Heart of Darkness

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Themes and Colors
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Heart of Darkness, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Colonialism Theme Icon

Marlow's story in Heart of Darkness takes place in the Belgian Congo, the most notorious European colony in Africa for its greed and brutalization of the native people. In its depiction of the monstrous wastefulness and casual cruelty of the colonial agents toward the African natives, Heart of Darkness reveals the utter hypocrisy of the entire colonial effort. In Europe, colonization of Africa was justified on the grounds that not only would it bring wealth to Europe, it would also civilize and educate the "savage" African natives. Heart of Darkness shows that in practice the European colonizers used the high ideals of colonization as a cover to allow them to viciously rip whatever wealth they could from Africa.

Unlike most novels that focus on the evils of colonialism, Heart of Darkness pays more attention to the damage that colonization does to the souls of white colonizers than it does to the physical death and devastation unleashed on the black natives. Though this focus on the white colonizers makes the novella somewhat unbalanced, it does allow Heart of Darkness to extend its criticism of colonialism all the way back to its corrupt source, the "civilization" of Europe.

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Colonialism Quotes in Heart of Darkness

Below you will find the important quotes in Heart of Darkness related to the theme of Colonialism.
Part 1 Quotes
The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth... Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!...The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires.
Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

At the novel’s onset the narrator reflects on the significance of the River Thames. The Thames flows through London to the Atlantic Ocean, so it has served as the connector between the capital of England and the rest of the world. He focuses, here, on the English citizens engaged in exploration and imperialism, and tends to aggrandize the dreams and pursuits he describes.

Rivers are important and complicated symbols throughout Heart of Darkness, and the narrator presents the Thames as “unruffled” and possessing a “tranquil dignity.” It is a placid and consistent force that contrasts with the movement of both Londoners and the “hunters” who journey forth. Yet the river also plays the boundary role between its “ebb" and the earth's “mystery.” So the same calm and indifferent water described here is also responsible for the violent colonial events treated later in the text.

The narrator’s opening reflections on English colonials reveal his position to be generally positive, even laudatory. Though he touches on potential sins of avarice (“gold”) and vanity (“fame”), he casts their actions in the language of missionaries who bring something inherently positive and enlightening from “the sacred fire” of England. The fire imagery contrasts notably with the dark and aquatic Thames, highlighting the bright but short-lived energy of human pursuits in comparison to the cool stability of nature. The symbols shift once more in the final line, from sparks to “seed” and “germs,” demonstrating a belief that these emissaries will be the origin points for positive developments wherever they travel. These images will repeatedly be called into question throughout the novel, so it is important to note how Conrad sets up the narrator as generally affirming of colonialism at the onset of the text.

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'And this also,' said Marlow suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the earth.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dark and White
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow interjects here on two levels—first into the silence aboard the ship and second into the narrator’s descriptions—to make this stark comment on the history of England.

Whereas the narrator praises English explorers and conquerers for bringing light to dark and foreign lands, Marlow locates darkness within England itself. To support this point, he references the land’s more ancient history when it was taken over by the Romans—thus constructing a parallel between the Roman invasion and Europe’s current colonialism in Africa. In this way, he stresses the relatively small time scale in which the Thames has served as the launch-pad for the world power, subtly undermining the narrator’s focus on European civilization.

His choice of the term “dark” is critical. Conrad could have certainly opted for the more descriptive adjectives “savage” or “uncouth,” but instead he selects a metaphorical term that contrasts directly to the fire-bearing image of the narrator, that implicates race, and that refers directly to the novel’s title. If the narrator might locate the “heart of darkness” in the Congo, Marlow already hints that England holds its own corresponding darknesses. The symbolic and geographical lines, he implies, cannot be drawn as simply as the listener or reader might desire.

In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

To support his point on the old darkness of London, Marlow constructs a tale of a Roman citizen who arrived in what is now England. With a language that will later parallel his descriptions of the Congo, Marlow describes the insidious way a new and inhospitable environment will challenge the morality and identity of someone unfamiliar with its domains.

At first the description seems to juxtapose the inner civility of the Roman with the outer “savagery” of the environment: The “forest,” “jungles,” and “wild men” are all figures that must be confronted without any fore-knowledge. And that lack of understanding notably makes them “detestable,” alluding to the deep hatred and fear that can stem from encountering foreign environments. Yet in the second half of the image, Marlow’s position takes a dramatic turn. He observes that the savage “mysteries” also hold a “fascination.” The inner civility of the Roman, he implies, is actually susceptible to and allured by the savagery of the external environment.

