Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: Analysis and Themes

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

First published in 1899, Heart of Darkness – which formed the basis of the 1979 Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now – is one of the first recognisably modernist works of literature in English fiction. Its author was the Polish-born Joseph Conrad, and English wasn’t his first language (or even, for that matter, his second). As well as being a landmark work of modernism, Conrad’s novella also explores the subject of imperialism, and Conrad’s treatment of this subject has been met with both criticism and praise.

In this post, we’ll offer an analysis of Heart of Darkness in relation to these two key ideas: modernism and imperialism.

The Problem of Storytelling

In a letter of 5 August 1897 to his friend Cunninghame Graham, Joseph Conrad wrote: ‘One writes only half the book – the other half is with the reader.’

In other words, a book should leave the reader with room to manoeuvre: it should be, to borrow Hilary Mantel’s phrase, a book of questions rather than a book of answers. The reader makes up the meaning of the book as much as the writer. This is a key feature of modernist fiction, which is often impressionistic: giving us glimpses and hints but refusing to spell everything out to the reader.

With this in mind, it’s worth considering the moments when Marlow stops and interrupts the tried and tested literary framework of the novella. One of the questions which it’s very easy to trick people out with is the question, ‘Who is the narrator of Heart of Darkness?’ ‘Why, Marlow, of course!’

Except the narrator is not Marlow – not the main narrator, anyway. Marlow doesn’t address us, the reader; he addresses his friends on the boat, the Nellie, and then there is an unnamed narrator, one of the other people on the boat listening to Marlow, and it’s this unnamed individual who addresses us in his role as the conventional narrator.

And Marlow, who tells the story to the real narrator and his companions, cannot just sit and tell it. He has to check with his audience that they are ‘getting it’; and they’re not getting it, at least not fully. They’re having to work hard to ‘see’ what he’s recounting to them. That is, there’s a constant anxiety on Marlow’s part as to whether his audience – his ‘readers’, as it were – are understanding the story he’s telling them.

Marlow interrupts his narrative several times, at least once simply because he is despairing of the efficacy of his own storytelling technique. It’s the literary equivalent of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ – we may just about be beginning to imagine the scene in the heart of Africa when suddenly our imagination is jolted back to Marlow, sitting in a boat on the Thames.

We’re not invited to get too cosy with Marlow’s narrative, and not just because of the dark events he’s describing: the way he describes them is constantly making us question what we are being told:

Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me 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 of the very essence of dreams …

Note the subtle play on the word ‘relation’ here, where as well as meaning ‘the telling of a dream’ (relating a story to someone), it also glimmers with the other meaning of ‘relation’, i.e., one who is related to us, such as a brother or sister. It is as if fiction, stories, are the cousins of dreams, in that they’re both narratives that are at once both vividly and yet only dimly remembered. That is, you remember some aspects of dreams vividly, and others only hazily.

And ‘hazily’ is just the word. Note how the narrator describes Marlow’s way of telling a story, in a passage from Heart of Darkness that has become famous:

But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

This passage pinpoints what Conrad is doing with Heart of Darkness: using the framework or basic structure of many an imperial adventure story of the late nineteenth century (Heart of Darkness was originally serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine, which was known for its gung-ho tales set in exotic parts of the world which were under European imperial rule), but undermining it by questioning the very basis on which such stories are founded. Language, as the multilingual Conrad knew, is an imperfect and flawed tool for conveying our experiences.

Delayed Decoding

‘Delayed decoding’ is Ian Watt’s term for the moments in Conrad’s fiction where the narrator withholds information from us so that we have to work out what’s going on bit by bit, just as the narrator himself (and it is always a himself with Conrad) had to at the time. As Watt himself writes, delayed decoding serves ‘mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness of each step in the process’.

It’s as if you were there, and as confused and bewildered by it all as the narrator himself was. A good example is the moment when Marlow comes upon the abandoned hut in the jungle, and finds a strange book on the ground which contains notes pencilled in the margins which, he tells us, appear to be written in cipher, or code.

He – and we – later find out that it’s not written in code, but Russian. He makes us wait until the point in the narrative when he found out his mistake before he corrects it. This has two effects: it brings us closer to Marlow’s own experience (we learn things as we go along, just as he did at the time), but it also makes us work harder as readers, since we are encouraged to appraise carefully everything we are told. We can’t trust anything we read.


