Deciphering the ‘Heart of Darkness’: Conrad’s Puzzling Tale

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The prevailing certainty that has arisen from over a century of contextual analysis is that no unanimous conviction exists when interpreting Conrad’s novella. Just as language and culture have adapted with time, so too, Heart of Darkness has found no immunity against the perpetual justification for societal scrutiny and elucidation. Here, deconstruction and Marxism tackle the novella’s idolatry and imperialism to form the fundamentals of a comprehensive study.

Idolatry and Imperialism: A Dance of Power

In Heart of Darkness, ideals nurse a dangerous tendency to transform into idols. While these obsessions take various forms, their roots are the same: The desire for power, money, or reputation. Through Kurtz’s thirst for supremacy, he immersed himself into native culture, into the unspecified darkness of Africa, and soon became privy to unspeakable rights that worshiped his own wanton lust for dominance.

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Likewise, Kurtz’s fiancée harbored an intensely idolized view of him, shielded in her own protective delusion, the continuation of which was made possible by Marlow’s lie. Marlow, too, assumed the role of “idol” on the ship deck, analogous to the Buddha with folded legs and upward palms. A deconstructionist might argue a failing in these inversions: Where ideals become idols, Conrad’s portrayal of European involvement is painted no more proper than the natives’ darkness, cannibalism, and savagery. Furthermore, these traits seem to denote a transcendence back to primordial times and parallel the white/black dichotomy of racism.

From Darkness to Dichotomies: Unmasking Conrad

While the novella’s darkness emotes African savagery and degradation, it asserts European corruption and imperialism. The idolatry that resulted was a direct correlate of these self-propagated binaries: European/African, light/dark. A Marxist might argue that the hegemony of the European versus African peoples caused this progression of idolization. During “the scramble for Africa” from 1880-1914, these purported “dark” nations found themselves under constant appropriation and colonization by self-deemed superior parties who had no qualms accepting and extending their political, militant, and economic leadership roles to include idolatry, thus sealing their omnipotence over the subjugated.

While many critics of Heart of Darkness seem to have replaced imperialistic discourse with a more metaphysical analysis of the human soul and conceptual, elusive grasp of “evil,” the effects of colonization remain, as ever, ubiquitous and open for interpretation. The novella initially paints Marlow, and by extension Conrad, as anti-imperialist; However, upon deeper examination, this is not entirely accurate. Offhand terminology and pervasive dichotomies that either highlighted or subverted racism seemed consciously constructed to instigate incongruous ethical and political views.

A deconstructionist might argue that the absence of historical data aids in the novella’s transparent portrayal of racist dichotomies. During its time of publication, Arabs and African tribes were fighting one another in the Boer War. The writing’s exclusion of this creates a singularly white/black narrative with no other vying parties involved. Furthermore, it is not clear whether this omission is meant to be a result of the speaker’s, scribe’s, or author’s doing. A Marxist might argue that this evil, this darkness, now only parceled out to two sides, created a more compelling oppressor/oppressed, painting the evil in Europe as ironic and the evil in Africa as expected.


  1. Brantlinger, Patrick. “‘Heart of Darkness’: ‘Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?’.” Criticism, vol. 27, no. 4. JSTOR.
  2. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Signet Classic, 1997.
  3. Raskin, Jonah. “Imperialism: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 2, no. 2. JSTOR.
  4. Wallenstein, Jimmy. “‘HEART OF DARKNESS’: THE SMOKE-AND-MIRRORS DEFENSE.” Conradiana, vol. 29, no. 3. JSTOR.

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Deciphering the 'Heart of Darkness': Conrad's Puzzling Tale. (2023, Aug 29). Retrieved from

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