Whereas we might assume that the violence in the situation is the result of the Roman simply rejecting the new savage lands, Marlow implies that it comes from a strange combination of hatred and “fascination.” The hypothetical character is pulled in two directions, hoping to leave, but also succumbing to the savagery and thus arriving at a state of intense “hate”—presumably for both himself and for others. These lines clarify the reason Marlow attributes darkness to London, and they also foreshadow the encounter of supposedly civilized Europeans with hostile foreign environments later in the text.

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

After having ruminated indirectly on colonialism, Marlow makes a more direct criticism of the enterprise here. The comment is a challenge both to the narrator and other listeners aboard the ship who may be implicated in colonialism—as well as to the European society reading the novel itself.

In order to substantiate this comment, Marlow first redefines the subtly positive term “conquest of the earth,” which would present the English as powerful victors controlling the land of the earth. Yet Marlow points out that this earth is already populated by people and that to conquer means “taking it away” from others. Furthermore, the biggest difference between these others and the English is nothing moral or spiritual, but rather something based on surface-level physical details: “complexion” and “flatter noses.” Marlow directly calls out the racism inherent in colonialism.

His reference to looking closely into things is, however, a bit more ambiguous. On the one hand, Marlow implies that his listeners should look more closely into the conquest of the earth and more critically evaluate their actions. This idea is supported by the fact the statement comes from a novel, in particular a novel dense with metaphorical imagery that demands its own reader look very closely. Yet at other times in the text, Marlow criticizes characters who investigate too much, who look too closely; he prefers, as a captain, to take solace in the surface of navigation and efficient work. We see here not so much an aggressive moral judgment as a portrayal of a character who has come to recognize deep flaws in colonialism and yet who remains uncertain of how to negotiate them.

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow here recounts the irrational and bizarre actions of a French war ship he encounters while he's on the steamer that will take him to the mouth of the Congo River. To his eyes, the ship is shooting aimlessly into the "bush" without any direct or sensible goal.

This anecdote highlights the emptiness that undergirds many of the European colonial endeavors. The ship seems to be engaged in “one of their wars” but it has no actual enemy and attacks the imprecise “continent” of Africa itself. This functions a metaphor for how Europeans seek grandeur in their colonial journeys but often find themselves acting haphazardly and lacking a coherent goal. Specific descriptions of the ship are all decrepit or trivial—“limp like a rag” “low hull,” “thin masts”—and contrast with the profound scale of the surrounding environment: “earth, sky, and water.” Marlow juxtaposes the absurdities of human action with the natural realm, a realm so large that canons become “a tiny projectile” and “nothing could happen” from the actions of humans.

“Incomprehensible,” one should note, is one of Marlow’s and Conrad’s most repeated words. This is a perplexing term for both a storyteller and a novelist, for it does not actually describe anything but rather notes that something cannot be understood or explained. This professed uncertainty is one way Marlow undermines the tropes of a traditional adventure story. His journey up the Congo is filled with more questions than answers, more uncertainties than explanations. No clear conclusion is ever presented about the French ship’s actions. And in this sense, human acts of interpretation are themselves presented much like the ship’s guns: They are overwhelmed by the largeness that they seek to comprehend.

The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I've never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

As Marlow works to repair the ship at the Central Station, he reflects on the agents’ obsession with ivory: the main commodity that interests the Europeans in the Congo. Marlow’s earnest manual labor sharply contrasts the way others merely dream of wealth, and Marlow once more trivializes those wishes by alluding to the scale of the surrounding environment.

Ivory is presented in the passage not only as an economic commodity, but also as a kind of supernatural force. The fact that the agents seem to be “praying to it” gives it a religious aura, and the object transforms the station into something “unreal.” Greed seems to drive that transformation: the “imbecile rapacity” that Marlow sees as mean, counterproductive, and decrepit. Comparing the greed to the “whiff from some corpse” implies that it is a fundamentally inhuman behavior, and the corpse imagery will resurface in his later descriptions of Kurtz.

Once more, Marlow contrasts these small human actions and greeds with the immensity of the “silent wilderness.” That immensity, however, is not necessarily a positive force, for it is likened to both “evil” and “truth.” Two interpretations seem possible here: Either truth is fundamentally evil or both terms are so vast, like the wilderness, that they evade the parameters of human ethical understanding. In contrast, the station is just a “speck,” and all of colonialism becomes a “fantastic invasion.” Like the French ship from earlier in the story, the enterprise becomes a ridiculous episode that will eventually fade into the massive scale of the landscape.

