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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Conrad writes Heart of Darkness in a series of concentric circles, with the Inner Station being at the center, then the Central Station, the Outer Station, Brussels in Europe and then England. The protagonist, Marlow, travels to each level of this journey and as he nears the Inner Station, his anxiety and fear increase. The novel climaxes at the Inner Station where Marlow finds out that all his hopes for Kurtz have been in vain. The resolution of the conflict is the opposite of hopeful: Marlow settles for a lie. Imperialism is left intact.
The dominant theme of the novel is the critique of imperialism. It is shown to be funded solely by greed and managed by petty and mean-spirited men. The usual justifications of imperialism-- bringing enlightenment or Christianity to the benighted heathen-- are shown to be bald lies intended only to appease the conscience of Europeans who profit from the rewards of trade. In place of goodness that should characterize the Europeans presence in Africa, man's total inhumanity to man is clearly depicted throughout Marlow's journey.
Intricated in this critique of imperialism is a second theme. Conrad depicts nostalgia for the lost faith in the supremacy of European progress and civilization. Marlow longs to find in Kurtz the perfect representative of European enlightenment acting justly in Africa for the mutual benefit of both peoples. When he finds an insane man who uses the ideal to gain profits in the real world, he refuses to give up his desire for European righteousness. He finds that in contrast to the money-grubbing Manager and those of his like, Kurtz is a positive alternative. Marlow's nostalgia enables him to lie to the Intended. His nostalgia enables the continuance of imperialism.
A third important theme of the novel is the notion of the ambivalence of a thinking person. Marlow is ambivalent--he has strong feelings, which contradict one another. In Marlow, Conrad shows the human psychology to be much more complicated than good or bad. Marlow is not just the good guy, because he does a wrong thing at the end. He is also not the bad guy, because he struggles with his conscience and does what he feels he must do. In showing the human psychology to be complex, Conrad also shows that the situation of imperialism involves more than a simple repudiation because those who are in a position to repudiate it have been educated, socialized, and indoctrinated in ideas that support it. To repudiate it would mean to threaten their own identity.