Darkness in Heart of Darkness: Theme & Quotes

Instructor: Wendy A. Garland

Wendy has a Ph.D. in Adult Education and a Master's Degree in Business Management. She has 10 years experience working in higher education.

In this lesson, we will take a look at some important quotes and themes that deal with darkness in Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, which will be divided by topic. Key vocabulary is also addressed.


Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness is a classic work of anti colonialism. As the title may suggest, the book uses darkness throughout in many ways and to convey different messages and symbols. We will now have a look at some of these messages and symbols, and how they help shape Heart Of Darkness.

The Beginning

As we begin Heart Of Darkness, a sailor aboard 'The Nellie' is telling the reader about the ship, glorifying London and all European mastery over nature, while ironically setting up the entire book by saying ''The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back, still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom.'' His positive attitude is about to be drastically contrasted by Marlow, whose story the sailor is about to tell as he heard it.


Shortly after that, Marlow, also on the board, suddenly says ''And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.''

Marlow is referring to England, his homeland. We later learn that Marlow calls England a dark place on earth, because of its colonialism, or taking control of and exploiting a region or country, and how badly it affects the natives of the colonized lands.

But most of the readers of Heart Of Darkness back in early 20th century saw nothing wrong with colonialism, since news and images were not as readily available for everyone as today and generally attitudes were different. Most, including Marlow's aunt, even saw it as charitable to the natives. This ignorance further adds to the darkness of England.

Marlow's Beginning

Our Marlow continues his story, and tells us how as a youngster, he was fascinated by maps and adventure. He particularly wanted to go to the a specific blank spot on the map, the Congo, and travel on the Congo River.

So as a grown man, he uses his aunt's influence and gains an appointment with The Company, trading in African ivory, to captain a steamship up the Congo River. Marlow arrives at The Company's offices to receive his commission, or details of his duties.

He finds the offices in ''A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with Venetian blinds, a dead silence''. A bit ominous, or scary, wouldn't you say? Marlow enters, and is greeted by an odd couple. '' In the outer room'' Marlow observes, ''two women knitted black wool feverishly.''

So what do you think of The Company so far? Its offices are in a dark empty street where windows are all shut, and there are two women knitting black wool as you enter. Not likely to be a happy and kind company, is it?

And that is exactly the point. Our Marlow even supports this impression. ''Often far away there I thought of these two,'' referring to the two knitting women, ''guarding the door of darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall''.

There you have it. The two women were guarding the entrance to darkness, and knitting black wool as if for a pall, or coffin. Yikes! Talk about symbolism.

The Congo

But all this is only in hindsight. Marlow, commission in hand and curiosity still peaked, heads out to the Congo and takes command of his steamship at The Company's Central Station. He sets off up the Congo River. ''the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.''

At this point, Marlow talks about darkness in reference to the depths of the unknown Congo, where the natives have dark skins and the jungle is so dense it blocks everything, including sunlight. This was the mystery and adventure Marlow had been looking for.

However, he begins to regret his curiosity as his mission, the search for the legendary and elusive, or hard to find, Kurtz, takes him deeper and deeper up the river and into the Congo.

On his way, Marlow witnesses the extreme cruelty and inhumanity with which The Company's agents treat the Congolese natives, and his mind begins to change about where exactly is the 'heart of darkness'.


And Marlow finally does find Kurtz, a godlike figure to the natives around him, despite his horrible treatment of them. Kurtz is ill and dying as he is transferred onto Marlow's steamship and carried away, homeward bound.

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