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A Critical Appreciation of "Heart of Darkness"



Heart of Darkness is an enchanting novel, a marvelous and fascinating novel of first of its kind. It is a bewitching and haunting novel giving the thought-provoking ideas and at the same time realistic touches; it surpasses in external accomplishment embroidered by a great designer’ rich imagery and unsurpassable symbols. Dealing to its analysis of the mental processes of its characters and probing the conscious and unconscious work of the mind. Nevertheless, novel is compact, brief, written in language celebral, sensuous, vague, concrete, definitive, suggestive, elusive, mystical and tangible. It is an exquisite novel dovetailing fact of fiction’ our imagination never fails to recapture the events which may happen to us in this enchanting world narrated by Conrad in this par excellent novel. Sometimes is makes us instantaneously very gloomy, grim, somber and sordid as ideas are highly insidious horrible and supernatural.

An eminent critic Jim Reilly has summed up all the noble characteristics in the following passage: “Conrad’s agonizing Congo experiences of 1890 were re-worked nine years later into Heart of Darkness which is generally regarded as one of the greatest short novels in the English language. It is a crucial work in the development of modern literature, in that it establishes the dominant theme of twentieth-century writing: fear and disillusion about the western man’s place in the world and the values by which he lives, The narrator and central character, Marlow, travels up the Congo to meet the demonic trader Kurtz. He witnesses the violence and hypocrisy of his colonizing culture and his faith in the western world, and even his own sanity is threatened. T.S. Eliot indicated how influential he felt the novel to be when he used the paragraph ending in Kurtz’s famous summing up, “The horror! The horror!” in the epigraph to his great poem, The waste Land (1922). The degenerations of the trader, to whom all Europe contributed stands Eliot as a model of modern man in a world the poet sees, in a phrase that recalls th e trenches of World War I and the bone-strewn Congo of Heart of Darkness, as a “rats” alley where the dead men lost their bones.”


The Novel is Based on Few Historical Facts

The above mentioned comment of critic is worthy of praise and appreciation. In it, various facets of novel are incorporated. First noteworthy point is that autobiographical element in the Heart of Darkness. The story, narrated by Marlow in the noble, is the experience of Conrad’s own voyage to the dark continent of Congo in the year 1890. Thus this novel is replete with the personal touches of Conrad’s life. The narrator and the central figure of the novel Marlow is the mouthpiece of Joseph Conrad who represents the story of Conrad’s journey to Congo in the guise of his won.

This novel is highly authentic in its treatment of themes. It is a truthful account of the miserable condition of the black simple natives and savages of the Congo whom the white-men were exploiting to satisfy their selfish motives. This novel is also record of the behavior and the attitude of the white-men who went there in the dark continent of Africa as agent of a trading company, as traders, as explorers.

Thus the novel achieves special value because it is a documentary that is based on historical facts. At the same time this novel is most interesting fascinating and gripping which a work of fiction is expected to be.

The Various Themes of the Novel

As it is already mentioned that the theme of the novel is imperialism. The novel deals with the conditions prevailing in the Congo under Belgian king’s imperialist rule. The essence of the story lies in the life of civilized European Mr. Kurtz who gradually identifies himself with the savagery due to his prolonged stay in the darkness of Africa. Besides, this novel is attributed with other themes also. They are: theme of evil, theme of isolation, them of self-restraint, them of the exploration of the subconscious of the human mind and the theme of the appearance and reality. The themes are so skillfully intermixed the novel that unified artistic design emerges out of it.

Symbolical Significances of the “Heart of Darkness”

The novel Heart of Darkness is an excellent example of the symbolical suggestions in novel. From the very title till the end almost every character and event is highly symbolical. Literally, the title Heart of Darkness means the unexplored dark continent of Africa (Congo) but its symbolical meaning is the depths of human mind that subconscious. Thus this novel deals with the journey into the dark places of human mind also. The two knitting-women represent the fate of ancient classical mythology; Mr. Kurtz is the symbol used for the modern western man’s lust for power and greed. Marlow is symbolical of the writer having a penetrating insight into the sub-conscious; of the contemporary interest in psychology and psychiatry and also the apirit of adventure and love of knowledge. For detail see in Part III, question related to the symbolical elements in Heart of Darkness.

Conrad’s art of Characterization

Marlow and MR. Kurtz

For the capacity of creating life-like characters Conrad occupies a high rank among the modern English novelist. While reading the novel we feel the characters like Marlow and Mr. Kurtz so close and intimate to us as we ourselves have encountered them in our life. Marlow’s narration is so live and vital; his characteristic of being a philosopher, psychologist and a keen observer make us able to travel along with him. The most striking characteristics of Mr. Kurtz are his passion for ivory, his power over the savages, his eloquence in speech and foremost his obsession for ivory, his cruelty and transformation into savage etc. Thus characters are presented so vividly and interestingly that they seem as alive and very normal being as we meet in out daily lives.

