Heart of Darkness Themes

  • Darkness can mean many things: corruption, madness, evil, despair, loneliness, and even ambiguity. The "darkness" at the center of Heart of Darkness is imperialism and colonialism, which elevates Kurtz to a godlike status and oppresses African natives.
  • Alienation and loneliness are pervasive themes in Heart of Darkness. 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.
  • Chaos and order are also important themes in the novel. 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.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 275 words.)