Marlow engages in his own deception when he tells Kurtz's fiancée the lie that Kurtz died with her name on his lips.

Order and Disorder
Conrad sounds the themes of order and disorder in showing, primarily through the example of the Company's chief clerk, how people can carry on with the most mundane details of their lives while all around them chaos reigns. In the larger context, the Company attends to the details of sending agents into the interior to trade with the natives and collect ivory while remaining oblivious to the devastation such acts have caused. Yet on a closer look, the Company's Manager has no talent for order or organization. His station is in a deplorable state, and Marlow can see no reason for the Manager to have his position other than the fact that he is never ill. On the other hand, the chief clerk is so impeccably dressed that when Marlow first meets him he thinks he is a vision. This man, who has been in-country three years and witnessed all its attendant horrors, manages to keep his clothes and books in excellent order. He even speaks with confidence of a Council of Europe which intended Kurtz to go far in ‘‘the administration,’’ as if there is some overall rational principle guiding their lives.

Sanity and Insanity
Closely linked to the themes of order and disorder are those of sanity and insanity. Madness, given prolonged exposure to the isolation of the wilderness, seems an inevitable extension of chaos. The atmospheric influences at the heart of the African continent—the stifling heat, the incessant drums, the whispering bush, the mysterious light—play havoc with the unadapted European mind and reduce it either to the insanity of thinking anything is allowable in such an atmosphere or, as in Kurtz's case, to literal madness. Kurtz, after many years in the jungle, is presented as a man who has gone mad with power and greed. No restraints were placed on him—either from above, from a rule of law, or from within, from his own conscience. In the wilderness, he came to believe he was free to do whatever he liked, and the freedom drove him mad. Small acts of madness line Marlow's path to Kurtz: the Man-of-War that fires into the bush for no apparent reason, the urgently needed rivets that never arrive, the bricks that will never be built, the jig that is suddenly danced, the immense hole dug for no discernible purpose. All these events ultimately lead to a row of impaled severed human heads and Kurtz, a man who, in his insanity, has conferred a godlike status on himself and has ritual human sacrifices performed for him. The previously mentioned themes of solitude and silence have here achieved their most powerful effect: they have driven Kurtz mad. He is presented as a voice, a disembodied head, a mouth that opens as if to devour everything before him. Kurtz speaks of ‘‘my ivory … my intended … my river … my station,’’ as if everything in the Congo belonged to him. This is the final arrogant insanity of the white man who comes supposedly to improve a land, but stays to exploit, ravage, and destroy it.

Duty and Responsibility
As is true of all other themes in the book, those of duty and responsibility are glimpsed on many levels. On a national level, we are told of the British devotion to duty and efficiency that led to systematic colonization of large parts of the globe and has its counterpart in Belgian colonization of the Congo, the book's focus. On an individual level, Conrad weaves the themes of duty and responsibility through Marlow's job as captain, a position that makes him responsible for his crew and bound to his duties as the boat's commander. There are also the jobs of those with whom Marlow comes into contact on his journey. In Heart of Darkness, duty and responsibility revolve most often about how one does one's work. A job well done is respected; simply doing the work one is responsible for is an honorable act. Yet Conrad does not believe in romanticizing the worker. Workers can often be engaged in meaningless tasks, as illustrated in the scene where the Africans blast away at the rock face in order to build a railway, but the rock is not altered by the blasts and the cliff is not at all in the way. The Company's Manager would seem to have a duty to run his business efficiently, but he cannot keep order, and although he is obeyed, he is not respected. The Foreman, however, earns Marlow's respect for being a good worker. Marlow admires the way the Foreman ties up his waist-length beard when he has to crawl in the mud beneath the steamboat to do his job. (Having a waist-length beard in a jungle environment can be seen as another act of madness, even from an efficient worker.) Section I of the novel ends with Marlow speculating on how Kurtz would do his work. But there is a larger sense in which the themes of work and responsibility figure. Marlow says, ‘‘I don't like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself.’’ It is through the work (or what passes for it) that Kurtz does in Africa that his moral bankruptcy is revealed. For himself, Marlow emerges with a self-imposed duty to remain loyal to Kurtz, and it is this responsibility that finally forces him to lie to Kurtz's fiancée.

Doubt and Ambiguity
As reason loses hold, doubt and ambiguity take over. As Marlow travels deeper inland, the reality of everything he encounters becomes suspect. The perceptions, motivations, and reliability of those he meets, as well as his own, are all open to doubt. Conrad repeatedly tells us that the heat and light of the wilderness cast a spell and put those who would dare venture further into a kind of trancelike state. Nothing is to be taken at face value. After the Russian leaves, Marlow wonders if he ever actually saw him.

