Heart of Darkness Themes
by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness book cover
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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...

(The entire section is 3,260 words.)