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Heart of Darkness centers on both a political and a personal theme. Marlow starts out for Africa feeling distanced from and critical of the imperialist project. In his mind, he goes to Africa only for an abstract notion of adventure. When he arrives and finds the devastation wrought by the Europeans in Africa, he feels repugnance for the white man's greed and his brutal inhumanity to his fellow man. Yet he longs for evidence that Europeans can display pure purpose, rational power, and benevolent dominance over Africa and Africans. He retains notions of the supremacy of Europeans from his own education and even when he sees evidence which refutes that supremacy, he wishes to retain a belief in it.
Marlow can never see the Africans as fully human and he can never bring himself fully to condemn the imperialist project in Africa. When he lies to the Intended, he participates in the lie that says imperialism is justly supported by sound ideals. By doing nothing to stop the devastation caused by the imperialism in Africa, he tactfully accepts the inhumanity of mankind to its fellow man and allows it to continue on the Dark Continent.
Marlow is also a romantic, longing for some lost wholeness. His near idolization of Kurtz demonstrates the power of his romanticism. Kurtz embodies for Marlow the powerful European man facing nature alone and conquering it. The title of the novel, Heart of Darkness, is the realization that there is nothing morally substantial behind that conquest. Many critics have referred to the theme of this novel as a metaphysical one, a journey of one man into the territory of his heart, but what he finds there is darkness.
The mood of the entire novel is dark and somber. It is night-time on the Nellie when Marlow's tale is being woefully told. The tale is about the darkness and evil of imperialism in Africa, as shown in the greed, stupidity, and brutality of the Europeans, as they devastate the continent and are cruel to their fellow man.
In addition, Conrad writes the novel in a mood of surreal (dream- like) and philosophical detachment. Marlow is never emotionally engaged with any people in the novel except for Kurtz and even then, he realizes with dread that Kurtz is mad. The sentence structure is also long and tends to meditatively wander, while the narrator often digresses into philosophical speculation. What exactly is the heart of darkness? What exactly is the horror of which Kurtz speaks? This is ultimately left for the reader to decide. There are many possibilities to its meaning.