Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Kristen Over, Associate Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, explains the themes in Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness.

Heart of Darkness | Themes


The themes in Heart of Darkness arise from Conrad's preoccupations with diction and language. His descriptions are thick with the repetitions of words and their close synonyms—as in fog, haze, and glow, for example. Many critics have also noted the role of Polish syntax in Conrad's execution of English.


Literary critics are divided regarding whether Marlow and the other white characters in the novella are racist or whether the central racism of the story comes from Conrad himself. Whichever is correct, Heart of Darkness echoes the racism of the time, and racism becomes a primary theme of the novella.

Marlow shows more sympathy for the plight of the native people than he does for the Company people who pilfer the land. Nonetheless, he makes racist statements throughout the text. For example, as he pilots the steamer and hears drums and cries coming from the banks of the river, he says the boat is gliding past the noise, generated by Africans hidden in the jungle, "as sane men would before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse." He is frightened by what he cannot understand. He often calls the native people "savages" and describes the steamer's fireman, who tends the boiler, as "an improved specimen," casting judgment on the man based on European ideals. At one point Marlow reveals that he has not previously thought of the native people as human beings, a revelation made when he suggests he might have been wrong: "that was the worse of it," he considers, "this suspicion of their not being inhuman."

Some critics argue that Conrad was not racist but that, through his racist character, Marlow, he reveals the racist viewpoints of Company agents and of imperialism more broadly. Others, including the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (1930–2013), disagree. Achebe argues that, because Conrad rarely provides native characters with speech or other human traits, he—the writer—does not view Africans as human. A major point in support of the position that Conrad was racist is the fact that the book's central focus is Kurtz and his fate in Africa. In this view, by focusing on one white man's fall from grace—indeed, by presenting him as in some sense the victim of Africa—Conrad overlooks the terrible tragedies colonization wreaked on millions of African people.

Another important issue is the question of who should speak for the oppressed. Is Conrad, as a white man, capable of speaking for the oppressed? Or must one be oppressed to tell the story of oppression? Readers of Heart of Darkness must form their own answers to this question and how Conrad's work reflects on that issue.

Greed and Imperialism

While the stated goal of the Company is to civilize native people, its true goal is to exploit Africa's resources and convert them into European profits. While there is talk back in Belgium of the civilizing mission, and while Kurtz prepares his report for the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, the focus of the Europeans in Africa is on securing ivory. The Company Accountant approves of Kurtz because he sends back more ivory than other agents; he cares neither about Kurtz's methods nor any civilizing activity he may or may not undertake. Greed is not just a corporate trait; it is also personal. The manager of the Central Station worries that Kurtz's success threatens his own advancement and opportunity to make money. The manager's uncle leads the Eldorado Exploring Expedition into the jungle in hopes of gaining his riches for himself.

Greed is not only for money. Kurtz has an insatiable greed for power, and, when his followers feed his ego by worshipping him as they would a god, he becomes corrupt. Marlow remembers Kurtz speaking of "my Intended, my ivory, my station, my river" and adds "everything belonged to him." That, of course, is the essence of the imperialistic attitude: the native peoples of a place have no right to the land where they live or its resources. Everything belongs to the power that can take it.

Hypocrisy and Indifference

The Company is recalling Kurtz apparently because they find his methods, though they are never discussed or detailed, to be excessively brutal. Yet Company officials overlook their own ruthlessness and brutality in pursuit of ivory. Some in Europe, like Marlow's aunt, believe that the Company represents Christian moral values. In joining the Company, Marlow becomes, in her eyes, "something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle." Even before he goes to Africa, though, Marlow knows better and tries to correct his aunt: "I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit." All of the Company agents Marlow encounters in Africa demonstrate that is the overwhelming motivation. They are indifferent to the suffering they impose on the people around them.

Civilization versus Barbarism

Believing that they come from a more civilized culture, the agents of the Company consistently behave in a barbaric manner. They believe they are more civilized than the Africans they encounter because they live in cities, travel in steam-powered trains and ships, wear Western clothes, and have proper manners. Yet these supposedly civilized Europeans can easily fall into savagery in uncivilized Africa. Fresleven, the Danish captain who Marlow is to replace, was "the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs" until he snapped and repeatedly beat an African village chief because he felt he had been cheated. Marlow is not surprised: "he had been a couple of years already" in Africa. The Company doctor tells Marlow, during his examination of the recently hired captain, that Europeans who go to Africa experience changes that "take place inside" the mind. Kurtz, Marlow concludes, was driven to madness by the darkness and solitude of the place.

While Marlow presents European brutality, he does not show the supposedly uncivilized Africans as particularly brutal. Fresleven is killed by the chief's son defending his father, hardly a horrific act. The steamer's crew, whom Marlow says are cannibals, want to eat the body of the dead helmsman, but Marlow doesn't really criticize them for that. He recognizes that they are starving. While the boat is attacked when it nears the Inner Station, the reason is simply that Kurtz's followers don't want him taken away. Though the followers at the station seem threatening, they don't do anything to harm Marlow or the other white people on the steamer. Who, then, is civilized, and who is barbarous?

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