Psychoanalytic literary criticism has its origin in the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1936) who established the technique of psychoanalysis and many critics have been influenced by his work. He spent his life discovering the unconscious. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow's pursuit of identity is consistent with the psychoanalytic theory that human identity is inside the psyche.
The novel is like a dream and Marlow's travel of self-discovery is like the author’s and the reader's own journey. The insistence on dream in Heart of Darkness predicts some of the interest in Freud's book (The Interpretations of Dreams). He argued that dreams are in conflict within the unconscious self. Some Freudian critics argue that a text echoes the psychological confusion of the author. These critics work in the area of psychobiography. As Ross Murfin observes, an author may write in order to “gratify secretly some forbidden wish”. This unconscious wish makes its way into the text by the process of displacement. Murfin remarks that in order to uncover an author's wish, a critic would utilize some of the methods which Freud used to uncover the dream wish. By employing some of Freud's techniques, the critic may discover that a text, initially ambiguous in meaning, involves several different meanings.
The novel registers a psychological journey into the centre of evil in one's mind. As Marlow advances through the jungle, his psychological desires are obviously changing. Kurtz is the purpose of Marlow's psychological desire. It can be stated that from a Freudian point of view, the darkness of African's nature in the tale stands forum conscious fear and Kurtz's female African mistress stands for his sexual desire. After Kurtz's death, Marlow finds himself transformed into an individual whom he thought he would never become – a liar. When he returns to Europe, he lies to Kurtz’s fiancé about his last words. His primary values and principles converted into a savage, evil state of mind:
Guerard believes Marlow's voyage of self-discovery is largely successful and that he returns to Europe a much-changed man. But Frederick R. Karl sees the text as an expression of Conrad’s unconscious impulse, his view as a self-conscious artist who employs images analogous by Freud to present a diagnosis of modern European society as fundamentally driven by irrational impulses.
Charlie Marlow's trip in search of mysterious Kurtz is in fact a quest for himself. Hesays: “Droll thing life is-that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futilepurpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself--that comestoo late--a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”
The novel invites psychoanalytic readings from many perspectives. For example, as Booker writes: “Guerard's readings see the African jungle essentially as a metaphor for the unconscious mind and therefore Marlow's treacherous and nightmarish trip as a metaphor for his attempt to probe the depths of his own unconscious mind. He notes that Kurtz himself can be read as a dramatization of Marlow's unconscious desire, as the Freudian id.”
It seems fair to say that Marlow's psychological experiences are closely corresponding with Freud's idea of a dream. Marlow stresses his inability to convey the truth of his experiences to his listeners. “…No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of one's existence,--that which makes its truth, its meaning... its subtle and penetrating essence. We live as we dream –alone.”
According to Freudian ideas, the truth of human experiences and difficulties in communication appear in dreams. Freud tackled to depict the dreams which are consistent with Marlow's suggestion that in dreams the truth of human experiences lie. The motif of dreams has been a major focus of psychological critics of Heart of Darkness. For instance, Frederick Crews considers the novel as an oedipal fantasy which is stimulated by Conrad's sexual insecurities.
Marlow and Kurtz can be inferred as two diverse aspects of the self. Kurtz stands for the id (the desire to satisfy instinct) and Marlow stands for the ego (the human unconscious). Although the theme of the story is about the human quest for self-discovery in general, Marlow's quest to get a vision of his self-hood is diverged to the history, imperialism, colonialism and sexuality of the novel.