Heart Of Darkness Darkness Essay

Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Heart of Darkness” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “Heart of Darkness” offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “Heart of Darkness” at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.

Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #1: The Multiple Meanings of Darkness in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

There are many types of darkness in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” aside from that which is obvious. There is literal darkness, such as that created by the conditions of time and weather, and that darkness which refers to the color of one’s skin. There is also psychological darkness, which plays an equally important role in the novel and is part of what makes this, at least in the minds of some critics, “Heart of Darkness” a pure modernist novel. While it is probably impossible and certainly unwieldy to identify all of the types and meanings of darkness in this novel, select one or more images of darkness in the novel and explain its meaning in relationship to the overall text, “Heart of Darkness”. Alternately, you may wish to construct your essay in such a way that you compare and contrast the literal and psychological forms of darkness. (For more on this topic, check out this openly-accessible article that explores meaning, genre and time period via a comparison)

Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #2: The Effects of Imperialism in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

The central aim which the shipmates in Heart of Darkness is pursuing is the expansion of their home countries’ empires. Yet many people are hurt in this enterprise, and it’s not only the colonized who are impacted negatively by the imperialist project. Compare and contrast the ways in which the consequences of imperialism affect the different groups and individuals in Heart of Darkness. Determine the message that Conrad wanted to convey about the imperialist enterprise by writing Heart of Darkness.

Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #3: Notions of Civilization in “Heart of Darkness”

One of the dominant themes in Heart of Darkness involves notions of civilization, addressing questions such as: Who is civilized? What makes them civilized? What elements constitute a civilized society? Approach these questions by writing an analytic essay in which you compare and contrast the cultures and societies in Heart of Darkness—the African tribes and colonies along the river and the “society" (or societies) that has (have) formed among the sailors on the boat. Conclude with a definitive statement about what you believe Conrad wanted to convey to his reader about the notion of a civilized society.

Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #4: In-Depth Character Analysis: Multiple Possibilities in “Heart of Darkness”

There are many fascinating and complex characters populating Heart of Darkness. Perhaps two of the most interesting characters are Kurtz and Marlow, two very different men who have found themselves in similar situations in a setting that is strange and foreign to them. Select one or more characters from this novel and provide an in-depth analysis of their character. Consider concepts such as compassion and greed, good and evil, and redemption as you analyze whether these characters develop over the course of “Heart of Darkness”. If you select two characters, you could organize your essay in a compare-contrast fashion, noting the similarities and differences between the two characters. If you choose to do this, be sure to develop an argument in which you state why the differences are important, and how they connect to the theme of the novel.

Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Role of Women in Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is densely populated with male characters, but there are several female characters and some of them are crucial to the development and denouement of the plot. For this essay, select one or more of the female characters and explore her role within the plot. Identify her significance with respect to the development of the novel’s theme. Consider notions such as power, authority, autonomy, and dependence in your analysis.

• For further ideas, check out this article that discusses modernism in “Heart of Darkness” and how it is expressed via a comparison of another related novel.•


This list of important quotations from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Heart of Darkness” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements from “Heart of Darkness” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of “Heart of Darkness” are referring to.

“Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns—and even convictions." (1)

“One ship is very much like another and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny." (4)

“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here nineteen hundred years ago…. Lights came out of this river since…. [I]t is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday." (4)

“Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages—precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore." (5)

“They were men enough to face the darkness." (5)

“I have a little theory which you Messeurs who go out there must help me to prove. This is my share in the advantages my country shall reap from the possession of such a magnificent dependency. The mere wealth I leave to others." (12)

“It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living with consistently every since the day of creation would start up and knock the first thing over." (12)

“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…." (18)

“It was very curious to see the contrast of expressions of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew, who were as much strangers to that part of the river as we, though their homes were only eight hundred miles away." (50)

“The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky, seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness." (100)

Reference: Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Green Integer, 2003.

Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad

(Born Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) Polish-born English novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, dramatist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1902) from 1985 to 2001. See also, "The Secret Sharer" Criticism and Joseph Conrad Criticism.

Heart of Darkness is considered one of the greatest novellas in the English language. On the surface it is a dreamlike tale of mystery and adventure set in central Africa; however, it is also the story of a man's symbolic journey into his own inner being. A profusion of vivid details that are significant on both literal and symbolic levels contributes to the ambiguity of Conrad's narrative and has led to conflicting interpretations of its meaning. Written in 1899, Heart of Darkness was initially published in serial form in Blackwood's magazine and finally published in book form in Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories (1902). It was later published separately in 1942.

