Themes and Characters

Heart of Darkness is a tale of many voyages. Charlie Marlow’s voyage into the depths of the “Dark Continent” parallels his voyage into the heart of an immense darkness, into the collective unconsciousness of the human race. At the end of his quest Marlow hopes to find Mr. Kurtz and through him learn the meaning of intelligent life in an alien and brutal universe; instead the voyage becomes a descent into an underworld in which Kurtz is both captive and creator, and from which Marlow barely escapes. Many years later, as Marlow tells his story to listeners on the yawl Nellie, one of his listeners, whose narrative frames Marlow’s, takes on the burden of attempting to make sense of Marlow’s discoveries.

Conrad has referred to all his novels and short stories as “autobiography as fiction.” Heart of Darkness is based upon the author’s journey of 1890, first aboard the Ville de Maceio from France to the Belgian Congo and then on the SS Roi des Belges up the Congo River. Conrad narrates the story through both the “frame” narrator and Marlow, a veteran sailor who, like his listeners-the Director of Companies, the lawyer, the accountant and the unnamed narrator-has spent his life at sea. Conrad, whose own father died when he was young, employed Marlow-an older and widely experienced father figure-as the principal narrator of several of his works of fiction in addition to Heart of Darkness, among them Youth and Lord Jim. A sometimes talkative and opinionated man, who is also a wise and ironic sage, Marlow charts the regions of Conrad’s experiences, sensations, and ideas.

The much-heralded Kurtz is the object of Marlow’s speculations, aspirations, and anticipations as he journeys up the Congo. Enshrined by the Belgians back home as a being of supreme intellectual power and the principal representative of the forces of civilization in the Congo, Kurtz in fact demands worship from the natives and both instigates and partakes in unspeakably savage rites. The actual Kurtz and the idealized Kurtz are aptly reflected by the two women with whom he is romantically linked. Kurtz’s African woman, sensual and wild, is an appropriate companion for the real Kurtz; his “Intended” in Belgium is one of the living dead in the heart of another darkness, civilization.

Many of the Themes present in Heart of Darkness are trademarks of Conrad’s work. Chief among them are the search for meaning in an ambiguous universe, the isolation of the self in an alienating society, and the conflict between civilization and savagery, appearance and reality, innocence and experience. Conrad blends these concerns into his narrative, molding them into the overarching theme of tale-telling: the communication of experience, the narrator’s struggle to convey a sense of reality to listeners, and the power and imperfections of language as an instrument of thought.

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