Summary of Heart of Darkness

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Heart of Darkness book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Modernism

What It’s About

A Journey into the Darkest Abyss of the Human Heart

It’s with bated breath that the reader follows the brief but harrowing account of Charlie Marlow, who, in dense prose, recounts his journey up the Congo River and into the heart of Africa – and the “heart of darkness” – for it is also a journey into the dark places of the human soul. In the latter days of European colonialism, Marlow becomes the captain of a run-down steamer for a Belgian trading company. When he arrives in Africa, he hears rumors about a Mr. Kurtz, who reportedly lives (and rules) hundreds of miles upriver. Having a charismatic personality, Kurtz is the most successful trading agent of the company, delivering huge amounts of ivory. Overcoming much adversity, Marlow travels upriver to meet the man – an encounter that leaves a deep and lifelong mark on Marlow. Throughout the novel, author Joseph Conrad’s detailed and realistic description of the wilderness and cruel colonial rule stands in contrast to the narrative symbolism of the story. As white men confront a starkly depicted primeval world, Conrad evokes a dark and terrifying image of human nature and creates one of the bleakest narratives on European colonial rule in modern literature.

Take-Aways

  • Heart of Darkness is one of the earliest modernist novels of the 20th century. It takes readers on a journey into the heart of the African continent – and the human soul.
  • Charlie Marlow travels up the Congo River into the interior of the African continent. He is looking for a trading agent called Kurtz, who has used his career to act out a reign of terror upon the native Africans.
  • Kurtz is a horrifying example of how extreme circumstances can transform human beings.
  • The novel takes place during a time when Belgians ruled the Congo and can be read as a profound criticism of European colonialism.
  • Many people consider Joseph Conrad’s novel to be racist due to his depiction of native Africans.
  • Conrad spent almost 20 years at sea; Heart of Darkness is based on his personal experiences in the Congo.
  • The book reaches its linguistic climax in the description of the journey through the African jungle, which can be seen as a symbolic expression of human fear.
  • Conrad was born and grew up in Poland; English was his third language.
  • Francis Ford Coppola turned Heart of Darkness into the film Apocalypse Now, set in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
  • “He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! The horror!’”
 

Summary

On a Yawl

On the banks of the Thames, on the outskirts of London, five old seafaring friends relax together on The Nellie – a cruising yawl – watching the sun set. One man, Charlie Marlow, sits at a distance from the others. The tranquil scenery of the river inspires the unnamed first-person narrator to ponder British seafaring history, when Marlow interrupts the companionable silence with the comment, “And this also has been one of the dark places of the Earth.” Marlow expands on the thought, explaining how the Romans, when they first came to Britain, would have found wilderness where London stands today. They had to conquer the land and then exploit it with brute force. These ruminations lead Marlow to start telling the others of one of his own travel experiences. The other men in the group know that, unlike the yarns of most seamen, Marlow’s tales have substance, and so they settle in to listen to his story.

Looking for an Appointment

As a child, Marlow was fascinated by maps. In those days, they still had blank spaces. The desire to explore them led him to join a trading company and become skipper of a steamboat. After several years as captain in the Far East, he comes back to London to look for a new appointment – but without success. Even though he knows that the white spaces on the African map – the ones he pondered as a child – have now become places of darkness, he still feels drawn to them. Marlow decides to find an appointment with a Belgian company which trades on the Congo River. With the help of an aunt, he manages to get an appointment on a steamboat that is due to travel up the Congo into the heart of the African continent. The company is in urgent need of a new captain for a steamboat whose previous captain, a reputedly gentle and quiet Danish man named Fresleven, was killed by natives after he lost his temper over a misunderstanding having to do with two hens and started beating the village chief with a stick.

Interview in Brussels

Marlow arrives for his interview at the grand headquarters of the Belgian trading company. In the waiting room sit two women, both busy knitting black wool and scrutinizing any new arrival with looks of indifference and foreknowledge. Marlow recounts how, later in his journey, he would often think of these two as guardians of the “door of darkness.” A white-haired secretary beckons Marlow into the office to meet the director of the company, who shakes Marlow’s hand and sends him on his way with just a few mumbled words. Then follows a visit to the doctor, who, after a cursory medical examination, asks Marlow’s permission to measure his head. He explains that he is interested in studying the mental changes that happen to people who go out as trading agents. When Marlow visits his aunt to say good-bye, he finds she has an idealistic view of the appointment that he is about to take on. She considers him an “emissary of light,” whose role it is to bring civilization to the ignorant. She brushes aside his tentative suggestion that the company is run for profit.

