Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness book cover
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At a Glance

  • Darkness: Darkness is used to symbolize many things in this book: corruption, unruliness, madness, evil, despair, and loneliness. The use of "darkness" in the title also implicitly refers to the darker color of the native Africans' skin compared to the Europeans, and it refers to what Marlow sees as the uncivilized and unruly nature of African society and land. As the story develops, Marlow sees the "darkness" in the corrupt practices of imperialism and colonialism, though the book maintains the racist implication that it is the uncivilized land and people that led to the Europeans' corruption, rather than fully critiquing the bias and brutality of the European attitude towards Africans.
  • Alienation and Loneliness: Kurtz's isolation in a remote area of Africa contributes to his growing madness, which causes him to lose touch with reality. Marlow's experiences in Africa cause him to feel alienated from other men. Additionally, the native Africans are treated as alien, or other, by Marlow in the novel. They almost never speak, they are portrayed as near-animals, and they exist in the story as a backdrop for Marlow's existential journey.
  • Chaos and Order: Imperialism by nature attempts to impose a foreign order on native systems of governance and self-rule. 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. Marlow believes colonialism and imperialism have failed in the Congo due to corruption, and he sees in African people and the "untamed land" of Africa the potential for chaos that he believes European societies, in their homelands, have overcome. Marlow clearly holds a biased view of Europeans as superior to Africans, though his story reveals a belief that Europeans have the potential to return to the chaos they came from when in contact with uncivilized places. 

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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.”

(The entire section is 3,260 words.)