The central ambiguity of Heart of Darkness is Kurtz himself. Who is he? What does he do? What does he actually say? Those who know him speak again and again of his superb powers of rhetoric, but the reader hears little of it. The Russian says he is devoted to Kurtz, and yet we are left to wonder why. Kurtz has written a report that supposedly shows his interest in educating the African natives, but it ends with his advice, ‘‘Exterminate all the brutes!’’ Marlow has heard that Kurtz is a great man, yet he suspects he is ‘‘hollow to the core.’’ In Marlow's estimation, if Kurtz was remarkable it was because he had something to say at the end of his life. But what he found to say was ‘‘the horror!’’ After Kurtz's death, when various people come to Marlow representing themselves as having known Kurtz, it seems none of them really knew him. Was he a painter, a writer, a great musician, a politician, as he is variously described? Marlow settles for the ambiguous term ‘‘universal genius," which would imply Kurtz was whatever one wanted to make of him.

Race and Racism
The subject of racism is not really treated by Conrad as a theme in Heart of Darkness as much as it is simply shown to be the prevailing attitude of the day. The African natives are referred to as ‘‘niggers,’’ ‘‘cannibals,’’ ‘‘criminals,’’ and ‘‘savages.’’ European colonizers see them as a subordinate species and chain, starve, rob, mutilate, and murder them without fear of punishment. The book presents a damning account of imperialism as it illustrates the white man's belief in his innate right to come into a country inhabited by people of a different race and pillage to his heart's content.

Kurtz is writing a treatise for something called the ‘‘International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.’’ This implies the existence of a worldwide movement to subjugate all nonwhite races. Kurtz bestows a kind of childlike quality upon the Africans by saying that white people appear to them as supernatural beings. The natives do, indeed, seem to have worshipped Kurtz as a god and to have offered up human sacrifices to him. This innocence proceeds, in Kurtz's view, from an inferior intelligence and does not prevent him from concluding that the way to deal with the natives is to exterminate them all.

Early in his journey, Marlow sees a group of black men paddling boats. He admires their naturalness, strength, and vitality, and senses that they want nothing from the land but to coexist with it. This notion prompts him to believe that he still belongs to a world of reason. The feeling is short-lived, however, for it is not long before Marlow, too, comes to see the Africans as some subhuman form of life and to use the language of his day in referring to them as ‘‘creatures,’’ ‘‘niggers,’’ ‘‘cannibals,’’ and ‘‘savages.’’ He does not protest or try to interfere when he sees six Africans forced to work with chains about their necks. He calls what he sees in their eyes the ‘‘deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.’’ Marlow exhibits some humanity in offering a dying young African one of the ship's biscuits, and although he regrets the death of his helmsman, he says he was ‘‘a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.’’ It is not the man he misses so much as his function as steersman. Marlow refers to the ‘‘savage who was fireman’’ as ‘‘an improved specimen.’’ He compares him, standing before his vertical boiler, to ‘‘a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.’’

Violence and Cruelty
The violence and cruelty depicted in Heart of Darkness escalate from acts of inhumanity committed against the natives of the Belgian Congo to ‘‘unspeakable’’ and undescribed horrors. Kurtz (representing European imperialists) has systematically engaged in human plunder. The natives are seen chained by iron collars abut their necks, starved, beaten, subsisting on rotten hippo meat, forced into soul-crushing and meaningless labor, and finally ruthlessly murdered. Beyond this, it is implied that Kurtz has had human sacrifices performed for him, and the reader is presented with the sight of a row of severed human heads impaled on posts leading to Kurtz's cabin. Conrad suggests that violence and cruelty result when law is absent and man allows himself to be ruled by whatever brutal passions lie within him. Consumed by greed, conferring upon himself the status of a god, Kurtz runs amok in a land without law. (©2004 Under such circumstances, anything is possible, and what Conrad sees emerging from the situation is the profound cruelty and limitless violence that lies at the heart of the human soul.

Moral Corruption
The book's theme of moral corruption is the one to which, like streams to a river, all others lead. Racism, madness, loneliness, deception and disorder, doubt and ambiguity, violence and cruelty—culminate in the moral corruption revealed by Kurtz's acts in the Congo. Kurtz has cast off reason and allowed his most base and brutal instincts to rule unrestrained. He has permitted the evil within him to gain the upper hand. Kurtz's appalling moral corruption is the result not only of external forces, such as the isolation and loneliness imposed by the jungle, but also, Conrad suggests, of forces that lie within all men and await the chance to emerge. Kurtz perhaps realizes the depth of his own moral corruption when, as he lays dying, he utters, ‘‘The horror! The horror!’’ Marlow feels this realization transferred to himself and understands that he too, living in a lawless state, is capable of sinking into the depths of moral corruption The savage nature of man is thus reached at the end of the journey, not upriver, but into his own soul.

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