The structure of Heart of Darkness is much like that of the Russian nesting dolls, where you open each doll, and there is another doll inside. Much of the meaning in Heart of Darkness is found not in the center of the book, the heart of Africa, but on the periphery of the book. There is an outside narrator telling us a story he has heard from Marlow. The story which Marlow tells seems to center around a man named Kurtz. However, most of what Marlow knows about Kurtz, he has learned from other people, many of whom have good reason for not being truthful to Marlow. Therefore Marlow has to piece together much of Kurtz’s story. We slowly get to know more and more about Kurtz. Part of the meaning in Heart of Darkness is that we learn about “reality” through other people’s accounts of it, many of which are, themselves, twice-told tales. Marlow is the source of our story, but he is also a character within the story we read.
Marlow, thirty-two years old, has always “followed the sea”, as the novel puts it. His voyage up the Congo river, however, is his first experience in freshwater travel. Conrad uses Marlow as a narrator in order to enter the story himself and tell it out of his own philosophical mind. When Marlow arrives at the station he is shocked and disgusted by the sight of wasted human life and ruined supplies . The manager’s senseless cruelty and foolishness overwhelm him with anger and disgust. He longs to see Kurtz- a fabulously successful ivory agent and hated by the company manager. More and more, Marlow turns away from the white people (because of their ruthless brutality) and to the dark jungle (a symbol of reality and truth). He begins to identify more and more with Kurtz- long before he even sees him or talks to him.
Kurtz, like Marlow, originally came to the Congo with noble intentions. He thought that each ivory station should stand like a beacon light, offering a better way of life to the natives. Kurtz’s mother was half-English and his father was half-French. He was educated in England and speaks English. The culture and civilization of Europe have contributed to the making of Kurtz; he is an orator, writer, poet, musician, artist, politician, ivory procurer, and chief agent of the ivory company’s Inner Station at Stanley Falls. In short, he is a “universal genius”; however, he also described as a “hollow man,” a man without basic integrity or any sense of social responsibility.
Kurtz wins control of men through fear and adoration. His power over the natives almost destroys Marlow and the party aboard the steamboat. Kurtz is the violent devil whom Marlow describes at the beginning. Kurtz might never have revealed his evil nature if he had not been spotted and tortured by the manager.
A major theme of Heart of Darkness is civilization versus savagery. The book implies that civilizations are created by the setting of laws and codes that encourage men to achieve higher standards. It acts as a block to prevent men from reverting back to their darker tendencies. Civilization, however, must be learned. While society seems to restrain these savage tendencies, it does not get rid of them. The tendency to revert to savagery is seen in Kurtz. When Marlow meets Kurtz, he finds a man who has totally thrown off the bondage of civilization and has reduced to a primitive state where he cheats everybody even himself. Conrad recognized that deception is the worst when it becomes self-deception and the individual takes seriously his own fictions. Kurtz “could get himself to believe anything- anything.” His friendly words of his report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage customs was meant to be sincere, but a deeper meaning of it was rather “Exterminate all the brutes!”
Marlow and Kurtz are two opposite examples of the human condition. Kurtz represents what every man will become if left to his own intrinsic desires without a protective, civilized environment. Marlow represents the civilized soul that has not been drawn back into savagery by a dark, alienated jungle. The book implies that every man has a heart of darkness that is usually drowned out by the light of civilization. However, when removed from civilized society, the raw evil of within his soul will be released. The underlying theme of Heart of Darkness is that civilization is superficial. The level of civilization is related to the physical and moral environment they are presently in. It is a much less stable or state than society may think.
The wilderness is a very significant symbol in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is not only the background in which the action of the story takes place, but also a character of the story in and of itself. The vastness and savagery of the wilderness contrast with the foolishness of the pilgrims, and the wilderness also shows the greed and brutality that hide even behind the noblest ideals.