The heart of darkness brings out a number of themes. One of the themes that are brought out by the book is that of physical and mental illness. The theme is first brought out in the scene where Marlowe visits the company doctors for a medical examination. The theme is then brought out in a number of other scenes in the book.
When Marlowe visits the company doctor in section one, the doctor is curious about the mental changes that an individual would undergo while in the wilderness. He asks Marlowe about the history of madness in their family. The doctor tells Marlowe to keep his wits about him when he goes into the wilderness. The doctor introduces the issue of mental illness in this part of the book. Marlowe had also gone to the doctor to have a physical exam. The topic of physical illness is brought up here.
Cases of mental illness have been brought up in various other parts in the book. When Marlowe bids farewell to his aunt after the cup of tea, Marlowe narrates that she talked about weaning those ignorant people from their horrid ways, till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. These words by Marlowe's aunt hinted that she was expressing her hope that her nephew would bring about civilization to the wild colonies.
Marlowe feeds one of the laborers a biscuit and the slave accepts the biscuit without any emotion. The laborers had been reduced by their civilizers into animals who showed no emotion. This is a sign of mental illness that the natives were suffering from after being enslaved by their colonizers
Marlow while narrating his story touches on the topic of mental illness when he notes that the attack on the barren coast by the French ship seemed a little insane. The issue of physical illness is also shown in the book when the sailors on board the French ship were said to have been dying of various illnesses at the rate of three a day.
Physical illness is shown when Marlowe visits the company and sees the slave laborers, afflicted with some sort of malaise and they were lying under trees with some of them dying. The topic of physical illness is brought up again in the company when the accountant's record keeping is disturbed by the loud groaning of a man who was dying of some tropical disease. Another scenario that physical illness is touched on is when the fat man is struck with fever.
Marlowe is reminded by the fat man's deadly desire for revenge about the doctor's words on the mental changes people would likely undergo under the stress of the wilderness. The feverish man wanted Marlowe to take revenge, but there was no one to revenge on. That was when Marlowe remembered the words of the doctor who had the idea that people undergo mental changes when they go to the wilderness.
The manager also tells Kurtz that the situation in the interior was becoming worrying as the workers in the company became worried on the news that he, Kurtz, was ill and the company knew little of his condition.
Physical madness is also talked about when Kurtz comes down with some sort of disease. When Marlowe overhears the conversation between the manager's uncle and Kurtz, he hears the manager's uncle complaining that just like Kurtz all of his men were also suffering from various illnesses. This is also an area that the issue of physical illness was brought up in the passage.
Marlowe describes himself as having had a constant low fever during the journey. The weakness of mind and body was associated with the fever that had afflicted all of the pilgrims. When Marlow wonders why the cannibals do not eat them, he just has to look at the other passengers to know just how unhealthy they all were. His fever-related delirium made him hope that he was not so unappetizing-looking to the cannibals.
The story brings out Kurtz's mental illness when it says that Kurtz's "nerves went wrong"--he had lost his mental health. The Russian is also said and brought out to have nursed Kurtz through numerous illnesses and afflictions. The mental illness issue is brought out once again when Marlowe elaborates on a theory of the reason why Kurtz had become insane, saying that he had been corrupted by isolation. Marlowe tries to show that the mental breakdown of Kurtz paralleled his physical sickness.
Another instance where physical illness is brought out is when sailing when the atmosphere that is seen is that of decay. The atmosphere was seen as having the intent of repulsing the invaders. In and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened with slime, invaded the contorted mangroves that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares.
Marlowe's mental illness is shown when they are in the jungle and the uncle points at the jungle. Marlowe fantasizes about the jungle looking back, patiently waiting the end of the invasion by them. This shows that Marlowe might have been suffering from mental illness to the point that he started fantasizing that the jungle was capable of looking back at them and even hoping that they would end their invasion soon.
The clownish young man tells Marlowe that Kurtz tended to wander off alone into the forest and raided the nearby villages for ivory. He also says that Kurtz had tried to shoot him once for ivory. Marlowe responds to this by suggesting that Kurtz was mad and that his pursuit for ivory had overcome his moral goals. Mental illness is even shown further in this context when the clownish young man gets offended by Marlowe's suggestion and says that even though Kurtz tried to shoot him that did not diminish his loyalty to him.
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