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The Major Themes of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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The two major themes of Heart of Darkness are the conflict between “reality” and “darkness,” and the idea of restraint and whether or not it is necessary. Conrad’s passage describing the restraint of the hungry cannibals exemplifies both themes:  It describes how reality shapes human behavior, and contrasts the characters of Kurtz and Marlow.  “Reality,” as it is used here, is defined as “that which is civilized.”

       Conrad emphasizes the idea of what is real versus what is “dark,” what is civilized versus what is primitive, what colonizes versus what is colonized, repeatedly throughout Heart of Darkness.  As stated above, “real,” in this case, contains all the implications of a civilized society:  clothing which covers a person’s sexual organs, restraint from gluttony, a constant reliance on clocks as dictators of action, etc.  The cannibals in the aforementioned passage face a horrendous conflict between what is real and what is “dark,” or, in their case, what is natural and what must be restrained.  Marlow cannot fathom how these “big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences” could restrain their desires to consume him and the pilgrims:  “Restraint!  What possible restraint?  Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear – or some kind of primitive honor?  No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out.”  The “darkness” these men restrain is the part of every person that wants fulfillment, the Id in psychoanalytic terms, the part almost every orthodox religion looks down upon.  Along with every civilized society, one which requires some form of government, the citizens are expected to restrain, to a certain extent, their most basic desires.  This theme can be taken a step farther, and c...


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...ssage describing the cannibals exemplifies both.  The cannibals are practicing a sort of enigmatic restraint that keeps them from fulfilling a basic human need; on a second level, they are facing the issue of what is reality (what is civilized) versus what is natural.  Although there is no concrete evidence that these peoples are cannibalistic, the natural solution to their hunger is to eat, and they do not.  Marlow, the character symbolic of the reality of civilization, practices this restraint, a sort of religious emulation of what he has seen of civilized peoples up to this point.  Kurtz, on the other hand, has abandoned his restraint, has stepped into the “darkness” so to speak.  “The horror! The horror!” he utters on his deathbed, perhaps expressing contempt at his own actions, perhaps at all existence.  Perhaps at the reality and restraints of civilization. 

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