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.
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon

Heart of Darkness plays with the genre of quest literature. In a quest, a hero passes through a series of difficult tests to find an object or person of importance, and in the process comes to a realization about the true nature of the world or human soul. Marlow seems to be on just such a quest, making his way past absurd and horrendous "stations" on his way up the Congo to find Kurtz, the shining beacon of European civilization and morality in the midst of the dark jungle and the "flabby rapacious folly" of the other Belgian Company agents.

But Marlow's quest is a failure: Kurtz turns out to be the biggest monster of all. And with that failure Marlow learns that at the heart of everything there lies only darkness. In other words, you can't know other people, and you can't even really know yourself. There is no fundamental truth.

The Lack of Truth ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Lack of Truth appears in each section of Heart of Darkness. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Lack of Truth Quotes in Heart of Darkness

Below you will find the important quotes in Heart of Darkness related to the theme of The Lack of Truth.
Part 1 Quotes
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.

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Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams...no, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow suddenly breaks with his fluid narration to reflect on the process of narration itself. He anxiously wonders whether the listeners aboard the Nellie are following the story and notes that he cannot impart the full gravity of the events he experienced.

Though Marlow begins with a direct and sensible question, asking if the listeners can visualize the character of Kurtz, he soon moves to broader questions on storytelling. These play somewhat fast and loose with visual imagery: One does not, after all, "see" a story, and the boat is now sufficiently dark that the sailors cannot literally see anything before them. On the one hand, Marlow is speaking about the specific conditions of the Congo adventure, which he repeatedly uses the term “dream” to describe—as if they were a fundamentally different reality ordered around rules that the sailors cannot possibly comprehend. But he is also making a general comment on storytelling, in which the complete “life-sensation” of a prior experience of “one’s existence” cannot ever be truly captured in its recounting.

The use of the term “essence” is significant and seems to support the second option. At the novel’s onset, Marlow observed that the essence of a tale was less important than its surface content or effect on the listener. In these lines, the “essence” of a dream is deemed “the incredible,” but it is therefore the exact thing that cannot be conveyed to others. That primal and incredible sensation, Marlow implies, is only ever experienced “alone.” And by equating living and dreaming in that final line, Marlow indicates that this inability to share an essence is a universal conclusion he has arrived at through his travels. Perhaps, then, the meaning of a story lies only in its surface because that is all that listeners can understand.

Part 2 Quotes
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
"The horror! The horror!"
Related Characters: Kurtz (speaker)
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Kurtz speaks these famous final words to Marlow as their ship slowly returns from the Inner Station. They do not refer to the horror of any particular object or event, but rather are a broad diagnosis of the Congo and of humanity.

This open-ended quality makes the lines difficult to parse. The horror, here, may refer to Kurtz’s failed attempt to instill reason in the Congo and his fall from a prophetic figure to a corpse-like body made of nothing but greed and rhetoric. We could consider the horror, then, to be the environmental factors of the Congo that caused Kurtz to go mad, or perhaps the central horror in humanity that was unleashed in Kurtz by the wilderness. The horror may, alternatively, be the colonial enterprise itself. It presumed to bring Enlightenment to the “natives” but actually led to terror and exploitation.

The lines also have a rhythmic quality formed by the repetition of the same phrase, indicating that even as Kurtz degenerates he still maintains the ability to forge powerful rhetoric. After all, these words stay in the minds of both Marlow and reader—they are the most cited of Conrad’s work—so that even if Kurtz is deemed hollow, the way he conveys that hollowness still carries some value. There may be no answer as to the exact nature of the heart of darkness, but its very broadness makes it deeply compelling.

"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.

I was within a hair's-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. . . . He had summed up—he had judged. "The horror!" He was a remarkable man.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow has by become deeply ill. As he fights to stay alive, he reflects on Kurtz’s last words and concludes that they were braver and more laudable than he originally thought.