Part 2 Quotes
In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow encounters the Eldorado Expedition as he waits for the rivets necessary to repair his boat. After spending some time in the camp, the pilgrims who comprise the group depart, causing Marlow to make this morbid and sardonic comment on their fate in the wilderness.

Once more, Marlow compares the scales of human endeavors and the natural environment. He links the Congolese wilderness with the earlier imagery of the ocean’s vastness with the simile “as the sea closes over a diver.” Unlike explorers who stay on ships above water, however, these submarine divers are blatantly unsuccessful. Instead of explicitly describing their death, Marlow notes that the donkeys died, and then he subtly belittles the pilgrims by referring to them as “less valuable animals.” The implication, here, is that beasts of labor produce more value than the lazy and cowardly pilgrims. This is highlighted by their name: Eldorado is a non-existent city pursued by Spanish conquistadors in the Americas. The fact that this African expedition is unaware of this legacy and still selects the name reiterates the haphazardness of their goals.

Marlow’s tone becomes even crueler in the final sentences when he asserts that the pilgrims’ actions merited their fate. He seems to be developing a new ethical code that grows ever more critical of European colonial exploitation. In particular, the reference to “like the rest of us” demonstrates that this is not just a specific complaint about the Eldorado Expedition, but rather one that can be hoisted on himself and on those others aboard the Nellie.

It was a distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home—perhaps; setting his face towards the depth of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow conjures this image of Kurtz as he eavesdrops on the General Manager’s conversation with his Uncle. The two trade gossip about how Kurtz may be ill, and offer the evidence that he had planned on leaving the Inner Station before suddenly deciding to return.

Marlow finds himself taken with the poetry of this scene. On one level, it rejects the narrative desired by other Europeans seeking their fortune: that is, enter as deeply as possible into the Congo, extract large quantities of ivory, and then rapidly return to civilization. These people would equate headquarters with “relief” from the wilderness and see it as a step back across the sea toward a European home.

But Kurtz seems to be attracted to the “depth of the wilderness,” the same incomprehensible entity for which Marlow is developing both respect and fear. Kurtz turns away, too, from social contact and order, opting for a space described only in the negative terms of “empty” and “desolate.” Instead of valuing the European comrades of his home, he chooses the “paddling savages.” Though the General Manager and his uncle interpret the scene as either an indication of illness or a secret plot, Marlow focuses on the “distinct glimpse” or the poetry of the image. Something in Kurtz’s rejection of civilization appeals to him.

The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dark and White
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Marlow has begun the final stage of his journey toward the Inner Station. He offers a series of poetic descriptions of that journey, trying to pin down the physical environment and the psychological experience of this new and uncanny realm.

These lines subtly trade agency between the environment and the humans. At first Marlow anthropomorphizes (gives human-like characteristics to) the forest. It can open and close as if it has a will of its own; the simile of "stepping" to block the group's access casts the environment as explicitly human. The adverb “leisurely” focuses our attention on the casualness of this behavior, and Marlow repeatedly stresses the indifference of the surrounding environment to the human presence. Yet the final line shifts a bit of control back to the boat with the term “penetrated.” The aggressive, even phallic, verb highlights the way the expedition is intruding into the Congo, and makes their cohort seem less aimless than some of the travelers depicted before.

Finally, Marlow delivers the titular phrase “heart of darkness” to refer directly to Inner Station. But what is meant by darkness at this point in the text is far from self evident. Recall that Marlow describes London as a place of darkness and has repeatedly pointed to the darknesses in the behaviors of various Europeans. The Inner Station may be dark because it is the center of the Congo, but its darkness also stems from the hideous moral truth Marlow will uncover there, and because it epitomizes the evil actions of European colonists.

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the 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. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

After contemplating the physical environment of the Congo, Marlow begins to consider the Congolese people. The lines reveal a deep racism, for they deny the humanity of the “natives,” but they also imply that the supposedly civilized Europeans engage in similarly brutal behaviors.

Marlow introduces these ideas not with an assertive claim, but rather through a self-correction. He catches himself about to compare the “unearthly” environment with the “inhuman” men, but realizes while forming the sentence that it would be erroneous. Unwilling to fully commit to the humanity of the Congolese, he describes this as a “suspicion.” He also implies, when he describes this thought as coming slowly to him, that it is a conclusion he reached from his exploration of the Congo. The lesson, it seems, is to look beyond the appearances or superficial actions and instead consider the more common “kinship” and common “humanity” between the locals and the Europeans.

