Themes in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad, one of the most celebrated novelists of English literature, treats the concept of darkness from the core of his heart in his novel Heart of Darkness. The journey of the protagonist through the heart of Africa, which is the main motif of the novel, suggests how significant the theme of darkness is. This journey through the darkest parts of the world implies the man’s inner journey through the murkiness of his own being. This essay focuses on the themes in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The major novella’s themes are colonization, imperialism, darkness, racism, and evil. First, we will look at the short summary of the story, and then we will explore the key themes in Heart of Darkness.

Heart of Darkness Short Summary

Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow, a sailor who is assigned to travel up the Congo River. He needs to find an enigmatic trader named Kurtz. Marlow’s journey takes him into the heart of the African continent, where he witnesses the brutality and savagery of European colonization and the corrupting influence of power and greed. Along the way, Marlow encounters a variety of characters.

Themes in Heart of Darkness

In the novel, the narrator deals with several surreal versions of mystery and adventure, which otherwise could be perceived as an excursion into a hidden agenda. In fact, the discovery of new lands, which is a central theme of the novel, suggests a human being’s emblematic expedition into his own inner being where he finds his basic traits. The author carves a narrative structure which originates from a gut feeling that represents the main theme of the novel, and, through the paradoxical concepts of darkness and light, Conrad develops his major theme (that darkness exists at the core of a purified human soul?). That is to say, through an ironical juxtaposition of dark and light right from the beginning of the narrative, the author presents how darkness affects a human soul.

Thus, one finds that the world of the Whites also incorporates elements of uncivilized people, or it is part of what one would refer to as darkness. Ted Billy comments, “Conrad’s complex strategy with regard to racial implications is apparent in his opening pages, when he inverts the traditional dichotomy of black and white, light and darkness. London is the capital of the civilized world, but to Marlowe it was a place of darkness only ‘yesterday’.

Ivory is white, but it provides the incentive for white agents such as whites to become barbaric. The cannibals are blacks, yet they evidence greater restraint and composure than the trigger-happy white ‘pilgrims’ who accompany Marlowe to Kurtz’s Inner Station.” (Orr, Billy and Billy 68). In other words, the meaning of darkness achieves complete sense through the working of light; while on the other hand, brightness gets dimmed in the intensity of darkness. Therefore, it is explicit that Conrad’s narrative strategy in his novel was to present the theme of darkness through the meaning and interpretation of the concept of enlightenment, and to state that such enlightenment will come only through the recognition of the dark.

An understanding of the use of images in the novel best illustrates the author’s narrative strategy in presenting his major theme. Several critics have praised Conrad’s reminiscent power in the novel Heart of Darkness and his apt use of imagery suggests this. The deployment of visual imagery in the novel depends mainly upon the contrasting patterns of light and dark, and these images present the theme of darkness in the novel. It is important to comprehend that “to demonstrate the moral uncertainty of this world and of life in general, Conrad consistently alters common symbolic conceptions of light and dark.

Thus, white is not synonymous with good, nor black with evil, but rather both symbols are interchangeable.” (Conrad). Thus, the novelist alternately presents white and black characters as examples of severe suffering, civilized dignity, moral refinement, or violent savagery throughout his work. This promulgates the idea that there is no race, which is entirely good or evil, and every type of human being is a confusing mixture of inclinations for all kinds of behavior.

In other words, it becomes apparent that Conrad develops the concept of darkness with the use of imagery and the symbolic representation of the expedition by the protagonist through the inner parts of the Dark Continent. The significance of the novel and its theme resides in their explanation that there is darkness concealed deep within every person, which is apparent only by an understanding of the paradoxical themes of darkness and enlightenment.

One finds the profound significance that the narrator attaches to the theme of darkness right from the beginning of the novel where Marlow makes a voyage to Africa, the Dark Continent. Conrad cleverly entwines darkness into the fabric of his narration right from the early stages of the novel and compels his audience to recognize its true nature, thereby forcing them to acknowledge that darkness exists even in the most civilized minds, not to speak of the lands such humans inhabit. Marlow, representing the educated people of the land, understands that there is murkiness in their own land. Marlow embodies darkness not as if it is a strange element to him but as if he had been living in its dungeons all the while.

“The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three–legged thing erect on a mud flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars. “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” (Conrad, Matin and Stade 47-48).

Darkness, the central theme of the novel, has been skillfully presented by the novelist in an effective narrative strategy which makes use of the paradoxical idea of the enlightenment. Therefore, it is obvious that the author adopted a narrative strategy which would make out his original objective in the most convincing manner. This intention of the author in Heart of Darkness is clear from the fact that he focused not to present some negative aspects of life or some gloomy sides of one’s existence as the concept darkness would mean to the traditional reader. On the contrary, he wanted the theme of darkness to be approached differently incorporating the idea of light in the interpretation of the theme.

This narrative strategy is evidently beyond the ordinary and the author perceived the novel as a means to convey his awareness of the concept of darkness which means not just the negatives, but positives as well. The narrative strategy of the author to find the meaning of darkness with the use of the opposing concept of light is evident from Conrad’s clarifying letter to the publisher William Blackwood. “The title I am thinking is ‘Heart of Darkness’ – but the narrative is not gloomy. The criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work in Africa is a justifiable idea.” (Stephen Regan, Karl & Davies. As Reproduced in the Nineteenth-century Novel: A Critical Reader. Open University. London: Routledge. 2001. Vol.2. P.139-140.)


To conclude, the novel, Heart of Darkness, postulates the theme of darkness in a subtle manner to define the meaning of illumination through its contrastive term of light and enlightenment. The novel is remarkable in its use of different literary devices such as imagery, symbolism, characterization, and narrative strategy to convey the real meaning of the theme of darkness.

Works Cited

Orr, Leonard., Billy, Ted and Billy, Theodore. “Heart of Darkness (1899)” in A Joseph Conrad Companion. Westport: Greenwood, 1999.

Conrad, Joseph. Short Story Criticism: Heart of Darkness. Enotes. 2008. Web.

Conrad, Joseph., Matin, A. Michael and Stade, George. Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction. Spark Educational, 2003.

Stephen Regan, Karl & Davies. As Reproduced in the Nineteenth-century Novel: A Critical Reader. Open University. London: Routledge. 2001. Vol.2. P.139-140.

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Premium Papers. 2023. "Themes in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad." June 30, 2023.

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Premium Papers. "Themes in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad." June 30, 2023.