Significance of the Title Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad's most read novella Heart of Darkness has double meaning in its title. One dictionary meaning is that the title refers to the interior of the Africa called Congo. Another hidden meaning is, the title stands for the darkness or the primitiveness that every person possesses in his or her mind and heart.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

The etymological meaning of the phrase Heart of Darkness is the innermost region of the territory which is yet to be explored, where people led the nomadic and primitive way of living. The setting time of the novel Heart of Darkness dates back to those periods when the continent of Africa was not fully explored. So the continent was called the heart of darkness. The major and significant events of the novel take place in the Dark Continent, though the first and the end of the story takes place outside the continent. The central character, Kurtz, comes under the influence of the savages and becomes one of them in the same dark place called Congo. The savages and Kurtz, in fact, belong to the heart of darkness.

The description of the scenery by Marlow adds something vital meaning to the title of the novel. The wild scene, thick and impenetrable jungle, the pictures of the natives hiding in the dense jungle, the silence and the dangerous stillness of the river Congo, the thick fog, all these features are suggestive to the title  Heart of Darkness. The outer physical setting intensifies the horror and the fear among the readers. The reading about the description of the natives and their way of appearing in the novel bring the terrific effect in the mind of the reader.

On one occasion, Marlow is attacked by the natives in his steamer. In that attack the helmsman is killed. The natives attack the steamer of Marlow not knowing why he is there, but in the ignorance. The ignorance and backwardness of the savages, the purposeless attack creates the feeling like being in the midst of the heart of darkness. The attack to the steamer is planned by Kurtz, who has become one savage living with the natives. He becomes more barbaric than the inhabitants. The essence of savagery, brutality and cruelty sums up in the existence of Kurtz. Kurtz's mission was to civilize the natives, to educate them, to improve their way of living and the important one is to bring the light into their lives and into that dark territory. But he ends in converting himself into the savages, and the most striking thing is that he has set himself like a god in that Dark Continent. He starts following their unspeakable rites. He does any brutal raids for the sake of collection of ivory. According to Marlow, Kurtz has become a devil being failure to control his moral restraint. He lets his inner self, the primitive self, dance freely in the lap of darkness and becomes the representatives of the darkness. His superstition and evil has become the embodiment of darkness. Psychologically, Kurtz is the symbol of everyman's darkness which is veiled under the curtain of civilization. Kurtz is the heart of darkness.

The term heart of darkness stands for another meaning too. The journey of Kurtz and Marlow to explore the interior of the Dark Continent called Congo is not only the physical search of some the territory, but it is an exploration of the innermost part of the human mind and the human heart. The geographical search is comparatively easier than the search of one's self, one's Dark Continent. Both Kurtz and Marlow are in an implied sense in the journey to find their dark region of mind and heart. In case of Kurtz, he cannot hold the mystical and attractive power of his savagery self, his suppressed primitive self and gives in. He fails to control his moral restraint. He submits to the dark side of his personality and becomes one savage. He reaches to the heart of darkness, but cannot resist its power upon him and he cannot come back from his subconscious state of mind. But in the case of Marlow, he too travels to the heart of darkness, the subconscious. He reaches there and witnesses the heavy influence of primitive self on Kurtz. He notices that he has become totally a devil, deviating from his main aim to civilize the savages. Marlow, despite the truth that Kurtz has been transformed into the barbaric self, praises him and is attracted towards him. He has fallen a near prey to the primitiveness. But, amazingly, he does not submit himself to the savagery self of his subconscious. He reaches to the heart of darkness, witnesses the transformation of Kurtz, and gets to know the irresistible power of barbaric hidden self, praises it and again comes back to the light of civilization.  He is so able to control his morality and spirituality. His journey to Africa is, symbolically, exploration of the dark side of human life, either psychologically, or morally and or spiritually.

A critic commenting upon the title of the novel, Heart of Darkness, states that the darkness here is many things: it is the unknown, it is the subconscious, it is the moral darkness, it is the evil which swallows up Kurtz, and it is the spiritual emptiness, which he sees at the center of the existence, but above all it is a mystery itself, the mysteriousness of man's spiritual life.