Plot and Major Characters

Throughout Conrad's career Heart of Darkness remained one of his most popular and highly regarded works. The novella details the story of the seaman Marlow who, fresh from Europe, is sent on a boat journey up the Congo River to relieve Kurtz, the most successful trader in ivory working for the Belgian government. Prior to their personal encounter, Marlow knows and admires Kurtz through his reputation and his writings regarding the civilizing of the African continent and sets out on the journey excited at the prospect of meeting him. However, Marlow's experience in Africa inspires revulsion at the dehumanizing effects of colonialism, a disgust that culminates when he discovers that Kurtz has degenerated from an enlightened civilizer into a vicious, power-hungry subjugator of the African natives. Marlow's journey forces him to confront not only Kurtz's corruption but also those elements within himself that are subject to the same temptations that affected Kurtz. When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, the mythical figure is near death, ravaged by disease and dissipation. After Kurtz's death, Marlow returns to Belgium and is visited by Kurtz's fiancée. During the visit he lies to her about Kurtz's activities and falsely claims that he called her name before he died. Critics have debated the motives behind this last deception: some feminist critics view the lie as an act of condescension; other commentators contend that Marlow wants to preserve his own illusions about Kurtz; and yet others perceive the lie as a compassionate act that functions to contrast Marlow's humanity with Kurtz's inhumanity.

Major Themes

Like many of Conrad's novels and short stories, Heart of Darkness is based in part upon the author's personal experiences. In 1890, after more than a decade as a seaman, Conrad requested the command of a Belgian steamer sailing for Africa. A diary kept during the subsequent voyage provides evidence that many of the characters, incidents, and impressions recalled in Heart of Darkness have factual bases. Contemporary critics, however, contend that Conrad's manipulation of the African environment in the novel, and the portraits of greed, destruction, and psychological regression that he creates, should be credited solely to his imaginative genius. Moreover, the relationship of Conrad to his character Marlow has been a fertile area of critical discussion. Marlow has been variously perceived as the spokesman for Conrad, a complex and separate creation, and as a combination of both. The affinity between Marlow and Kurtz is considered the most crucial relationship between characters in the story. Critics identify Kurtz's death scene and Marlow's lie to Kurtz's fiancée as seminal scenes in the novella; these scenes have been subject to a wide range of critical interpretations.

Many critics have commented on Conrad's evocative powers in Heart of Darkness, paying particular attention to his use of imagery, which manages to evoke a sinister atmosphere through the accretion of objectively described details of the African jungle and natives. The visual imagery, which heavily depends upon contrasting patterns of light and dark, contributes most appreciably to the consistently ambiguous tone of the work. To demonstrate the moral uncertainty of this world and of life in general, Conrad consistently alters common symbolic conceptions of light and dark. Thus, white is not synonymous with good, nor black with evil, but rather both symbols are interchangeable. Throughout the novella, white and black characters are alternately examples of acute suffering, civilized dignity, moral refinement, or violent savagery, demonstrating that no race is wholly good or evil, and that all human beings are a confusing mixture of propensities for all types of behavior. While some critics consider Conrad's imagery vague and confused in a manner that does not present a clear picture of the principal characters and events, most find that the ambiguity of description lends a psychological depth to the story that demands the close attention and involvement of the reader.

The political significance of Heart of Darkness has also received much critical attention. Social Darwinism and a strong belief in the Carlylean work ethic are two of the Victorian standards that are attacked in the novella. The first served to justify European exploitation of Africa and other areas of the world by purporting that the indigenous peoples were in need of the superior technological and religious knowledge of Europe. In Heart of Darkness, the hypocrisy of these aims is illustrated by the all-consuming scramble for wealth by the Europeans, who destroy the land and people without remorse. Critics contend that by contrasting the harmony that exists between the native Africans and their natural environment with the lazy, brutish grotesques that white imperialists become in Africa, Conrad proves that it is the Africans who are the fittest to survive in their native land and that Darwin's theory was in fact never intended to be applied to races or nations. In similar fashion, the work ethic that Marlow seems to embrace, praising its effectiveness in keeping his mind free of undesirable thoughts, is in fact instrumental in blinding him to the events around him. Throughout the novella, Conrad's portrayal of the failure of various European ideologies in Africa suggests the consequent failure and moral bankruptcy of Europe.

Critical Reception

Heart of Darkness remains a work popular with critics and readers alike. It has been studied from feminist, psychoanalytical, racial, and political perspectives. Conrad's consciously ambiguous presentation of the relative nature of truth and morality, which compels the reader to take an active part in understanding the novella, is often considered a forerunner of many modernist literary techniques. For this reason Frederick R. Karl has called Heart of Darkness the work in which “the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth.” The novella's artistic cohesion of image and theme, its intricately vivid evocation of colonial oppression, and its detailed portrait of psychological duplicity and decay have inspired critics to call Heart of Darkness the best novella in the English language.

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