Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Heart of Darkness explores the issues surrounding imperialism in complicated ways. As Marlow travels from the Outer Station to the Central Station and finally up the river to the Inner Station, he encounters scenes of torture, cruelty, and near-slavery. At the very least, the incidental scenery of the book offers a harsh picture of colonial enterprise. The impetus behind Marlow’s adventures, too, has to do with the hypocrisy inherent in the rhetoric used to justify imperialism. The men who work for the Company describe what they do as “trade,” and their treatment of native Africans is part of a benevolent project of “civilization.” Kurtz, on the other hand, is open about the fact that he does not trade but rather takes ivory by force, and he describes his own treatment of the natives with the words “suppression” and “extermination”: he does not hide the fact that he rules through violence and intimidation. His perverse honesty leads to his downfall, as his success threatens to expose the evil practices behind European activity in Africa.
However, for Marlow as much as for Kurtz or for the Company, Africans in this book are mostly objects: Marlow refers to his helmsman as a piece of machinery, and Kurtz’s African mistress is at best a piece of statuary. It can be argued that Heart of Darkness participates in an oppression of nonwhites that is much more sinister and much harder to remedy than the open abuses of Kurtz or the Company’s men. Africans become for Marlow a mere backdrop, a human screen against which he can play out his philosophical and existential struggles. Their existence and their exoticism enable his self-contemplation. This kind of dehumanization is harder to identify than colonial violence or open racism. While Heart of Darkness offers a powerful condemnation of the hypocritical operations of imperialism, it also presents a set of issues surrounding race that is ultimately troubling.
Madness is closely linked to imperialism in this book. Africa is responsible for mental disintegration as well as physical illness. Madness has two primary functions. First, it serves as an ironic device to engage the reader’s sympathies. Kurtz, Marlow is told from the beginning, is mad. However, as Marlow, and the reader, begin to form a more complete picture of Kurtz, it becomes apparent that his madness is only relative, that in the context of the Company insanity is difficult to define. Thus, both Marlow and the reader begin to sympathize with Kurtz and view the Company with suspicion. Madness also functions to establish the necessity of social fictions. Although social mores and explanatory justifications are shown throughout Heart of Darkness to be utterly false and even leading to evil, they are nevertheless necessary for both group harmony and individual security. Madness, in Heart of Darkness, is the result of being removed from one’s social context and allowed to be the sole arbiter of one’s own actions. Madness is thus linked not only to absolute power and a kind of moral genius but to man’s fundamental fallibility: Kurtz has no authority to whom he answers but himself, and this is more than any one man can bear.
This novella is, above all, an exploration of hypocrisy, ambiguity, and moral confusion. It explodes the idea of the proverbial choice between the lesser of two evils. As the idealistic Marlow is forced to align himself with either the hypocritical and malicious colonial bureaucracy or the openly malevolent, rule-defying Kurtz, it becomes increasingly clear that to try to judge either alternative is an act of folly: how can moral standards or social values be relevant in judging evil? Is there such thing as insanity in a world that has already gone insane? The number of ridiculous situations Marlow witnesses act as reflections of the larger issue: at one station, for instance, he sees a man trying to carry water in a bucket with a large hole in it. At the Outer Station, he watches native laborers blast away at a hillside with no particular goal in mind. The absurd involves both insignificant silliness and life-or-death issues, often simultaneously. That the serious and the mundane are treated similarly suggests a profound moral confusion and a tremendous hypocrisy: it is terrifying that Kurtz’s homicidal megalomania and a leaky bucket provoke essentially the same reaction from Marlow.
Several images throughout Heart of Darkness suggest the futility of European presence in Africa. The first such image Marlow witnesses off the West African coast, where a French warship fires pointlessly at an invisible enemy. Another image appears later, at the Central Station, when Marlow watches as frantic Europeans pointlessly attempt to extinguish a burning grass hut. In addition to these instances of useless action, Marlow takes note of pointless labor practices at the Company Station. There he observes white Europeans forcing Africans to blast a hole through a cliff for no apparent reason. He also nearly falls into a random hole in the ground that slave laborers dug. Marlow speculates that the hole has no purpose other than to occupy the slaves: “It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do.” As with the examples of the warship and the grass hut, the grossly inefficient labor practices at the Company Station suggest the pointlessness of the European mission in Africa.
Contradictions appear everywhere in Heart of Darkness, and particularly with respect to European characters, who serve as living embodiments of imperialism. For example, Marlow insists that Fresleven, the Danish captain he replaced, was completely harmless, but he also describes how the man ended up in a violent dispute over hens and died at the end of an African’s spear. European imperial missions sought to civilize “savage” peoples and hence appeared pure in their intentions, but all too often they inflicted terrible violence instead. The accountant Marlow meets at the Company Station provides another important example of contradiction. Despite the filth and chaos that reigns at the station, the accountant maintains an immaculately clean suit and perfectly coiffed hair. Marlow respects the man for maintaining a semblance of civility even in the wilderness. Such an image of civilization in the jungle—or of light in the darkness—represents another contradiction of the European civilizing mission.