The Hollowness of Civilization Theme in Heart of Darkness

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At its roots, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness serves as an investigation into the hollowness of man and the society man finds himself within. Through the conveyance of a variety of metaphors, all essentially amounting to the same idea, the great façade of charisma and morality is stripped away from that which is deemed noble and underneath reveals a truth about the world consisting of no depth, nor morals – only a heart of darkness. Time and again the notion of a hollow man is mentioned by Marlow, specifically in relation to Kurtz, in which this same revelation is made and shows he possesses absolutely no core behind all the praise which is heaped upon him.

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After all, Marlow quickly realized Kurtz was a “hollow sham cloaked in the folds of eloquence” (85) once having the opportunity to witness the powerful effects of subconscious desire and to understand his descent into madness. What can be found through the thoughts and comments Marlow makes throughout the course of the novel is that Marlow alone seems able to identify this hollowness which in fact seems to permeate in all aspects of his environment, and furthermore to distance himself from its corruptive powers, all together preserving himself as the antithesis of a hollow shell.

As with most human inadequacies, the effects of man’s hollowness can most generally be seen at the societal level. From the very beginning of the novel, there is an insistence upon the idea that European civilization is blindly immoral and hollow. Marlow explicitly refers to the city housing the Company’s office as the “sepulchral city” (29), homogenizing Europe in doing so under the outwardly shared justifications of colonization, all while hiding the hypocritical inner desire for power which actually motivates colonial intentions. It is interesting to see through Marlow’s eyes how Europe is regarded as the epitome of culture and humanity even as it oppresses the African natives and dehumanizes them, all for material gain. This is done in spite of the true complexity of those who are referred to as ‘savages.’ Is it not the mark of hollowness to insincerely elevate oneself, and conversely degrade another – including entire continents and civilizations – even if one does not deserve such a position based on their integrity and skills? The implication of the sepulchral city would suggest that this superficiality is inevitable when one party simply has the ability to mask its dark heart, no matter the cost to others and itself. Morality is but an appearance on the outside, as it seems, and it can always fall away just as easily as it is equipped (37).

Evoking an analogy of an empty nut and the effort that is spent on opening it, the hollowness which exists throughout the world is only readily observable when one makes the effort to search for it and to analyze it. Speaking on the effect of colonialism and European influences in general, Marlow discusses how “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea” (7). This exercise of brute force to take that which belongs to others is potentially revealing of that which is considered success to European powers, despite the methods by which such accomplishment is made; but its hollow nature is not immediately obvious.

Marlow considers the almost Nietzschean superhistorical approach that any individual skill in this conquest is an illusion and nothing to boast of, as one’s strength accidentally arises from the weakness of others. It is not due to some particular prowess in strategy and diplomacy, but rather only from comparative circumstance. Marlow claims it is this idea of a paradoxically unavoidable coincidence alone which justifies these colonialist desires of Europe, while wholly disregarding morality in the process. There is an exterior of excellence, but inside there is no deservedness arising from the ethics of the act. One might say this does not matter, as it does nonetheless lead to an effective means of acquisition and short-term success. Such a proposition is seen in Kurtz’ methods of gaining ivory: immoral, but undeniably effective. It is funny to consider that the tusks which supply this ivory are hollow themselves. This insight, made all the more provocative seeing as it comes from the Buddha-like Marlow (7), shows just how hollow the idea of success truly is if there is nothing of substantial moral value to be found within the shell of its purpose. If society as a whole seems to be a proponent of immorality and success derived merely from the European inclination for brutality though, then how can man individually be expected to remain moral, especially when found in a situation in which his actions are not enforced?

Ironically, it seems as if society – although being a force which somewhat perpetuates the normalcy of this human capability for immoral acts – may play a significant role in preventing the hollowness of an individual from becoming apparent, even if it was there within all along. In Europe, Kurtz was at one point clearly worthy of being referred to as a “remarkable man”, as Marlow claims he is in the final pages of the novel. By others he was described as a “prodigy” who was an “emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else” (30). To many, including his Intended, this image lived on; yet, Marlow describes the truth of the matter, that “being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad” (83). Despite the corruptness of European ideology which Heart of Darkness is built upon, it appears that when Kurtz found himself in the lawless solitude of the Congo – without society to enforce its public behavioral standards – there was nothing to stop him from succumbing to the lure of his dark impulses, and he ultimately showed his innately human capacity for evil. Only inner strength can allow colonizers such as himself to combat the temptation to exert dominance upon others, but “Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” (72) and fell to his greed. The Intended believed Kurtz possessed this strength, but was clearly mistaken, as almost all seem to be.

