The Role of Madness in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The novella Heart of Darkness was written by the British novelist Joseph Conrad and appeared, before its publication in 1902, as a three-part series in Blackwood’s Magazine. This frame tale or “story within a story” follows the lead character Charlie Marlow as he describes his adventures to a group of men aboard a ship. It also tells of an earlier event in Marlow’s life, at a time when he was working as a steamboat captain in a country whose name is not specified in the book.
The story provides readers with a glimpse into the mind and soul of Marlow as he travels through the literal “Heart of Darkness” and comes face-to-face with the atrocities of racism and slavery. Marlow’s predecessor, the government-employed ivory agent Kurtz, dominates the natives through violence and coercion. When the two men finally meet, Marlow recognizes in Kurtz a mere shell of a man, the substance and soul of which has been devoured by the contempt of his own morals. This realization propels Marlow to scrutinize his own virtues and to decide whether or not to compromise them for the sake of wealth.
The novella revolves around three central themes: “the hypocrisy of imperialism, madness as a result of imperialism, and the absurdity of evil” (, 2006a). In Heart of Darkness, madness is closely associated with the concept of imperialism. In the text, Africa is presented as a cause and catalyst for diseases of the body and of the mind. Madness also serves two functions in the novella.

First, it functions as “an ironic device to engage the reader’s sympathies” (, 2006b). As Marlow is informed from the beginning, the ivory agent Kurtz is “mad”. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that this madness is relative; that madness in the context of the setting in which the characters move is quite hard to define. This causes the reader to develop a feeling of sympathy towards Kurtz and a sense of doubt and mistrust towards the Company. It also propels Marlow, who was initially suspicious of Kurtz, to sympathize with him.
Madness also serves to create the “necessity of social fictions” (, 2006b). Even though rationales and social norms are strewn throughout Heart of Darkness, they are ultimately proved to be utterly false and even causative of evil. However, they are indispensable in the quest of providing a sense of personal security and harmony among groups.
In Heart of Darkness, madness is the result of having been detached from one’s own social realm and being permitted to become the lone arbitrator of one’s own actions. Therefore, madness is associated not only with supreme power and moral genius but to man’s primary and deep-seated imperfection: the character of Kurtz answers to no one but himself, and this proves too much for any one person to tolerate.
In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz proves unable to resolve the contradictions between his own moral beliefs and cultural assumptions and subsequently sinks into madness when he begins to identify with the natives. Marlow says that Kurtz had gone mad because his soul “Being along in the wilderness,… had looked into itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.” ( This is in contrast to Kurtz’s nature of being power-hungry.
The madness begins when Kurtz, who is mad with power provided by his absolute control over his domain, begins to succumb to the lure of the wilderness and the native people. He goes mad when his greed clashes with his growing affinity towards the natives. The subsequent moral dilemma proves too much for him. Marlow, in his recounting of his adventures, says that the moment of the native ceremony was the moment when he realized that Kurtz had gone mad when he went alone into the wilderness, when his spirit had been left alone with itself.
Marlow recognizes that Kurtz is under the spell of the wilderness and tries to understand what had drawn Kurtz into “the edge of the forest… towards the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations;… beguiled his unlawful soul… beyond the bounds of permitted aspiration” (
Marlow, who is uninterested with wealth or advancement in the Company, is focused chiefly on keeping his sanity amidst the madness in his surroundings. Nevertheless, his experiences leave him broken and distressed. The physical and mental torment he was forced to endure proved to be too much for him. Through Kurtz, Marlow had been drawn into the horror as well. When Kurtz says his last words, “The horror! The horror!” (, Marlow was forced to face death.
The experience leaves him bewildered and disturbed. He tells the group that when the natives buried Kurtz, they had almost buried him as well. When he returns to the city from which he came, Marlow finds the people there stupid and he continues to dwell on Kurtz and the remnants of the life Kurtz had left behind. When he goes to visit Kurtz’s fiancé, he feels the presence of Kurtz’s spirit entering the house with him. As Marlow proceeds into the fiancé’s house, he imagines the natives dancing around their ceremonial fires, and hears Kurtz’s voice discussing ivory. Madness, as a theme in Heart of Darkness, serves to reinforce the fact that when given absolute power over himself and those under his influence, man is susceptible to his own dark nature.
Work Cited
Conrad, J. (1899). Heart of Darkness. In Davis, et. al. Eds. (1995). Western Literature in a World Context Volume 2: The Enlightenment throughout the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Retrieved from <> on November 15, 2006.
Sparknotes. (2006a). Heart of Darkness Study Guide. Sparknotes: Today’s Most Popular Study Guides from Barnes & Noble. Retrieved from <> on November 14, 2006.
Sparknotes. (2006b). Heart of Darkness Study Guide: Themes, Motifs and Symbols. Sparknotes: Today’s Most Popular Study Guides from Barnes & Noble. Retrieved from <> on November 14, 2006.

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