Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
THEMES (ANALYSIS AND DESCRIPTION)
The darkness of the title is the major theme of the book, but the meaning of that darkness is never clearly defined. On the whole it stands for the unknown and the unknowable; it represents the opposite of the progress and enlightenment that dominated the 19th century.
Not many years before, it had been widely believed that science was eventually going to cure the ills of the world; but by the end of the century a deeper pessimism had taken hold, and the darkness is Conrad's image for everything he most dreaded. Science had turned out to be a sham, at least as a route to human happiness-the world wasn't getting any better. Was the darkness something that was simply a part of the universe, something that could never be defeated? Or did it come from within human beings? The "heart of darkness" stands for many things-the interior of the jungle, the Inner Station, Kurtz's own black heart, perhaps the heart of every human being.
Conrad leaves the meanings of this darkness hazy on purpose. As the narrator tells us,- for Marlow "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze" (Chapter I). He also calls the story "inconclusive." In other words, you can't easily reduce the meaning to a couple of sentences. Conrad doesn't declare-he hints and suggests. This quality sometimes makes it difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is about a passage that disturbs or moves or excites you, and it makes it difficult to explain the full meaning of certain symbols-especially the darkness. But it's exactly this quality that makes the book so creepy and unsettling that it lingers in the mind.
There are several running subthemes that you should note. Foremost among these is the notion of work. Whatever the darkness is, the best way to fend it off, and to stay sane, is by working. Conrad doesn't pretend that work is enjoyable, but it strengthens your character and makes you less likely to lose your grip in difficult situations. (One reason most of the white characters in the novel are so unattractive is that they don't do their work.) Another value he holds in esteem is restraint. Self-restraint takes determination, but it may save you from the grim consequences of thoughtless action. Conrad shows us two unsettling examples of individuals who lack restraint. One is the black helmsman on Marlow's boat; his inability to restrain himself leads to his death. The other example is Mr. Kurtz, whose lack of restraint is to a large degree the subject of the plot.
Another running theme could be called the unreliability of high ideals, or simply of words. (This is surprising from a novelist who's so verbose himself.) Conrad and his alter ego, Marlow, don't trust words. Actions are what you have to judge people by: actions can't lie, but words can. A related topic is the theme of illusions, and of delusions. Conrad believes that some illusions are necessary, especially for his women characters. But how necessary? And is a lie excusable, or even commendable, when it supports such an illusion?