Heart of Darkness: Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Heart of Darkness Summary
  • 1:45 Themes: Darkness of the Soul
  • 2:38 Themes: Lack of Restraint
  • 3:26 Themes: Human Folly
  • 3:54 Analysis of Heart of Darkness
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

Whether this is your introduction to Joseph Conrad's most notable work or you're returning for a closer look, this lesson will shed some light on the thematic elements at work in the story. Read on to discover more about these themes and how they play a part in 'Heart of Darkness'.

Heart of Darkness Summary

Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel is primarily narrated by Charlie Marlow, a uniquely wise and talkative seaman, as he recounts his experiences as a steamship captain on expedition through the expanses of the Congo River basin. Enthralled by the opportunity to explore the wilds of this huge, winding river, Marlow signs on with a French trading company that claims several stations along the Congo from which they export ivory. Many of the people he meets along the way serve as a reminder of the consequences of human greed and suffering since so many are enticed by the opportunity for wealth, even at the expense of themselves and others.

Perhaps the most driven and 'gifted' of these people is the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, a trade agent for the company who has penetrated farther into the African wilderness than anyone before him. Marlow discovers that his primary assignment is to take the steamship upriver in an attempt to find and retrieve this valuable company asset, or what may be left of him. Along the way he is stunned to find that the rules of civilization seem to be reversed out in the bush: the Europeans who would attest the highest level of social awareness often behave more savagely than any of the natives.

When Marlow at last reaches Mr. Kurtz, he is found to be in poor physical and mental condition. His physical ailments can be accounted for by some exotic illness he has contracted; however, the most damaging aspect of the agent's condition is the product of his own madness - his own unwavering desire for power and notoriety. Enfeebled by his ordeals and personal drives, Mr. Kurtz dies during the trek back downriver, but not before Marlow realizes that even someone as supposedly remarkable as the former agent still stands the chance of being lost to his own heart of darkness.

Themes: Darkness of the Soul

Some of the aspects of the darkness of the soul theme include:

  • Nature - The impending gloom of night and foul weather is common to find in Heart of Darkness, especially when Marlow takes a moment to collect his thoughts or to assess his surroundings. This natural shadow is seen extensively in the African jungles, a wilderness impenetrable even by sunlight, as you can see in the modern-day image on screen.

Photo of a caravan stuck in the jungles of the Congo

  • Hidden intentions - Many of the characters, and by association the nations and companies they work for and represent, fulfill their tasks either out of a sense of misguided obligation or due to their uncontrollable lust for wealth and power. Either way, the reasons for their actions are always disguised as some sort of 'duty.'
  • Secrets of the unknown- At various points in his narration, Marlow finds people, places, the very Cosmos itself to be profoundly unknowable, particularly when people are driven by ignorance.

Themes: Lack of Restraint

Lack of restraint is explored in Heart of Darkness in a number of ways that include:

  • Unchecked urges - Marlow discovers the rush for ivory in the Congo River basin to be a climate where all manner of human vices can flourish.
  • Imperialism - The unrestrained advances of European nations into the heart of Africa represent these same human urges, but on an exponentially larger scale. This map represents the extent European imperialism had reached in Africa, with most of the territory being claimed by one country or another by 1898, the approximate time frame for the story.

Map depicting European colonial holdings in Africa as of 1898

  • Civilized vs. uncivilized - Through Marlow's experiences, the reader is lead to question whether it can be considered civilized to expand civilization through the exploitation of the 'uncivilized.'

Themes: Human Folly

Human folly is explored in the novel in a number of ways, including:

  • Misplaced faith - Marlow comes to see that many of the people he meets have been severely misled by the faith they have placed in faulty notions and other people, particularly when it comes to the trust placed in Mr. Kurtz.
  • Futility - Through all his trials, Marlow understands that it is impossible for humans to escape nature, especially their own. Instead, they must find a way to overcome it.

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Additional Activities

Heart of Darkness Analysis Activities:

Short Essay Prompts

For this assignment, choose one or more of the following short essay prompts to answer. Make sure that you use specific textual evidence to support your claims. Since this is a short essay, 2-3 well-developed paragraphs will be sufficient.

Prompt #1: Heart of Darkness appears to have two heroes: Marlow and Kurtz. In your opinion, who is the true hero of the story? Use specific details from the story in your response.

Prompt #2: Before Kurtz dies, he yells out, "The horror! The horror!" What do these words mean, and what are the "horrors" to which Kurtz refers? Use specific details from the story in your response.

Prompt #3: Explain the meaning behind the title. How does the title fit with common themes from the novel? Use specific details from the story in your response.

How to respond to a short essay question:

  • Before you start writing, develop your ideas and come up with a plan. This will help you answer the prompt in a clear, concise, and effective manner.
  • When writing, you want to restate the question asked. For example, when responding to Prompt #1, you could write: Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, has two possible heroes in the characters of Marlow and Kurtz. However, only one of these should be considered the true hero.
  • Next, answer the question in a straightforward way. For example, if responding to Prompt #1, this is where you would write who you believe to be the novel's true hero. This is your thesis statement.
  • Now you want to cite evidence from the novel to support your ideas. It is best to have at least two examples. Both direct and indirect quotes are acceptable.
  • Finally, elaborate on and explain your evidence. This is perhaps the most important component of your essay as you are proving why your answer is correct. Once you are done, make sure to proofread and edit your essay(s) as well. Essays are graded based on content, grammar, punctuation, and presentation.

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