The Way to the Station

Marlow makes the journey to Africa aboard a French steamer. The journey is steeped in a sense of futility and oppressiveness, and the sight of the impenetrable jungle that lines the coast both entices and repulses Marlow at the same time. En route, a passenger dies without anyone taking much notice, and the crew drops off letters at a French war ship that is blindly firing guns into the jungle while the men on board are said to be dying of fever. After a month at sea, Marlow arrives at the Congo River delta and starts his journey upstream on board a small steamer to one of the trading stations of the Belgian company. Marlow likens the desolate station to hell. He sees a group of black men with iron collars clamped around their necks, toiling to build train tracks amid piles of rusting metal and machinery. Appalled, he stumbles across a group of natives laying on the ground, who, spent and exhausted, wait for death.

“The conquest of the Earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

On approaching the station, the impeccably and elegantly dressed chief accountant greets Marlow. The man’s ability to keep up appearances under such dire circumstances impresses him. It is from the accountant that Marlow first hears about Mr. Kurtz, a first-class agent, who is stationed at a trading post far up the river and sends more ivory than all the other agents put together. Ten days after his arrival at the station, Marlow starts the grueling 200-mile journey on foot to the trading company’s central station with a caravan of 60 carriers. In searing heat, they travel through the jungle past abandoned villages. Marlow’s only white travel companion, an overweight man, whose sole reason to be in country is “to make money,” is utterly unsuited to the climate and lifestyle and has to be carried after he faints several times. After two weeks, they finally reach the Central Station.

At the Central Station

On arrival at the Central Station, Marlow learns that his steamer has sunk. The station’s manager, a common trader who, according to Marlow, “inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect” but rather “uneasiness,” explains that he had heard rumors that Kurtz’s station was in jeopardy. He decided to go upriver with Marlow’s boat, but the ship ran aground just three hours into their journey. Marlow starts repairs but finds that he is missing the necessary materials. In the three months Marlow spends at the Central Station, he makes the acquaintance of an ambitious young aristocrat, who believes that Marlow has connections in Europe that might help him advance his career. He invites Marlow to his room, where Marlow comes across a small oil painting of a draped and blindfolded woman carrying a torch. The aristocrat explains that Kurtz painted it while he was waiting at this station to be sent to the inner station. He describes Kurtz as a highly intelligent prodigy with exceptional abilities who came to Africa with a moral mission. It becomes clear that the aristocrat and the manager feel threatened by Kurtz. One day, the manager’s uncle arrives with a caravan. Despite calling itself the “Eldorado Exploring Expedition,” they, like all the other agents at the station, are there only for profit.

“They were all waiting – all the sixteen or twenty pilgrims of them – for something; and upon my word it did not seem an uncongenial occupation, from the way they took it, though the only thing that ever came to them was disease – as far as I could see.”

Lying on board his steamer, Marlow overhears a conversation between the manager and his uncle about Kurtz. Kurtz’s moral vision – as well as the huge amount of ivory he sends – clearly bothers the two men. There has been no news from Kurtz for nine months, only rumors that he was ill and hasn’t fully recovered. The uncle and his nephew hope that this, combined with the climate, will be the end of Kurtz.

Upriver

Marlow finally finishes the repairs to his steamer and sets off on the last stretch of the journey to Kurtz’s station. Also on board are the manager, a few of the other agents and a crew of cannibals – natives from further inland who eat human flesh but for some reason don’t attack Marlow and the other white men on board despite outnumbering them. Navigation on the slow river proves dangerous, and Marlow lives in continual fear that the steamer will break down. The jungle on the banks of the river is eerily silent and threatening. From time to time, they see natives along the shore, and Marlow ruminates on the differences and similarities between them and the supposedly “superior” white people. One day, they come across an abandoned hut with a pile of neatly stacked firewood nearby. There is a piece of board with a message on it: “Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously.” In the hut, Marlow finds a book on seamanship; its worn pages are dirty and soft from reading, and notes, in what seems to be cipher, cover the margins. Marlow takes the book with him. Just eight miles from the Inner Station, a thick white fog blankets the water, making navigation impossible.

