This novella is unusual in that the author does not name most of the characters in his book, other than assigning them titles that describe their larger organizational goals. It is not quite an allegory, while he does allow them some individual characteristics of speech and dress, but they are for the most part stand-ins for larger groups. The obvious exception is Marlow, and his reaction against the colonial structures supported by people with names like “the Manager” and “the Lawyer” place him slightly outside this system. Groupthink is evident in named groups like the pilgrims and the natives. These groups have a few outstanding members, such as the native woman of arresting beauty or the red-haired pilgrim drunk with bloodthirstiness, but they mostly move together, make the same decisions, and have the same intentions. Conrad critiques such patterns, in which individual in a society think like other members of their group without stopping to think for themselves. Although Marlow is by no means a heroic character, Conrad does illustrate the need for individual thought by singling him out.
As the crew make their way up the river, they are traveling into the “heart of darkness.” The contradiction, however, is that Marlow also feels as if he were traveling back in time. When Conrad wrote this story, scientists were learning that Africa is the seat of human civilization, and this knowledge is reflected in the fact that the trees are (almost prehistorically) enormous on the route down the river. The paradox of the novel, however, is that by traveling backwards in time, the crew do not move closer to the innocence and purity of the "noble savage" but farther away from it. Words like “pestilent” and “sordid” are used again and again to describe the natives and their land. Conrad seems to claim that the Christian belief that prehistory was untouched by obscurity or evil is a fallacy. Instead, there is “the horror.” In contrast, it seems, is the more advanced civilization of the colonizers and visitors.
Nothing in this novella is described in very concrete terms. Shores are hazy. Land looks like a spine sticking out from a man’s back but is not described in topographical terms. Marlow is obsessed with Kurtz before he even meets him, without a clear idea why. A sense of danger pervades the entire trip, and it is mostly dictated by uncertainty. The natives do not seem inherently threatening. On one occasion, they let fly a series of arrows, but these even look ineffectual to Marlow. They are threatening because they might be poisoned. Similarly, Marlow has no clear idea of what the natives might do to him if Kurtz gave them free rein, and it is possible that this uncertainty increases his fear. Kurtz himself is an uncertain figure, ruled as he is by two separate impulses, the noble and the destructive. At the beginning of the novella, the reader perceives that the former is his dominant (or only) characteristic. But with vicious scrawlings on his manuscript and his ruthlessness in extracting ivory from the land, Kurtz proves himself the latter. Marlow’s adherence to Kurtz until the end confuses the matter; one could judge him one way or the other. The idea of "darkness" expresses the theme of uncertainty in the novella.
Whatever the conditions in Africa may be, all of the characters agree that they are different from those of Europe. There is a feeling of anything-goes vigilantism that shifts the balance of power from the stewards in a “civilized” state (police, doctors, bureaucrats) to whoever is most threatening. Kurtz is physically quite a weak man, but he maintains enormous sway over the native population through his understanding of their language and his cultural and communication skills. He exploits their appreciation of him as an Other. Marlow’s men use a much more simple means of gaining authority, namely, firearms. This is the tragedy of imperialism in that the arrival of the white man heralds a new order, but in the creation of that order, they retain the tools and the authority. Black men in this book first appear as members of a chain gang, and they gain little power after that scene.
Although there is controversy over whether Conrad is critiquing colonialism or not, it is clear that he is critiquing religion. The two groups in the novel, the pilgrims and the natives, are linked by having religious beliefs, and the pilgrims seem at least as bloodthirsty as the natives. The rite in the woods that Marlow describes seems alien but certainly no more dangerous than the ambush. One of the seemingly admirable characteristics of Kurtz, as presented by Conrad, is that he seems just as compelled by African religion as by Christianity but seems beholden to neither. Marlow genuinely admires his ability to independently critique religions. He may not agree with Kurtz’s evaluation, but he respects Kurtz's ability to have his own opinions in the face of the various religious traditions he encounters.
Jewelry is a major presence in Heart of Darkeness. To begin with, it is the main reason for the presence of the colonists in Africa: they are there to strip the country of its ivory. There is a play on colors between the black people and this white valuable good. The most prestigious member of the African community and one of the only characters to be afforded individual characteristics by Conrad is the woman who is presumably Kurtz’s mistress. Her first appearance is impressive; she is covered in bangles and other “barbarous ornaments.” Her aspect has both attractiveness and ferocity, and she is the only character in the novella who wears jewelry. Despite it being the raison d’être of the novella, the other characters have little interest in jewelry, showing an almost Marxist detachment from the good they harvest.
Illness is a major factor in this novella. It appears in physical and mental forms. Marlow is hired to replace a man who committed suicide, and another instance of suicide is announced by a somber Swedish man. The first thing that Marlow does upon being hired is go to the doctor, who checks both his mental and physical health and provides a very gloomy prognosis. The specter of ill health, or of one’s body not standing up to the conditions, is a constant specter in the novella. The mental health issue is particular to Heart of Darkness, while the issue of wider health continues in the tradition of Victorian novels, in which men often travel to Africa only to come down with exotic diseases. In the end, it seems that Marlow is more mentally than physically taxed, while Kurtz is clearly both.
Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Heart of Darkness is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
"Fresleven — that was the fellow's name, a Dane — thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick." The noble cause was "taming" the natives and...