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Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad
Main Ideas Themes
Main Ideas Themes

Contradictions also abound in Marlow’s outlook on colonialism, as well as in his ambivalent views on life. He opens his story by describing his belief in the “idea” of colonialism, yet he goes on to tell a long story about the horrors of the Belgian mission in the Congo. The evident contradiction between the idea of colonialism and its reality doesn’t seem to bother Marlow. A similar tension affects Marlow’s treatment of Africans. He finds it repulsive that Europeans mistreat African laborers at the stations along the river. However, Marlow fails to see Africans as equals. When he laments the loss of his late helmsman, he describes the man as “a savage” and “an instrument,” yet he insists that the two men had “a kind of partnership.” Marlow remains unaware of the contradiction in his description. A further contradiction permeates the grim outlook that Marlow expresses near the novella’s end, when he describes life as “that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.” According to Marlow, life is at once full of “merciless logic” and yet has a completely “futile purpose”—that is, it is at once meaningful and meaningless.


Throughout his journey, Marlow meets an array of people characterized by their hollow emptiness, reflecting the way imperialism robbed Europeans of moral substance. For instance, Marlow refers to the chatty brickmaker he meets at the Central Station as a “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” who has “nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.” Despite having a lot to say, the brickmaker’s words lack any real meaning or value. Like a nut without the kernel inside—an image the narrator describes at the beginning of the novella—the brickmaker’s speech is all form and no content, revealing his obvious idleness. Marlow speaks of Kurtz in similar terms. He describes the African wilderness whispering to Kurtz: “It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” Marlow comes to this realization of Kurtz’s emptiness after observing the severed African heads on stakes, placed there for no apparent reason. Like the brickmaker, Kurtz is showy with his talk but ultimately doesn’t have much reason, since all his ideas are morally bankrupt. Marlow develops this notion of Kurtz as a hollow man later in the story. Although he continues to speak forcefully, Kurtz’s physical body wastes away, making the man a “hollow sham,” or imitation, of his former self.