Humanitarian / Literature Essay


Themes in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Some overarching ideas always seem to run through most of the works of John Conrad. Among them are, the quest for meaning or essence in a mysterious world, the representation of individualism or self in an ever-changing, the struggle for civilization, the wide gap between civilization and barbarity, among others.

In the Heart of Darkness, these ideas and other important themes can also be identified. Themes like imperialism, its effects, the quest for one's essence, the homogeneity of good and evil, inferiority, racism, and so on, run through the novella simultaneously in ambiguous language.

In this article, we will be examining some of the major themes in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Themes are simply the main ideas or messages in books, poems, and plays writers try to pass on indirectly to their readers. In essence, they're the overarching ideas and beliefs writers express in their artistic works (Daemmrich, 1985).


Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness (1899), is a story of a man's (Charles Marlow's) voyage to a Congo Free State in the Heart of Africa. Charles Marlow, a sailor aboard Nellie, a boat anchored on River Thames, tells his fellow sailors the story of how he became the captain of a steamboat owned by an ivory trading company and his experiences while on his previous voyage to Africa.


1. Colonialism

This is one of the major themes in most of Conrad's works; it is also the central idea behind the whole story that forms the novella, Heart of Darkness. This theme focuses on the spirit of imperialism and the strong desire of the Europeans to expand their territories. As a result of the competition and selfish hunger for power, a few extremely powerful European countries were able to seize certain regions in the darkest parts of the world, particularly in Asia, Africa, and America.

We could picture, through Marlow's descriptions of some of the colonizers he encountered during his previous voyage to Africa, the ravages of imperialism. We could see that beneath the sheath of "civilization", that the colonizers always seemed to carry with them, was pure greed, wastefulness, and brutality. The casual cruelty of the colonizers against the natives of their seized territories disguised as a form of education is also reflected in Marlow's narration to his friends.

Embedded in this theme of colonialism is the overarching idea of the hollowness of colonialism. This idea portrays the colonial government as hopelessly exploitative and blindly corrupt. Resources from African and Asian countries are exploited and shipped abroad for the industrial development of these European countries. In Marlow's narration, we can see the representation of white men he meets while there as empty lords who only wanted to dominate and control. This idea is also reinforced with Marlowe referring, recurrently throughout the novella, as the "sepulchral city" (that is a city of hollow tomb).

2. Deception

In Marlow's quest for the truth and verisimilitude of life, he discovers the most absurd thing; that, in the real sense, there is actually no fundamental truth. Morality, on which society is founded, is been strongly upheld in the midst of folly and inherent wickedness against others. Marlow also learns, after finding out Kurtz is not exactly who he's thought to be, that it is virtually impossible to know one's self, not to talk of knowing the self of other people. Shrouded in the acclaimed spread of a new culture—the civilization and education of the native of the seized colonies—is selfishness, deceit, and ruthless exploitation by the European companies and colonial powers (Zhang, 2017).

3. Uncertainty

Throughout the novella, through Marlow's narration, the theme of uncertainty is vaguely expressed, especially in the description of the colony he visited, as well as the description of some other characters he met. For example, "land" is not described in topographical terms. The uncertainty (or feeling of danger) that pervades Marlow's trip and his conflicting perceptions of Kurtz after encountering him, the man he's been so unexplainably obsessed with for long, is also an indication of the uncertainty spread throughout the story. The African natives who Marlow had pictured barbarous or primitive weren't at all as manacing as he had imagined them to be. All these incidents and more in the novel portray, vaguely, the theme of uncertainty that is somewhat embedded in the title: "darkness" is Conrad's representation of this theme of uncertainty in the Heart of Darkness.

4. Clash of Good and Evil

One of the recurring themes in Conrad's works is the clash between good and evil. For Conrad, there seems to be no clear difference between good and evil—darkness and light. This clash of morals and the express hypocrisy of man are two ideas that have been demonstratively reflected in Marlow's story. Marlow, as an idealistic being, is forced to either sympathize with the hypocrital and evil nature of the colonial officials or disregard the open malevolence of colonialism (Zhang, 2017 & Greiner, 1989). However, for Marlow, judging between the two would be utter folly, and a manifestation of the hypocrisy and deception emphasized through imperialism.

Heart of Darkness is described as one of Conrad's masterpieces. It is a mixture of adventure and satire. It mocks the essence and hypocrisy of manThemes in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as well as the evils of imperialism. The themes in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness can be as a manifestation of his humanity as well as his strong displeasure in universal evil.

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