This similarity is not, however, located in a positive human ideal, but rather in a common horror, in something “ugly” about all humans. Perhaps it is the same greed Marlow has repeatedly observed in those surrounding him. The “trace of a response” recalls his earlier anecdote about the Roman citizen who, arriving in a savage England, became fascinated by the abomination of the environment. And Marlow himself has been drawn to (and frightened by) the “meaning” of the inscrutable wilderness. Here, he implies that the “meaning” is found at the origin of humanity, and that to access that origin one must journey back in time to penetrate the heart of a human darkness. So while these lines are blatantly racist—a racism that has made many readers deeply skeptical of Conrad’s work—they also reveal a complex relationship to human nature. Marlow points to a universal evil that Europeans have merely covered up in the social graces of their society.

It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow sees this horrifying statement at the end of Kurtz’s treatise “On the Suppression of Savage Customs.” Kurtz, he goes on to explain, had been commissioned to write the report by an International Society of the same name. The majority of the text features grandiose statements on the need for Europeans to civilize natives, but the end radically shifts tone and calls for violent extermination.

The piece of writing shows Kurtz at both his most idealistic and his most brutal. Its simplicity and its attention to “altruistic sentiment” mark it as a prophetic text that could significantly alter colonial attitudes back in Europe. Perhaps the treatise would cause Londoners to adopt less brutal and more benevolent practices in the Congo. Yet after seventeen pages of that “serene sky,” the scrawled postscript demands complete annihilation. The shift implies that Kurtz has lost his noble sentiments—perhaps due to mental illness, perhaps due to an epiphany reached in the Congo—and now has been consumed fully by hate and avarice.

That Marlow observes this change in a piece of writing is revealing, particularly considering his own role as a storyteller. Marlow is attentive to the way language functions as a mask that obscures rather than reveals reality. Though Marlow is at first enraptured by Kurtz’s words—as he has been by the ideal of Kurtz to offer something less hollow than other Europeans—he comes to realize that the treatise is yet another linguistic mask.

Part 3 Quotes
There was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. But the wilderness found him out early, and had taken vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow’s criticisms of Kurtz grow increasingly direct. Though the two have not actually met in the narrated story, Marlow often makes these retrospective asides in order to frame the events of the tale. His main contention here is a hollowness he perceives in Kurtz, which we know by now is a red flag for Marlow.

Marlow first contrasts the surface of Kurtz’s “magnificent eloquence,” epitomized by his writing, with his internal fortitude, which is “wanting.” At first this might not seem to imply complete hollowness, but rather a “small matter” or tiny flaw. Yet Marlow asserts that the Congo unleashes the terror of that small deficiency. His language implies that the environment plays an evil nurturing role, “whispering” horrible truths that Kurtz takes into “counsel.” Though other Europeans have described the Congo environment as driving colonists mad, these lines claim that the madness is not simply imposed. Rather, the environment allows pre-existing qualities to grow; it fascinates something that already existed inside Kurtz.

Yet Marlow does not use this conclusion to absolve Kurtz of guilt. Rather, he takes it as proof that “he was hollow at the core,” just as vacant as the paper-mâché Brickmaker and as lacking in principle as any other colonialist. The heart of darkness, then, does not seem to be the physical environment at all, but rather the interior truth of man that only fully manifests itself in that certain environment.

"Mistah Kurtz—he dead."
Related Characters: The General Manager's servant (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Soon after Marlow hears Kurtz's “The horror! The horror!” the General Manager’s servant notifies him, and by extension the sailors on the Nellie and the reader, that Kurtz has perished.

Instead of actually describing the death, Conrad makes it a pithy phrase. It is especially odd considering Marlow’s tendency to wax poetic on imagery and even on previous morbid scenes. Why has the actual moment of Kurtz’s death been hidden from the reader’s vision? We can make sense of the scene by connecting it to Marlow’s anxieties about rendering stories in all their detail. Instead of trying to give the full emotional weight of Kurtz’s death, Marlow opts to present the lines “The horror! The horror!” as the final image and then avoid the moment itself.

This is also one of the only times that we see a native Congolese speak in the text. This shift is particularly poignant as the character is announcing the death of the person who epitomized the European forces. After all, voice and speaking power hve been repeatedly imbued with a deep significance in the novel. Conrad, then, takes Kurtz’s story out of his own control, showing how at this moment of death his narrative will be ordered by others. It is the Congolese who will describe his death, and the burden will fall on Marlow to preserve his reputation back home.