Evil 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, the portrayal of evil in Joseph Conrad's ~'Heart Of Darkness~' will be examined. The lesson will then conclude with a short summary and a quiz.


In his classic book Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad deals with many themes. One of the most important of these themes is evil. It is presented as a concept, as well as personified, or given human form, in certain characters in the story.

Conrad's extensive use of darkness throughout the novel, including in the title, represent the pervasiveness of evil in the story. However, darkness often has more than one meaning in Heart Of Darkness. We will have a look at all these points, and discuss evil in Conrad's masterpiece.

Darkness Everywhere

As one would expect from the title, the theme of darkness is used often in Heart Of Darkness. Early on in the book, Marlow describes his native England while sitting on the Thames in the anchors boat Nellie. He says England has ''also has been one of the dark places of the earth.''

Marlow is reflecting on his yet untold story, referring to England's atrocious colonial practices, after having witnessed its direct and indirect effects on the colonized people and land, as well as the colonizers themselves. This is one of Conrad's depiction, or presentation, of darkness to represent evil.

As Marlow begins his story, we learn that ever since childhood, he had wanted to visit a particular unexplored area of Africa, namely the Congo. He finally gets his chance to do so as a young man. However, Marlow says that''by this time it was not a blank space any more.'', and '' it had become a place of darkness.''. This time, darkness is meant to represent the danger and mystery of lesser known parts of Africa perceived by the colonizers.

A bit later, Marlow tells of the first time he went to the offices of The Company to receive his commission. The Company headquarters sat in ''A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence''. Once again, darkness and shadow are used to create an uneasy atmosphere for both Marlow and the readers.

That uneasy feeling is compounded, or added to, when Marlow enters the building. He is greeted by ''Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool.'' This time, the color black is used to give off a sense of the evil spirit of The Company.

Further reinforcing this evil feeling is when Marlow points out the memorability of that scene. ''Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall'' Even when far away in the Congo, Marlow remembers the women knitting something with black wool that could be used for a pall, or coffin.

Other Faces Of Evil

Conrad does not limit his personification of evil to darkness and shadow. For example, he shows greed as a major source of the evil of colonization.

This is evident from his first impression of the Outer Station in Congo: ''The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.''

Marlow is amazed by the imbecile rapacity, or idiotic greed, that the white people exhibited at the Outer Station. He likened it to the stench of the dead elephants' rotten carcasses. It was clear to him that The Company's agents would do anything to have more ivory, including horribly mistreating and marginalizing the native Congolese.

Kurtz And Evil

Another face of evil in Heart Of Darkness is absolute power and its corruptive influence. This is personified in the character of Kurtz, one of The Company's agents who, having no one to answer to in the Congo, has gone mad with authority and power.

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