Heart of Darkness Part I, Section 1 Analysis (pages 53-62)
by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness is a tightly woven work full of allusions and symbolism. The main themes of the work, however, have to do with knowledge of truth and what it means to explore and "civilize" the dark and savage corners left on the earth. One interpretation of this novella is that in order for man to gain knowledge of truth, he must sacrifice some of what makes him human — he must embrace his savage, or dark, nature; and in doing so, he gains an almost divine understanding. Consider the way Marlow is first described: he has "sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion…an ascetic aspect" and resembles an "idol" (54). Conrad describes Marlow speaking in a "pose of a Buddha preaching" (pp. 57-58). This description shows both that Marlow has endured some hard times and alludes to his enlightened mind.

Marlow derides Imperialism as nothing more than " 'robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale' " perpetrated by men " 'going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness' " (58). Marlow does state, however, that all this is redeemed by an " 'unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before' " (58). It is no accident that Conrad compares Marlow to an idol, and goes on to say Imperialism can only be redeemed by the establishment of ideals as idols. Perhaps the slaughter involved in Imperialism brings a terrible understanding to those who engage in it, but what use is that knowledge once the sacrifice has already been made?

Another instance of this theme is highlighted by Fresleven, the captain who Marlow replaces. Described as " 'the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs' " (61), he nevertheless, after having " 'been a couple years already out there engaged in the noble cause' " (61) savagely beats an old man. Though he is subsequently killed, his body is left behind and the village abandoned for fear of supernatural retaliation. One reading of this could be that Fresleven embraced his savagery and was granted near-deity status by the native people because of it, and of course paid a terrible cost for this status.

Share on Pinterest