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Themes

Little Words, Big Ideas

Good vs. Evil

From the minute you wake up in the morning, life is a moral struggle: hit the snooze button, or get up and go for that run you promised yourself you'd take? Put your dishes in the dishwasher, or le...

Man and the Natural World

Move over, Mother Nature: there's a new wilderness in town. In Heart of Darkness, the natural world isn't a place of comfort or pleasure or even mild neutrality: it's dark, frightening, and it will...

Race

Conrad doesn't exactly want to buy the world a Coke, but he does seem to have some unconventional ideas about race—at least, unconventional for the late nineteenth century. In Heart of Darkness,...

Identity

By the end of his journey into the Congo, Marlow is so mixed up that he might as well be singing, "I Am the Walrus." Although he starts off with a pretty clear sense of who he is (white, successful...

Power

Everyone wants to be powerful. (Even you. Even Shmoop.) And the people in Heart of Darkness are willing to do some pretty nasty things to get their way: blow up steamships, behead Africans, and wis...

Women and Femininity

Sorry, ladies: there's basically nothing for you here. Seriously. Conrad is all about the gentlemen. For Marlow—and presumably for Conrad, too, although we could argue about that—women exist in...

Exploration

The Company's continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before. And … to brutalize and abuse the native Afr...

Madness

There's method in this madness: Kurtz has gone from noble conqueror to deranged slaver because his power and greed have been totally unchecked. Ergo, if you want to stay sane, don't swoop into an A...

Language and Communication

For someone who wrote a lot of big words, Conrad seems to have some serious doubts about the power of language. In Heart of Darkness, words are always trying and failing to live up to their big, im...

Fear

The white pilgrims go into the interior in constant fear of their surroundings. Their trepidation is so strong that they develop a paranoia of the wilderness – its eerie silences and sudden b...

Fate and Free Will

Marlow’s journey toward the interior and toward Kurtz seems inevitable, as if Marlow is drawn nearer and nearer to the heart of darkness by his own morbid curiosity and by his childhood drive to...

Time

Conrad plays with readers’ sense of time to emphasize certain points in the plot. Marlow tells his story aboard the Nellie so readers go with him (as well as his listeners) into the past. Sim...
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