Heart of Darkness Essay (Example Completed in 2019)


Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness is a fictionalized account of real-life historical events that took place during the colonial era in Africa. The novel centers on the protagonist Charles Marlow, known throughout the book as Marlow. As Marlow travels deeper and deeper down the river on a mission for the Company, he becomes increasingly horrified and shocked by what he sees. Having witnessed first hand the insane cruelty of colonial oppression, Marlow completely reconsiders his own role in the world. Through Heart of Darkness, Conrad conveys anti-colonial sentiments, showing how racism and exploitation are detrimental to all human societies.


Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of the most important works of literature you will be asked to encounter in your academic career. Because of this, you may need some tips on how to write about Heart of Darkness. At first, writing about famous novels like this one can seem difficult. You may not know where to begin, especially if your essay is longer than a few pages.

This guide will help you construct the best possible essay that is about the tone, themes, and literary devices Conrad uses in his renowned work. If you don’t know where to begin, you can use the following sample essay and guide to help you write about a book like Heart of Darkness.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a short novel, also known as a novella. A novella is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. It is much less daunting than long tomes like War and Peace. Conrad’s work is also easy to understand, as the author uses straightforward language.

The book Heart of Darkness became famous for good reason. It is still relevant because it discusses issues like social injustice and how people react to injustices like exploitation and racism.

As a student, you will also benefit tremendously from learning about the historical context of the novel. Understanding why Conrad wrote the book can help you understand the deeper meanings you will be asked to analyze in class.

Therefore, writing about Heart of Darkness, or any other work of literature like it, you will benefit from a little context.

Learning about the author and his motives for writing Heart of Darkness will help you understand and appreciate the book.

Also, you can learn about the historical epoch and cultural context of the novella. Background information about any work of literature will make it significantly easier for you to write your next literary essay.

Whether your essay is about characterization and setting, or a literary critique of Heart of Darkness, this guide will lead you through the steps needed to impress your readers and gain confidence in your own writing skills.

What the Novel is About—and What it is Really About

Authors often write about political topics and themes in indirect ways, which is what makes their work so effective and enduring. When a writer like Conrad writes in an indirect way, they capture the essence of the issues that their characters endure and experience. The writer therefore bridges gaps between space and time, showing the universality of the human condition.

If you ever wondered why students are still reading works of literature that are hundreds of years old, such as Shakespeare, it is because the same problems continue to plague people no matter how advanced the society or what language we speak.

With Heart of Darkness the author refers to issues related to colonialism. The book has become one of the most important fictionalized accounts of historical events—events that actually did take place. That means Conrad uses the medium of fiction to provide poignant social commentary about history.

If Conrad had simply spelled out his views for readers, the result would have been a polemical, pedantic, opinionated essay. It might have been well-written, but it might not have stood the test of time since he focused exclusively on a specific time and place rather than providing readers with symbols and universal motifs that all audiences can relate to.

For this reason, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness provided the framework for the film Apocalypse Now, which is about the Vietnam War. In fact, you could choose to write about how the film Apocalypse Now is both similar to and different from Heart of Darkness in a format resembling a compare/contrast essay.

Another possible area of research would be to discuss Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness as a fictionalized account of the author’s own experiences traveling in the Belgian colonial strongholds of central Africa. The non-fiction counterpart to Heart of Darkness is a recent publication by Adam Hochschild entitled King Leopold’s Ghost. You could discuss Heart of Darkness in light of the actual historical events that Hochschild details in King Leopold’s Ghost.

Characterization, Theme, Setting, Literary Devices

A very common assignment in English literature and composition classes is to focus on one specific aspect of the novel or story, such as characterization or theme. Characterization refers to how Conrad constructs, draws, and builds his main characters. The main characters in Heart of Darkness include the protagonist Marlow, and also Mr. Kurtz, the eccentric white man who lives in deep in the jungle and who has completely lost touch with reality. For instance, you could discuss how colonialism is the reason why Mr. Kurtz has gone insane.

Setting is also a critical element in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The novel remains effective because it is set in a specific time and place: colonial Africa. In your essay, you could discuss the ways the setting impacts the effectiveness of the novel as a whole. You could write about how Conrad describes the setting in Heart of Darkness, so that readers know they are peering into a specific historical time and place.