By this point, the reader has begun to see Kurtz in a very negative light, but Marlow switches his tone to “affirm” that he “was a remarkable man.” Yet to be remarkable for Marlow is not to have accomplished anything ethical or even impressive, but rather to have vocalized an earnestly held belief. We should note that having “something to say” makes no claim on whether that “something” is good or evil, but simply comments on the conviction of saying it. “Summed up” lauds the phrase’s ability to have encapsulated so many different meanings, while “judged” indicates a shrewd analysis of the content and how it will be received by an audience.

In this way, “The horror! The horror!” must be reevaluated. Marlow, now himself in a situation analogous to Kurtz’s, no longer sees it as hollow, but rather takes its enigmatic quality as a sign of power. Here we see Marlow act based on the role of a storyteller, for he defines the significance of things based on their rhetorical strength: on the way they can convey the terrors of the world to others. Conrad indicates that while the search for substance and for ethical truth may be ultimately lacking in Marlow’s journey, perhaps the language itself can carry an aesthetic truth capable of affecting the listeners.

I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. 'I knew it—I was sure!' . . . She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz's Intended (speaker), Kurtz
Related Symbols: Women
Page Number: 71-72
Explanation and Analysis:

In his story’s final scene, Marlow visits Kurtz's “Intended” (fiance) who asks him to recite Kurtz’s last words. Fearful that admitting they were “The horror! The horror!” would betray Kurtz’s descent into madness, Marlow decides to lie and tell her Kurtz spoke her name. Marlow debates whether the lie makes him ethically complicit in colonialism, or whether it was necessary to preserve the Intended’s illusions.

The certainty with which the Intended responds speaks to how blind and distant Europeans are from the actual events in the Congo. She is entirely convinced by the idealistic image of Kurtz as a bearer of Enlightenment—and of him as a man faithful to her. (Remember that he had a mistress in the Inner Station!) Marlow stresses how ridiculous this certainty is by first quoting and then paraphrasing the lines. “I knew it” becomes “She knew”; “I was sure” becomes “She was sure.” In the distance between first and third person, we see a tone both ironic and despairing.

The Intended's certainty causes Marlow to wonder about the ethics of his lie. Though the stakes of the individual lie may be small, they stand for a larger lie about the avarice and human terror he witnesses on his journey. To swap the Intended’s name for "the horror" is a metaphor for how "civilized" Europeans obscure the horror of the Congo (and of all humanity). So Marlow expects divine retribution for this lie…except nothing of the sort occurs. That this discrepancy causes Marlow to consider the lie “such a trifle,” returns us to the question of scale ever-present in this book. Even if the lie stands for a human heart of darkness, Marlow claims, that lie is still a trifle when compared to the earth and the heavens.

The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dark and White
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In its final moments, the text steps outside of Marlow’s story and returns to the frame narrative. The narrator ruminates once more on the surrounding landscape, yet his imagery deviates sharply from the one used to open the text.

Whereas the narrator had previously used metaphors of fire and sparks to describe the Enlightenment brought by Europeans to distant lands, here he focuses on images of darkness: the alliterative “black bank” that “barred” the offing; the waterway that “flowed sombre”; the “overcast sky.” As Marlow told his story, the light aboard the ship gradually darkened, and here that literal and metaphorical obscuring reaches its conclusion. The waterway is no longer the route to sharing London’s brilliance, but rather only carries the darkness of England into the darknesses of distant lands. No real distinction can be made between civilized and uncivilized.

Yet despite this lack of light, the Thames is still deemed “tranquil,” a consistency that reiterates once more the scale of the natural world in comparison to those existing among it. Though the narrator may now see colonial pursuits as more horrific, the water will stay consistent. Note, too, the addition of “immense” to the title “heart of darkness.” At the novel's end, the narrator implies that the horror of the Congo is not simply located at its core. Rather, it is an extensive, perhaps universal, darkness that can be found at any point on the globe.