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The Major Themes of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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Major Themes of Heart of Darkness


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 can be paired with one of the most basic themes in history:  desire as a sin.  The reader may question what is “reality” to the supposed cannibals, and although it is never stated directly, he/she will undoubtedly see the possibility of religious restraint.    

       Although not in the same passage, Conrad touches on this idea of “reality” much more thoroughly in Marlow’s description of his own desire to experience what is “primitive.”  While gliding down “the river,” the passengers are met repeatedly with howls and “horrid faces” from the shore.  Marlow says, “You wonder I didn’t go ashore for a howl and a dance?  Well, no – I didn’t…I had no time.  I had to mess about with white-lead and strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes.”  Here, Marlow is obviously curious about these natural “primitive” ceremonial/religious/social orgies, but must tend to reality.  He must tend to the only machine of civilization within perhaps hundreds of miles.  He is ruled by the clock, just like the people of London and every major city.  Reality, for him, is work, progress, efficiency, etc.  Marlow is too devoted to his work and, although he may be curious, will never actually go ashore with the natives as long as duty beckons.  Earlier he describes with contempt the “principles” which tame a man, and the luxuries he pretends to need.  He describes men’s clothes as “pretty rags – rags that would fly off at the first good shake.”  He questions the necessity of these petty items, but his accusation is hypocritical in that he will never stop wearing clothes.  The ivory is also evidence of the human waste that pervades the story.  Ivory is an object for the rich, hardly a necessary item for survival.  It is, however, “reality.”  It is what is real, and that is all that civilization cares to acknowledge.

       A clear way to convey the idea of restraint versus lack thereof is to contrast Marlow and Kurtz.  The former, in this case, most certainly shows restraint, while the latter does not.  Marlow represents civilization on the edge, while Kurtz, during the period of the story at least, represents civilization stepped over into the “darkness.”  Conrad uses Marlow’s first viewing of Kurtz’ ornamental human skulls to make this point.  Marlow says, “[The heads] only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him.”  Kurtz has spent many months away from his reality (civilization and “the company”), and has let go of the proper and familiar in exchange for his power and freedom.  “The company” was Kurtz’ reality; it was his work and his duty, but he has abandoned (not necessarily willingly) it.  Perhaps Kurtz never looked at the company as being real or respectable, but it was his job and his link to the restraints of civilization.  “The company” was Kurtz’ link to the ivory as a “good,” as a pseudo-necessity.  Marlow’s link to civilized “reality,” on the other hand, is just beginning to weaken.  His knowledge and experience with the natives and the “dark” side of himself do not extend beyond mere curiosity.  He is troubled by the fact that these “dark” peoples of the shore are actually of the same race (human) as himself:  “No, they were not inhuman…that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman.  It would come slowly to one.  They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.”*  Marlow is obviously uncomfortable with the prospect of his own “darkness.”  Shortly before and after this quotation, he is not so negative.  He wants to accept the primitive urge to howl and dance naked and be a savage; nonetheless, he does show restraint, just as he hopes the cannibals will.  Marlow is a symbol of religious introspection, of self-interrogation.  “Don’t eat the apple, Marlow,” he seems to be saying to himself, but at the same time he is questioning his own life history and values.  He gets a taste of his “dark” inner self, which up to this point has been antonymous with “reality.”  He questions whether or not the “dark” is “reality.” 

       This idea of restraint is never so evident in the story as in the passage describing the restraint of the cannibals.  Marlow “would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield.”  They are able to withstand “the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its somber and brooding ferocity.”  And they do so for reasons that Marlow cannot begin to understand.  These “dark” cannibals exercise restraint even in the most desperate circumstance, the circumstance involving the most basic human need.  These “brutes” must choose between the restraints of civilization and the natural desire to feed themselves, and the reader must wonder why they choose the former.

       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; the passage 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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