Much modernist fiction may be written in the past tense, as Heart of Darkness is, but a good deal of modernist fiction is narrated as though it were written in the present tense. That is, it wants to recreate the immediacy of the experience, the way it felt for the character/narrator as it happened.

It’s as if it doesn’t trust the overly neat brand of hindsight which is offered by the traditional Victorian novel written in the perfect (past) tense. Delayed decoding is one of the chief ways that Conrad goes about recreating the ‘presentness’ of Marlow’s experience, the sense of what it was like for him – surrounded by things he’s only half-figured out – as these things were happening to him.

The literary critic F. R. Leavis, who was otherwise a great admirer of Conrad, remarked that Conrad often seemed ‘intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means.’ Certainly Conrad seems to enjoy uncertainty, obscurity – darkness, if you will, like the Heart of Darkness.

In The English Novel: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton remarks that Conrad’s prose is both vivid or concrete and ambiguous or equivocal. It’s like describing mist in very precise terms, or depicting something as solid and tangible as a spear in terms which seem to make it melt into the air. This takes us back to Marlow’s own comparison between the story he is telling his companions and the experience of a dream.

Heart of Darkness and imperialism

Imperialism is an important theme of Heart of Darkness, but this, too, is treated in both vivid yet ambiguous or hazy terms. As Eagleton observes, the problems with Conrad’s treatment of imperialism are several: first, his depiction of African natives comes across as stereotyped and insufficient (a criticism that Chinua Achebe memorably made), but second, Conrad depicts the whole imperialist mission as irrational and borderline mad.

This overlooks the Enlightenment rationalism that underpinned the European imperial mission: colonialists used their belief in their ‘superior’ reason as an excuse for enslaving other peoples are taking their resources. This belief may have been misguided and immoral, but it was hardly ‘irrational’: to depict it as such rather lets imperialists off the hook for their crimes, as if they were not in their right minds when they committed their atrocities or plundered other nations for their wealth.

However, when compared with other writers of his period, Conrad can be viewed as a more thoughtful writer on empire than many other late nineteenth-century authors. Consider Marlow’s account of the dying African natives:

They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. … Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly. … He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck – Why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge – an ornament – a charm – a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it? It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas.

Marlow is ‘horror-struck’ by the sight of these starving people, although he does go on to describe them as ‘creatures’, which strikes a discordant note to our modern ears. But it’s clear that Marlow is appalled by the plight of the natives where many colonialists of the time would have simply stepped over the bodies as an inconvenience.

From this, Marlow turns to describing the next European he meets:

When near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision. I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear.

The contrast could not be clearer. The ‘greenish gloom’ in which the dying African youth fades away has become that thing of comfort: the European’s ‘green-lined parasol’. The ‘bit of white worsted’ tied around the African’s neck is replaced by the ‘clean necktie’ of the colonialist.

Of course, the novella’s ultimate depiction of the corruption at the heart of the imperial mission is Mr Kurtz himself, who has set himself up as a god among the African natives. An fundamentally, here we are presented with more questions than answers. Kurtz is driven mad by it all – there’s imperialism as an irrational undertaking again – but what is equally telling is Marlow’s decision to lie to Kurtz’s fiancée when he visits her at the end of Heart of Darkness.

Is it because, to borrow Kurtz’s final words, ‘the horror’ would be too great? Is it an act of sympathy or cowardice: is Marlow complicit in the horrors of imperialism in continuing to insulate those ‘back home’ from the atrocities which are carried out abroad so that, for instance, Kurtz’s fiancée can have that ‘grand piano’ (with its ivory keys, of course) standing in the corner of a room ‘like a sombre and polished sarcophagus’?


  1. It was perfectly possible to be both anti-imperialist and racist when Conrad wrote “Heart of Darkness”. “Race” was used in a much wider and vaguer sense than the word would be used now – where we would attribute something to “culture”, Conrad and his contemporaries attributed it to “race”. People spoke of the “races” of England.
    Josef Škvorecký examines the presence of the Russian Harlequin in Kurtz’s outpost in his novel “The Engineer of Human Souls” and in an essay “Why the Harlequin?”;view=image;q1=Skvorecky%2C+Josef

  2. Your analysis of Heart of Darkness was well written and held my interest throughout. Thank you!

    A Conrad fan