The minor Characters of the Novel: “Heart of Darkness”

“Heart of Darkness Contains several vignettes of persons, there are multiple types of characters in this novel. Marlow’s narration is so full of life that it seems we’ve really met an accountant flawlessly dressed, or a hollow and barren man like Manager of the Central Station. The Russian is drawn in most vivid and convincing manner, as highly educated, intelligent, and a devotees to Mr. Kurtz. Last but not the least Mr. Kurtz’s fiancée. When Marlow goes to meet her, all her reactions, overflowing emotions, tears, vibration of lips are seen by us. We feel as if we’ve shared her feelings on that occasion.


Though the imagery used in Heart of Darkness is remote and wild yet its vivid, graphical presentation able us to visualize. First of all, there is the image of nature and surrounding that Marlow perceives along the coast as he sails by a French steamer. The ever memorable sights are of the boiler lying uselessly in the grass, reversal pieces of destroyed machinery, rusty rails, useless blasting of the rock, pathetic sight of six chained men etc. These all sights make Marlow feel that he has entered the Inferno. Here we are reminded of the picture of hell given in The Divine Comedy by Dante. It includes the picture of starving and dying people.

The profundity of Thought in “Heart of Darkness”

Heart of Darkness is replete with many philosophical passages. Marlow is not only a narrator, adventurer and man of action but he is also a profound thinker meditating over whatever he observes. In the very beginning when he was setting out for sail, here marks that he felt for a short while that instead of going to the centre of the continent he was going to the centre of earth. But more philosophical remark is given by him when he found it difficult to differ reality and dream. When Marlow was listening to Brick maker’s information’s regarding Kurtz, it seems to him that he is seeing a dream. Here he says, “It is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence- that which makes its truth, its meaning, the subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream--alone”. Another passage in the context of philosophical view, that is regarded as the key passage of book is:

The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all ? Joy, fear sorrow, devotion, valour, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth tripped of its cloak time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his one-true stuff—with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No: you want a deliberate belief.

Psychological Study of the Character

Marlow has a great penetrating insight into the human mind. He has well analyzed the character he encountered, psychologically. In spite of giving the picture of their outward appearances he peeps into their mind and reveals them from within. For example, he says that the manager of the Central Station is worth of nothing. He does not inspire either love, respect, late or fear except uneasiness. He finds “nothing within this man”. This Brickmaker is remarked by Marlow as “papier mache Mephistopheles” because of his cunningness and mischief. In fact, we form a comprehensive picture of Mr. Kurtz through Marlow’s narration only. Kurtz’s obsession for ivory, his love “Intended”, his cruelty, his of power, his devil image and finally Mr. Kurtz as a repentant sinner are seen by us only through Marlow elaborate and deep study of his character.

Traditional and Modern Element are Interwoven in this Novel

The company’s doctor, who examines Marlow before setting out for sail, is very much a modern man who is interested in analyzing the changes of minds of explorers. Both Psychology and Psychiatry are modern sciences which were becoming the regular sciences in the contemporary time. Marlow himself shows much interest in the psychological study of character’s mind. Moreover, he says he himself is becoming a fit subject for the psychologist to study his mind. Besides, Marlow feels the futility and anarchy of modern life. Mr. Kurtz’s transformation into the devils caused just on account of the influence of darkness, and his high sounding dialogue now become divorced from reality. Side by side, the story of Heart of Darkness is read as myth also. The pictures of two ominous women knitting with black wool are suggestive fate that determines the destiny of man in this world. Marlow’s voyage to the darkness of Congo much resembles Dente’s Inferno. Thus, this novel is both a modern as well as a traditional in its mode of narration and content.

The Structure of “Heart of Darkness”

The structure of this novel is very complex because, first, we find two narrators. The first narrator tells us about Marlow and when Marlow starts to speak he vecomes the listener but at intervals when Marlow stops to take long breath or to brood he speaks again. Though most of the story narrated by Marlow yet the first narrator intervenes occasionally. It puzzles the reader. Second complexity derives from the shifts in time. Marlow, in the course of speaking, suddenly begins to speak of as incident about which he would know later on in future and thus breaks the sequence. For example when Marlow was narrating circumstances under which the Captain of a Belgian Trading ship met his end in Congo, he suddenly informs us about his unstarted journey to the Congo. Finally, even the division of the novel is arbitrary. There is no plane in designing the three chapters. Each have abrupt end thus Heart of Darkness ca not claim to be an organized whole.

To sum up: The novel Heart of Darkness is highly admired for its skillful and subtle blend of various themes, characterization and especially the character of Mr. Kurtz has become an immoral figure in the history of novels.

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sscafe (author) on February 05, 2013:


Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on February 05, 2013:

Nice summary of the intricacies of this famous work! I like you analysis here. Welcome to HubPages - hope to see more of your writing!

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