THEMES IN HEART OF DARKNESS
1. GOOD VS EVIL
Much of Heart of Darkness is concerned with Marlow’s struggle to maintain his sense of morality as power conspiracies rage all around him and the mysterious figure of Kurtz piques his curiosity. Marlow’s desire to do good grows increasingly futile as he is plunged into a world where no absolute goodness exists and the best he can do is choose between a selection of nightmares. Eventually, we see that the characters become unable to distinguish between good and evil. Conrad illustrates this moral ambiguity with light and darkness imagery that often blends together, yet is imbued with an overall inevitably sinister shade.
Questions About Good vs. Evil
Does Conrad seem to have clear definitions of what constitutes good and evil? What actions does he portray as good or evil? Light and dark imagery pervade Heart of Darkness. On what different levels do you see this imagery working? What abstract concepts might light represent? How about darkness? Do light and dark follow the convention of light representing goodness and dark representing evil? What is the "heart of darkness" of the novel’s title? Think in terms of abstract concepts as well as of places and characters. 2. MAN AND THE NATURAL WORLD
Nature and civilization rather decisively represent the dichotomy of "primitive" non-Europeans and "cultured" Europeans. "Civilization" comes to refer to the supposed enlightenment and refinement of the Western world. The British imperialists feel their conceptions of black "savagery" are confirmed when the native Africans attack the pilgrims and reveal their cannibalism. The white Europeans seek to tame these Africans with "civilization," but the notion becomes problematic when "noble altruism" acts as a shield for blind imperialism. The white men who call their actions altruistic are quickly recognized by the readers as hypocrites.
Questions About Man and the Natural World
At first glance, what does civilization represent? What does nature represent? Does this distinction hold true as the novel progresses? How does the concept of civilization become problematic as the novel progresses? How are the Company’s attempts to ‘civilize’ the Africans hypocritical? If nature is madness-inducing, what does this say about human nature, especially the native Africans? How do different aspects of nature, especially the river and the jungle, become characters in their own right? What is nature’s attitude towards man? 3. THEME OF RACE
The divide of the races into black and white adds complexity to Conrad’s theme of light versus darkness and good versus evil. The conventional use of white as good and black as evil is clearly challenged when we view it through the lens of race, particularly when we see white men brutally subjugating and forcing black Africans into hard labor simply for profit. The Europeans justify their mistreatment of the Africans with claims of "spreading civilization," of helping Africans become "enlightened." This, in itself, is a form of prejudice – a denial of the Africans’ traditional lifestyle and culture.
Questions About Race
How are the differences between white and black people depicted in Heart of Darkness? What kinds of activities does each group participate in? How does light and dark imagery apply racially? What does this say morally about each group of people as portrayed in Heart of Darkness? What kinds of white European expectations does Marlow bring into his journey up the Congo? How are they dispelled? Look specifically at the examples of the accountant, manager, brickmaker, and Kurtz. What is Marlow’s attitude towards the native Africans? How is Kurtz’s attitude towards the black Africans ambiguous? How might he be viewed as the ultimate symbol of imperialism and black subjugation? Alternatively, how might he be read as the exact opposite? 4. THEME OF IDENTITY
Perhaps one of the most terrifying aspects of Heart of Darkness is the dehumanization of...
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