Marlow further elaborates upon the revelation of hollowness in man as a sort of revenge exacted by a personified Nature for the crimes which colonialism brings. Like the sepulchral city, Kurtz’ true decrepit self hid within the appearance of success until the truth could be brought to life by close examination, just as Marlow was able to discover when finally meeting him and separating the reality from the fiction which had been propagated by those at previous stations. “There was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last.

But the wilderness found him out early, and had taken vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core” (72). It is Nature which exposes the depravity of man, and civilization which seeks to hide it. It is also an important insight which Marlow makes: the most substantial hallmark of a hollow man is that he is unable to see that he is void of humanity. Mentioning “I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last” perhaps sheds light upon Marlow’s own interpretation of Kurtz’ final words “the horror! the horror!” (86) as having finally discovered this deficiency. Men like Kurtz are evidently powerless to not submit to the desires of evil within them until it is too late.

The exception seems to be Marlow. Whereas Kurtz could not fully know his hollow condition while still caught in the insatiability of material accomplishment, Marlow suggests he himself is a deeper character. He says “I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know” (35). This willingness to look into himself for his own personal benefit proves that some men do have within that darkness, which exists inside the subconscious of all, a strength that allows them to maintain an essentially ethical and humane life. Furthermore, he appears to be well aware of colonial motivations.

Even while Marlow’s aunt saw the efforts of the Company as seeking to “wean those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,” he knew that “the Company was run for profit” (14). Additionally, Marlow’s reaction to the manager’s condemnation of Kurtz’ method being “unsound” (77) exhibits his complexity and lack of hollowness. Though finding in Kurtz “an impenetrable darkness” (86), Marlow was far more disturbed by the hypocritical blame placed solely upon him. The “affair” was all the manager seemed to worry about until Kurtz was no longer a threat (85). Kurtz clearly had no restraint; but restraint seemed even further removed from those still interested in climbing the corporate ladder, like the manager and the “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” brickmaker (31), and appeared to mirror the hypocrisy of Europe – believing all others to be savages, while they are more accurately savage themselves.

It is not a secret Marlow has been helped to recognize these nuances of European society and of man in general. He claims, “since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his [Kurtz’] stare, that could not see the flame of the candle” (88). Marlow had found himself at the boundary of morality and immorality – a time in his life perhaps purposefully unspecified in order to suggest such an edge is crossed by all humans, though most step over without the same hesitation. Whereas Kurtz had unknowingly discovered the brutality lurking at the cores of man by his own full dive into the void, Marlow could understand this condition from afar.

Most strikingly illustrating Marlow’s humanity and lack of hollowness is his dealing with Kurtz’ legacy and his Intended. Despite believing lying holds a “taint of death” (32), Marlow could not bring himself to betray Kurtz after his introspective experience in witnessing the result of his decay, declaring he would stay “loyal to the nightmare of my choice” (80). Thus, he had no intention of sharing the details of his disturbing final words nor his descent into employing those horrible methods in the acquisition of ivory. This choice to save Kurtz and his reputation – and in doing so, to save the Intended from seeing the truth of her fallen beloved – all at his own expense in carrying the burden of this lie, seeks only to validate his humanity and his dedication for moral disposition. He is not empty as others are, but rather is full of the consideration which makes a man truly substantial.

Marlow’s unique situation seems somewhat ironic. After having “peeped over the edge” and into the darkness of the human soul, he finds not just an ethical void in others, but also a hole filled with moral potential within himself which allows him to overcome the temptations of evil where his contemporaries could not. All of this is done in spite of the greatness one may appear to have on the outside. Even Kurtz, who claimed to have had “immense plans” for himself (82) fell to his impulses, as apparently he did not deserve such achievement and was simply a “hollow sham”. Ultimately, Heart of Darkness suggests that the truth behind the hollowness in man is a revelation only arising from the choices one makes when unbound by law and expectations of decency; true success arises when these choices are built upon a distinct moral substance, and when the dark emptiness of the heart is stifled.

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The Hollowness of Civilization Theme in Heart of Darkness. (2020, Sep 23). Retrieved from