Themes in Heart of Darkness
Russian Doll Effect
"To [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel, but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out as a glow brings out a haze."
The structure of Heart of Darkness is much like that of the Russian nesting dolls, where you open each doll up, and there is another doll inside. Much of the meaning in Heart of Darkness is found not in the center of the book, the heart of Africa, but on the periphery of the book. In what happens to Marlow in Brussels, what is happening on the Nellie as Marlow tells the story, and what happens to the reader as they read the book.
In Heart of Darkness, we have an outside narrator telling us a story he has heard from Marlow. The story Marlow tells seems to center around a man named Kurtz. However, most of what Marlow knows about Kurtz, he has learned from other people, many of whom have good reason for not being truthful to Marlow. Therefore Marlow has to piece together much of Kurtzs story. We gradually get to know very little more about Kurtz. What we do learn, is only through interpreting his actions by what we think we already know. Part of the meaning in Heart of Darkness is that we learn about "reality" through other people's accounts of it, many of which are, themselves, twice-told tales. Part of the meaning of the novel, too, is the possibly unreliable nature of our teachers; Marlow is the source of our story, but he is also a character within the story we read, and a flawed one at that. Marlow's macho comments about women and his insensitive reaction to the "dead negro" with a "bullet hole in his forehead" cause us to refocus our critical attention, to shift it from the story being retold, to the storyteller whose supposedly autobiographical yarn is being repeated.