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The Meaning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The Meaning of Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has a symbolic meaning behind its title like many other great works of literature. The title can actually be interpreted in many different ways. One way the title can be looked at is that it portrays how Conrad viewed the continent of Africa. It might also represent entering into a more primitive society, witnessing humans transforming from civilized to savage. Perhaps the Heart of Darkness refers to the colonialism and imperialism that the Europeans were practicing at the turn of the 20th century.

In the setting that Joseph Conrad gives the characters in the Heart of Darkness, Africa was still greatly unexplored by Europeans. It was thought by many Europeans to be a dark place of savages and strange beasts. As the author Gary Adelman writes in his book Heart of Darkness Search for the Unconscious, “As the journey proceeds from the Coastal Station to Kurtz’s outpost, darkness increasingly becomes associated with savagery, cannibalism, and human sacrifice, with Africans as the embodiment of these ideas” (p.87). Conrad depicts his ideas about Africa in this way as well as through the character of Marlow. As author Gary Adelman comments on this in his book Heart of Darkness Search for the Unconscious “Africans, in their free state, as described by Marlow, epitomizes not only the primitive condition of humankind, but also an actively demoralizing influence, which a white man coming to Africa must challenge.” (p. 69) In many description located in the novel Conrad depicts Africa and it’s people as being dark and of inhuman nature. “It was unearthly, and the men were -No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it -this suspicion of t…

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… Darkness is that he meant the darkness and wickedness that he saw and associated with European colonialism and imperialistic rule of Africa. Some slight undertones and actions of some of the characters in the novel can show this. The meaning of Heart of Darkness is open to many different interpretations as to what the author means by using the phrase heart of darkness that can easily be linked to different themes. The meaning of the title will more than likely be forever shrouded in ambiguity.

Works Cited

Aldman, Gary. Heart of Darkness: Search for the Unconscious. Twayne Publishers: Boston, 1987

Brantlinger, Patrick. Heart of Darkness: Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?. MacMillan Press Limited, University of Miami: 1996

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. 1997. September 24, 2000.

Comparing Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Totem and Taboo

Parallels Between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Totem and Taboo

The force of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness lies in the strange relationship between Marlow and Kurtz, and the responses of Marlow to what Kurtz has evoked in him. Ultimately, the novel functions as a subjective account of one man’s experiences with what he believes to be a more essential and more pure state of man. That much of the novel consists of Marlow’s attempts to understand, define, and redefine his opinion of Kurtz points to this man’s importance in Marlow’s views of the primitive state of humanity. Kurtz functions as a European who has crossed the line from European civilization to African barbarism. Thus he becomes emblematic of the European experience in this environment, and his fate looms as a possibility for Marlow. What emerges as more interesting, however, are the parallels between Marlow’s understanding of Kurtz and the primal family in Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Marlow’s attitudes toward Kurtz develop in the same pattern as Freud’s description of the original dynamic between father and son; this parallel consequently implies the connection of Kurtz to the primitive and the inability of Marlow to escape society.

The first point of similarity between Conrad’s account of Kurtz and Freud’s theory of the original father appears in the granting of absolute power to both figures. Freud’s description of the paternal role in primitive society rests upon Darwin’s theory of the primal horde. Freud puts forth the essential features of this society as “a violent and jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away his sons” (175). The characterization Freud uses here deliberately implies a kin…

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… The primitive, demonstrated by both Kurtz and the primal father, defines through action. Civilization, however, leaves definition indeterminate in its lack of action. The quest for the primitive becomes a search for the definition of an undefined present.

Works Cited and Consulted

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness, New York: Dover, 1990.

Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard U. Press, 1958.

Freud, Sigmund. “Totem and Taboo.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey: 1913

Tessitore, John. “Freud, Conrad, and Heart of Darkness.” Modern Critical Interpretations.” Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 91-103.

Spivack, Charlotte. “The Journey to Hell: Satan, The Shadow, and the Self.” Centennial Review 9:4 (1965): 420 – 437.

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