The central focus of the book is the search for self and identity and an attempt to answer the question of what happens when men leave the protective normative and restraining influence of society. The central figure of Kurtz is a man who has broken free of the constraints of a sick society. However the novel also questions whether Kurtz too has become evil and lost his own sense of direction. The question is posed questions whether the human "heart of darkness" is not the real problem. If one interprets the book from this perspective, as a work that states that human nature or the human heart is essentially flawed, then one could conclude that Heart of Darkness is in fact more gloomy or pessimistic then the Wasteland.
The Heart of Darkness is a complex work that can be interpreted on many different levels: psychological, sociological, ethical and political. The two central characters are in search of meaning and identity outside of the parameters and prescriptions of society. This theme is succinctly stated in the following quotation: "During Marlow's mission to find Kurtz, he is also trying to find himself... Conrad tries to show us that Marlow is what Kurtz had been, and Kurtz is what Marlow could become." (Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now)
Marlow is fascinated by Kurtz. The figure of Kurtz is the mysterious centre of the novel as he stands outside society - someone who has broken with the restrictions, norms and ethics and entered into the unknown. In an important sense the book is about the exploration of the true nature of humanity when it is no longer bound by society.
Another view is that Kurtz transcended the society from which he originated and seen through the lie of that society; namely the lies of Colonialism. The view that Kurtz is insane is often referred to. The aura of Kurtz's depravity and his apparent lack of conventional moral integrity, according to the tenets of society expressed by Conrad, are reflected in the novel. "His... nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rights, which... were offered up to him." (Conrad, 208)
When Marlow encounters Kurtz he finds an individual who cannot be categorized in societal terms and who seems to exist beyond this world. Marlow's response to this "apparition" is to realize that Kurtz has looked into himself and discovered the horror of his own self
But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had -- for my sins, I suppose -- to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. (Conrad 145)
Fundamentally this work addresses the central questions facing society and the individual in modern times. Both Eliot and Conrad are "gloomy" in that they see through and critically analyze the world and the society around them. Their pessimism is a necessary critique and reaction to the world. However Eliot, more than Conrad, provides alternatives and seeks for new possibilities.
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