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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 t...

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...e 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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