'Heart of Darkness': Existentialism

In the novel Heart of Darkness, Conrad explores existential nihilism, which is the belief that the world is without meaning or purpose. Through the protagonist Marlow, Conrad introduces the story of those on board the steamship Nellie that are unaware of their own meaninglessness. Their voyage through the African Congo depicts the absurdity of man’s existence and the decay of human ideals in the chaos of the Belgian Congo. Any attempt at avoiding the darkness that exists in the chaotic unorganized natural world is futile. Those that demonstrate restraint only emphasize existential nihilism as their actions ultimately result in meaninglessness. Through the characterization of Kurtz, the reader can witness a man who lacks restraint due to his acknowledgment of purposelessness. Marlow’s search for such a man is the ultimate goal of the novel. It is then Conrad’s goal to lead the reader through vagueness and pessimism to a conclusive void. The novel’s conclusion ultimately portrays existential nihilism, where Kurtz’s last words confirm the world’s meaninglessness and Marlow becomes more like the pessimistic Kurtz due to the lie told to Kurtz’s Intended. Although Conrad himself may not essentially be nihilistic, his novel contains a dark nihilistic truth: the world is without meaning or purpose.

The Antagonist Kurtz is an example of existential loneliness because he becomes alienated from civilized society. He intentionally avoids returning to England because he is no longer able to endure the constraints that the civilized society is trying to impose upon him. Being in the Belgian Congo with the power to carry out and whims and act on all of his desire causes Kurtz’s slow decay into savagery. For Kurtz, the misplaced authenticity of his actions, along with the unrestrained environment of the Congo proves too great a temptation for constructive engagement with the African people. The laissez-faire capitalism–which becomes associated with power in Kurtz’s mind–fostered by an imperialistic Europe leads Kurtz to become defined by materialism “the appetite for more ivory had got the better of the-what shall I say? – less material aspirations” (Conrad 96). This materialistic inauthenticity, in turn, creates a need to gain more, and is responsible for Kurtz’s inevitable fall from existential grace and resulting a subsequent godlike position amongst “his” natives.

The protagonist Marlow is a recently appointed captain of the steamship Nellie the story being from Marlow’s point of view, gives a glimpse from the outside of what has changed Kurtz so irrevocably from the European man of sophistication to something far more frightening. As if to demonstrate this, Conrad depicts Kurtz on his deathbed. In the final moments of his life, Kurtz seems to see something that we cannot. Staring within himself he can only mutter, ‘The horror! The horror!’ Marlow realizes that his reality is a horror, that nothing really exists…but at the same time, everything does, especially when he encounters death because everything is connected.

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'Heart of Darkness': Existentialism. (2021, Mar 16). Retrieved October 3, 2023 , from

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