Heart of Darkness has a multiplicity of themes interwoven closely and produces a unified pattern. The theme of isolation and its consequences constitute a theme in this book, though a minor one. Marlow and Mr. Kurtz illustrate this theme, dominate the novel and have symbolic roles. Both these men stand for much more than the individuals which they certainly are.
Marlow strikes us from the very start as a lonely figure. Although he is a member of a small group of people sitting on the deck of the streamer called the “Nellie”. He is, at the very outset, differentiated from the others. He sits cross-legged in the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes without a lotus-flower. Then he begins his story, and nowhere in his narration does he appear to be feeing perfectly at home among other people. He seems to have the temperament of a man who would like to stay away from others, though he would certainly like to observe others and to mediate upon his observations.
When Marlow goes to Brussels for an interview, he depicts himself as an alien who has stepped into an unpleasant environment. The city of Brussels makes him think of a “whited sepulcher”. This feeling clearly shows that he has nothing in common with the people of this European city, though he is himself a European. Then he finds something ominous in the atmosphere of the office of the Company. The two knitting-women strike him as mysterious and sinister beings.
In the outer room the two women knitted black wool, feverishly.
Even the doctor tells him that he is the first Englishman to have come under his observation. Marlow says:
The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while. “Good, good for there,” he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head.
There seems to be a distance even between Marlow and his aunt who has got him the job. She is enthusiastic and cordial enough, but Marlow has his reservations. He thinks that she is a most unrealistic woman. She is under the impression that the white men go into the backward regions to confer benefits upon the savages. But, in Marlow’s opinion, this view of the white men is entirely wrong.
When voyaging upon the sea in order to get to the Congo Marlow found himself to be perfectly idle and isolated from all the others on board the steamer because he had no point of contact with them. The sound of the sea-waves was the only source of comfort to him because these sounds seemed to be like “the speech of a brother”. He finds a kinship with the sea-waves but no kinship with the human beings on board the steamer.
Marlow’s sense of loneliness increase when he sees certain sights in the Congo. These sights convey to him the futility of the white man’s exertions and activities in the Congo, and miseries of the black natives. His realization by him of white man’s cruelty creates a kind of barrier between him and the white men living in Congo. When he has to deal with the individual white men, his isolation is further emphasized. He finds absolutely no point of contact with the manager of the Central Station, with the manager’s uncle, and with the brick-maker. The manager is a man who inspires no fear, no love, no respect and there is “nothing within this man”. The manager’s uncle is an intriguer and plotter as the manager himself. The brick-maker is described by Marlow as a “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” and a devil who is hollow within. The only man, whom Marlow can respect, is the chief accountant who keeps his account-books in apple-pie order and is always seen dressed neatly and nicely; but perhaps Marlow is speaking here ironically. Actually none of the white men seems to have any merit in him. Marlow does discover some good points in the natives but none in the white men. The cannibal crew of his steamer shows an admirable self-restraint and are hard-working but the white agents seem to be useless fellows and to them he gives the nickname of the “faithless pilgrims”. It is only when Marlow meets Mr. Kurtz that some sort of contact is established between him and the chief of the Inner Station of the Company.
The effect of isolation upon Marlow is profound. He is by nature somewhat unsociable. He is a kind of philosopher who meditates upon whatever he sees. Isolation further heightens his meditative faculty. Finding no point of contact with others, Marlow becomes more of a thinker, and more of a philosopher-cum-psychologist and studies the character and habits of Mr. Kurtz; and it is because of his isolation that he falls a victim to the influence of Mr. Kurtz whom he has himself described as a devil. This isolation can have grave consequences.
Mr. Kurtz is another isolated figure. He has become an absolutely solitary man after his prolonged stay in the Congo. He is not solitary in the sense that he does not mix with other. In fact, he has begun to identify himself with the savages and has become a sharer in their activities and in their interests. He participates in their “unspeakable rites” and he gratifies, without any restraint, his various lusts and his monstrous passions.
The wilderness has caressed him, loved him, embraced him, entered his blood, consumed his flesh and has taken complete possession of his soul.
In the case of Mr. Kurtz, it is isolation which proves the man’s undoing. Being cut off from all civilized society at the Inner Station of the Company, Mr. Kurtz begins slowly to fall under the influence of the savage till he becomes one of them. Gradually he acquires great power and begins to be regarded as a god by them. Thus now he has to keep himself at a distance even from them. He “presides” over their midnight dances which end with “unspeakable rites”.
But he is a solitary figure in the context of his western education and European upbringing. Even among the savages, he stands far above them. The savages regard him as a man-god. Mr. Kurtz is indeed a deity for the savages, and therefore he is a solitary figure even among them. Perhaps the savage closest to him under these conditions is the native woman who is his housekeeper and also perhaps his mistress. But the evil within him has already acquired huge proportions. Thus the effects of isolation in Mr. Kurtz’s case are disastrous.