Another approach to writing about Heart of Darkness is to discuss features like irony, motifs, and symbols used in the book. These types of things are collectively referred to as literary devices in your essay. Literary devices are the tools writers use to make their work more powerful, interesting, and effective. For example, you could write about the motif of “darkness” that is used in the novel, as well as in the title, to refer to race as well as to psychological darkness.


  • Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: How Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Softens the Realities of Colonialism in the Belgian Congo
  • A Path of Light, a Path of Darkness: Comparing and Contrasting Marlow and Kurtz
  • What is Africa? How the “Dark Continent” is Portrayed by European Outsiders in Heart of Darkness.
  • The Horror: Heart of Darkness Exposes the Evils of Colonialism


I.  Introduction

A.  Leading in with a hook: Uttering one of the most famous lines written in all modern literature, Mr. Kurtz cries out, “The horror, the horror!”

B.  Items to be discussed in the essay.

1.Marlow starts out idealistic and eager to learn about the remote areas he visits.

2.As he witnesses the death and destruction meted out by his fellow Europeans, Marlow becomes increasingly cynical.

3.Completely uncomfortable and exposed to death and disease, Marlow witnesses the extreme example of losing one’s soul to colonialism in the personage of Mr. Kurtz.

C.  Thesis: Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is overtly political, demonstrating how colonialism destroys the hearts and souls of all human beings.

II.  Body

A.  First body paragraph about the characterization and motives of Marlow, the protagonist of the novel.

B.  Second body paragraph about the transformation in Marlow’s character.

C.  Third body paragraph about the identity of Mr. Kurtz, as someone who is intelligent but whose human potential has been squandered on the colonial enterprise.

III. Conclusion

A.  Restating the thesis: Through Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad offers readers poignant social and political commentary about the ravages of colonialism and racism in Africa.

B.  Conrad offers a fictionalized account using strong characterization of people like Mr. Kurtz who become drunk on their own power through colonial exploitation.

C.  Finishing with a strong statement: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness endures as a work of literature because exploitation, racism, and sexism continue to plague human societies.


In the late nineteenth century, European powers occupied much of Africa. Without regard for the indigenous people, Europeans forged alliances with strategic business partners in order to exploit natural resources like rubber and also human resources. Author Joseph Conrad witnessed first hand the colonial enterprise in Africa and based the novella Heart of Darkness on what he witnessed. Through the character of Marlow, Conrad presents a semi-autobiographical testimony of the horrific features of colonialism. Marlow begins being curious but also frightened of the unknown as he embarks on an adventure with his work for a company that goes downriver into the depths of the jungle. In uncharted territory, Marlow sees immediately how the colonial businesses and governments have no regard for human life or ethics. As he draws nearer to the legendary Mr. Kurtz, Marlow realizes that if the enterprise of colonialism—in which he is playing part—is permitted to continue, it will have deleterious effects on both individual people and also humanity as a whole.

Essay Hook

“The horror, the horror” is one of the most famous lines in modern literature. Yet Conrad is not a Gothic horror novelist but one whose work is realistic and endowed heavily with political overtones.

Thesis Statement

Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is overtly political, demonstrating how colonialism destroys the hearts and souls of all human beings.


