Themes in Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad's works generally deal with the themes of pursuit of meaning in a mysterious world, the separation of self in the new society, and the struggle between the civilization and barbarity. In his famous novella Heart of Darkness, he deals with some important themes like, colonialism and its effect, a journey to self-discovery, pretenses of colonialism, and the meaninglessness of evil.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

One prime theme of Conrad in Heart of Darkness is colonialism and its effect on the Whites and the nonwhites. In the narration of Marlow, Conrad mentions the Roman conquest and thereby establishes the truth that the colonialism existed since the early period of human civilization. In the novel, Kurtz, who is extremely hungry for the power and position, colonizes the interior of Africa called Congo. An individual's lust for wealth and possession, and a desire to suppress others can create colonialism. In the name of civilizing and educating the natives, Kurtz is exercising his immense power to dominate them: physically, economically, and even sexually. He justifies his deed under the cover saying that he is bringing light in the lives of savages, but the irony is that he is overshadowed by the darkness of his own self, the primitive self. The two symbols that the narrator mentions 'the sword' and 'the torch' refers to the ruthless force and the denial of the native culture by the pseudo light of civilization. Marlow's aunt has an idealistic opinion of imperialism. She is pleased and overjoyed thinking that she has become one part of the mission of civilization by sending Marlow as a 'worker' to the service of the trading Company. She is of the opinion that the major objective of the colonization is to civilize the nonwhites of the interior of Africa.

We can see the adverse effects of so called civilizing mission, and the colonialism on the lives of whites and the nonwhites. Kurtz, one representative of white, cannot restrain his moral self in the process of colonizing and has himself become one of the savages. He has forgotten the prime motive of travelling to Africa and instead of educating the nonwhites, he himself has become a corrupted one. He surrenders himself to the suppressed darkness of heart, his own primitive self which is more barbaric than the natives. But another white, Marlow too has travelled to the same dark place, but he proves himself more reasonable. He is untouched by the effects of the prevailing darkness of Africa, though enchanted by its mystical power. He learns the great lesson from the conversion of Kurtz and comes back to the world of light, one civilized world. The nonwhites are geographically exploited in the name of colonization; their territory is taken into the control of whites, which results in the restriction of their physical freedom. They are economically sucked and the women of the nonwhites are sexually subjugated. The natural beauty of the lands of the natives is destroyed in the name of making railroads and planned settlement. In this way, it is justifiable to say that colonialism is not at all right both for the whites and the nonwhites.

Another equally important theme is a journey to the self-discovery.  Heart of Darkness is undoubtedly the story of a journey within. Marlow's journey and Kurtz's journey to Congo, and African Country is basically a journey to the Congo of our mind. Literally speaking both Kurtz and Marlow reached Congo at different time in their life. The novel narrates the journey to Congo. By narrating the outer journey to Congo the novelist indirectly hints at the inner Journey. It is said that everyone carries within him/her own Congo. As an outer Congo is full of fear, terror, savagery and forces of temptation, so is our Congo full of dark forces. To reach the bottom-line of our inner Congo it is, according to Conrad, necessary to make an outer journey to literal Congo. Our Congo is a manifestation of inner Congo. By reaching a geographic Congo by making an outer journey, it is possible to reach the center of our inner Congo. Kurtz descended into the subconscious. But he failed to take control of it. He failed to handle the operation of dark forces from the level of his subconscious. Kurtz unconsciously descended into the realm of the subconscious. That is why he can't return from it. On the contrary, Kurtz was devoured by the dark forces in the subconscious. Marlowe's journey within is somewhat different. Unlike Kurtz Marlow descended into the subconscious with full awareness with a strict sense of self restraint and with a sense of unflinching and unwavering loyalty to a standard of norm. That is why he did not become a puppet in the hand of subconscious forces. He made an inner journey cautiously because he had made a cautious outer journey to Congo. Due to his durable moral goodness, Marlow even tried to save Kurtz from his inner malaise.

The pretense of colonialism is another vital theme of Conrad's novel. The description of the scene provides sufficient facts that the natives and their land and resources are unnecessarily exploited by the so called agents of civilization. The people who work for the Company state that whatever they do is a trade, and their way of treating to the natives are work of compassion. But actually what they do is colonize and their inhuman and harsh treatment is suppression to the nonwhites of the inner land. Kurtz does not hide the truth from Marlow and says that he does not tame and civilize the natives, but suppresses them and he forcefully takes ivory from them. He even expresses his hatred in the phrase “Exterminate all the brutes”. It is not his benevolent service to the backward people, but his domination. The natives are treated and addressed merely as an object. The helmsman of the steamer is a part of the machine and the African mistress of Kurtz is a piece of statuary. This is an extreme type of dehumanization of the nonwhites. The mission of the whites to civilize and educate the nonwhites are like sugar coated pills which is outwardly sweet but inwardly too bitter to digest.

The last but not the least theme of the novel is meaninglessness of the evil. The aimless firing in the forest and the purposeless bombing of the rocks are futility of the works that the whites are carrying on in the African interiors. The dying and the starved natives are the symbols of the negligence and indifference of whites towards the natives. The sights of wretchedness and misery of natives of the Congo clearly show the futility of the White man's seemingly useful work. Marlow sees a lot of black people some are naked, some are ill, some are chained, some are on the death bed, and some are starved and diseased. The chained are criminals who have violated the rules set by whites and soon they will face the death penalty. By showing such situation of Congo, it is made obvious that the white man's indifference and unconcern are the main cause for the degradation of the black natives. Nowhere do we find any mention of any service being rendered by the Whites to the natives. This is an irony to the white man's so called 'mission to civilize the natives' and 'the white man's burden'.