Themes are overarching ideas and beliefs that the writers express in their texts including poetry, fiction, and plays. Heart of Darkness has various themes which run parallel to one another. Joseph Conrad has used prominent recurring ideas wrapped in ambiguous language. Some of the major themes in Heart of Darkness have been discussed below.
Themes in Heart of Darkness
One of the major themes of Heart of Darkness is imperialism. Imperialism is actually European colonization of countries from Asian and African continents for resources. However, it was hidden in the slogan of spreading civilization. Marlow accepts taking African’s land from the people is not right. Kurtz is in Congo pretending to civilize the people and was engaged in the ivory trade and involved in horrific ancient rituals of sacrificing humans to appease the native Africans. Marlow describes the ravages of imperialism during his journey to the heart of Africa.
White Man’s Burden
Another prominent theme of the novel is irony of Marlow’s voyage and the purpose. He journeys toward Congo to meet popular station manager, Kurtz. Though Kipling’s words “white man’s burden” wring in his ears, he sees the opposite. The white man, including Mr. Kurtz, has been engaged in killing the natives to plunder the resources. There are heads erected on the poles around the station where Mr. Kurtz is staying. Marlow believes that his voyage is “heavenly mission” of a white man to spread the enlightenment of Christianity in the darkness.
Lack of Truth
The superficial themes of the novel are imperialism and cruelty of the European powers. However, the theme of the lack of truth lies at the heart of the text. All the European powers engaged in Africa are occupying their land and plundering resources while propagating it as a civilizing mission. Marlow says that several things are left out and, in his words, “away from the truth of things.” The ironic language used from the very start occasionally shows that Marlow cannot speak the truth. He finally tells another lie to avoid disappointing Kurtz’s Intended that Kurtz had said her name before dying.
Colonization means establishing control over the indigenous people of a country or a place. This theme also runs parallel to diverse other themes in Heart of Darkness. In one of the situations, Marlow, the spokesman of Conrad, clearly states that conquest of the earth means “taking it away from those who have a different complexion.” In other words, he is indicating that the Europeans think they are of a higher race. They destroy their land by the colonization and eventually steal Africa’s resources.
The ivory trade is the main trade throughout the Congo River. However, Marlow does not clarify or accept the amount of brutal exploitation that happened in the name of trade. It is only mentioned in oblique words such as “the horror” and the postscript of Kurtz “Exterminate all brutes,” which points out the truth about the trade and the people involved. In fact, Marlow is also the part of this exploitation where locals are misled and mesmerized by Kurtz. They are also enticed to attack the people not standing in line with the main agent, Kurtz, including the attack on the steamer carrying Marlow. These attacks also cause death to locals more than the targets. The exploitation continued even after Kurtz’ death.
The novel Heart of Darkness shows that racial discrimination is dominating in Africa and other parts of the world. Marlow also understands that “different complexions and flattened nose” means, Europeans were permitted to take the possession of the land from that race. Marlow too called the locals savages including the Intended of Kurtz. She tells him how racial discrimination has led to the white men’s action of making ideas of civilizing those savages. The words of Kipling that it is “white man’s burden” echoes in the end when Kurtz dies, speaking of the horror that he committed against the African people.
Alienation and Isolation
Although alienation and isolation are often understood as a psychological issue of an individual, the novel Heart of Darkness has presented alienation and isolation of both; psychological as well as social. Marlow’s departure hints to social alienation and isolation which tries to rob him of his humanity. Kurtz is the prime example of this alienation in that he mixes up with the locals and tries to become one of them. His alienation completes with his final outburst of “horrors” when he comes to know the results of his actions. Marlow’s initial Buddha-like posture, too, confirms this alienation and isolation.
Moral corruption is another underlying theme of the novel, Heart of Darkness. Kurtz goes to Congo to civilize the locals. However, he becomes a top agent of the company in robbing the locals of their treasure and exporting ivory. He is engaged in corrupt practices of punishing those who oppose him and becoming their demigod. The same goes on at the other stations where Marlow sees many small agents engaged in the same practices.
There are two types of violence; the first one is provoked cruelty. For instance, Kurtz incites the natives to attack the steam carrying Marlow. The second one is the violence among the natives and the heads on the sticks around Kurtz house. Here Kurtz who claims to change the savages has become a savage. He uses violence to dominate the natives to rob and punish them if they interfere in white men’s business.
Human Greed and Deception
Marlow says that he has seen “the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire” which refers to the ivory trade at the expense of the native Africans’ freedom and life. The European companies have been competing against each other to extract treasures as soon as possible. Using violence, they go on killing spree and massacring the innocents. The pieces of evidence of this human greed and deception can be seen clearly when Kurtz displays heads on the poles around his station.