Joseph Conrad experienced first hand what it was like to take a boat down a river in central Africa. A stand-in for Conrad himself, Marlow demonstrates natural curiosity about the world and does not yet realize the horrors he is about to encounter in Africa. Using a third-person point of view allows Conrad to retain a sense of detachment from the work, offering a work of fiction but one that empowered by the political commentary related to colonialism. Even before Marlow meets Mr. Kurtz and becomes fully disgusted by what he sees in Africa, he becomes aware of the “calamity” that befalls all the native people (Conrad, eBook). For example, Marlow sees that whole villages have been wiped out, the people scattered, a humanitarian crisis the direct product of the way the Company does business. In his protagonist, Conrad also captures a realistic attitude of someone who had been raised in European culture, and who had been groomed to believe that dark-skinned people are like savages. Marlow also seems perturbed—but also fascinated—by the very real darkness of the African interior that is genuinely dark and foreboding. For instance, he speaks of the “God-forsaken wilderness,” during a time when it was believed important to tear down wilderness in favor of urban development (Conrad, eBook). Urban development was believed to represent the epitome of human progress and civilization, whereas wilderness and untouched nature were representative of primitive ways of life. It is this backdrop that adds significant tension to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The protagonist Marlow is a young man who exhibits qualities like rationality as he retains an objective stance about what he sees. He starts out being curious but also afraid, referring to “one of the dark places of the earth,” (Conrad, eBook). Although Marlow could easily move up in the Company to make more money and gain more power and prestige, he chooses not to after just a short time spent on the river. Marlow is not easily duped by the Company’s self-serving ideology, its marketing jargon that glorifies and justifies its existence and also lies about what really happens as they do business. When Marlow mentions a man who “glorified the Company’s business,” he himself remains more interested in the geographical expedition than the Company (Conrad, eBook). Marlow realizes that working for the Company means sacrificing one’s principles and ethics, which he is categorically unwilling to do. If there was any doubt or uncertainty left in Marlow, it is utterly erased by the time he meets Mr. Kurtz. Mr. Kurtz ends up adding symbolic depth to the title of Conrad’s novella. African wilderness and the skin of the indigenous people represent darkness, but so too does the psychological darkness that both the Company and Mr. Kurtz symbolize in Heart of Darkness.

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Marlow’s reaction to Mr. Kurtz belies the author’s ambivalence about Africa itself. It is not as if Marlow is in any position to revolt against the company, and nor is Kurtz. Their sense of horror and revulsion is never truly translated into taking action. They convey a sense of powerlessness in the midst of grandiose European superpowers and business enterprises like that of the Company. Clearly Kurtz has become drunk on his own power, evident especially in the way he allows the native people to worship him as if he were a god. Yet at the same time, he never attempts to wield his power in a way that could have resulted in meaningful change. Marlow is disturbed by what he sees, and likewise emerges as an impotent protagonist. He tells his story so that readers will at least become aware of what is going on, but he does not become a hero in the process. The jungle and all it contains—the diseases especially–also bother Marlow; it is not as if the protagonist wishes to live peacefully among the natives. Marlow remains utterly out of place in Africa, neither a part of the colonial enterprise nor the culture in which he finds himself suddenly thrust. Kurtz has become a monster, a one-man symbol of what colonialism looks like when taken to an extreme. Kurtz is also portrayed as someone who is intelligent but who has squandered his natural talents and resources: which also makes him an apt symbol for describing the way European nations waste their potential by exploiting instead of collaborating with other cultures.


Through Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad offers readers poignant social and political commentary about the ravages of colonialism and racism in Africa. Unfortunately, Conrad does not use the vehicle of his novella to make deeper commentary about racism itself, but his unabashed descriptions of how violent the Company employees are show that the author does recognize the problems with colonization. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad offers a fictionalized account using strong characterization of people like Mr. Kurtz who become drunk on their own power through colonial exploitation. The novel endures as a work of literature because exploitation, racism, and sexism continue to plague human societies.


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. eBook: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/219/219-h/219-h.htm

In Closing

Eventually you will be asked to write about famous works of literature like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Even if English is your second language or you struggle with reading and writing, you can learn how to construct and compose a well-written essay about literature. Reading short novels, or novellas, is a good place to begin your academic journey.

When you write about works of literature, it helps to get a sense of the historical context and motivations for the author. After that, you will understand more of what is taking place throughout the story.

For example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was based loosely on some of the author’s own experiences in Africa during the colonial era. The protagonist Marlow conveys the horrors of colonialism, but does not offer any possible solutions because they lack the type of political or economic power that would enable them to make the types of changes that would prevent atrocities from happening.

If you are writing about Heart of Darkness, you also need to narrow down your topic and thesis statement. This essay guide should help you get a start on how to do that. Your thesis statement is a succinct one-sentence summary of what you want to say: the main point of your essay. Consider whether you would prefer to write about the characters, the setting, or a specific element of the novel before you begin and you will save yourself a lot of grief later on. Whenever you need help writing your English literature essays, consult with a writing tutor for further assistance.

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