“The living trees, lashed together by the creepers and every living bush of the undergrowth, might have been changed into stone, even to the slenderest twig, to the lightest leaf. It was not sleep – it seemed unnatural, like a state of trance.”

Suddenly, there is a loud cry. In fear of an attack, the white agents ready their guns. After two hours of tense waiting, the fog abates and they continue their journey. As they enter the narrow waterway that leads up to the station, Marlow notices two shipmen abruptly abandon their work to lay down. It is only moments later that he sees the sticks that whiz through the air in perfect silence: an attack, he realizes, as the agents begin blindly firing into the jungle. A spear mortally wounds the black helmsman. It is only when Marlow blows the boat’s steam-whistle that the attack stops. Marlow throws the body of his helmsman over the rails, earning scandalized looks both from the whites on board as well as the cannibals. Marlow steers the steamer carefully through the passage, fearing he has come too late to meet Kurtz.

The Inner Station

When the party draws near the station, a young Russian man in patched-up, harlequinesque clothing greets them. He turns out to be an ardent admirer of Kurtz and has been busy running errands for him. He came across Kurtz’s station by chance and since then has spent a lot of time listening to the man, as well as nursing him through two illnesses. Yet, their relationship isn’t an easy one. Initially, Kurtz threatened to shoot the Russian if he didn’t hand over the small amount of ivory he had and leave. He gave the ivory to Kurtz but decided to stay. It becomes clear that Kurtz’s long discourses on “everything” have left a deep impression on the simple man.

“‘Don’t you talk with Mr. Kurtz?’ I said. ‘You don’t talk with that man – you listen to him,’ he exclaimed with severe exaltation.”

From the Russian, Marlow finds out that Kurtz has used intimidation and force to make the natives fear him. They see him as a god-like figure. As he gets closer to the station, Marlow realizes that what he initially took for wooden ornaments on the fence poles around the building are human skulls. A group of natives comes toward the shore, carrying Kurtz on a stretcher. He is a tall man, but his illness has left him pitiful and weak. However, when natives try to prevent him from being carried on board the steamer, the sound of his voice is enough to stop them.

The Horror

Kurtz and the Russian board the steamer. The natives assemble at the shore, among them a beautiful woman adorned with jewelry and talismans. She lifts her arms to the sky, then turns and disappears into the jungle. From the Russian, Marlow learns that she was a regular visitor at Kurtz’s house and had some influence with him. He also finds out that it was Kurtz himself who ordered the attack on the steamer because he feared being taken away. The Russian decides to leave them as he knows he might be hanged for his perceived abetment in Kurtz’s enterprise. He begs Marlow to keep quiet about what happened at the station to save Kurtz’s reputation. In the middle of the night, Marlow discovers that Kurtz has disappeared. He follows the trail Kurtz has left in the high grass by crawling on all fours and finds him a short distance from the natives’ camp. Kurtz tells Marlow that he wants to go back to finish the “immense plans” he had. Marlow convinces him to come back to the steamer. When the ship sets to leave the next day, the natives gather at the shore. The beautiful woman appears again and lets out a shout, and the other natives join in. Kurtz, who clearly understands what they are saying, lies on his bed with an expression of longing and hate. Marlow blows the steam-whistle a few times and the natives scatter in fear – all except the woman, who remains, unflinching, at the shore. On the return journey, Kurtz spends hours recounting his achievements and plans of riches to Marlow. Realizing that he is dying, Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers and a photograph for safekeeping. His last words are, “The horror! The horror!”

“He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! The horror!’”

Marlow returns to Europe. There, an employee of the trading company demands that he hand over the papers from Kurtz. Marlow refuses but eventually hands him a report on the civilization of the natives that Kurtz had written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. It proves of no interest to the company. Marlow then visits Kurtz’s intended to give her the letters Kurtz entrusted to him. She is in mourning, and her admiration and love for Kurtz overwhelm Marlow, who struggles not to shatter her illusions about the man. When she asks Marlow what Kurtz’s last words had been, he finds he is unable to tell her the truth. Instead, he lies, telling her, “The last word he pronounced was – your name.”

About the Text

Structure and Style

Heart of Darkness starts with a framing narrative in which an anonymous narrator describes the gathering of five men aboard a yawl anchored on the Thames. One of the men is Charlie Marlow, who takes over narration as he tells his story to the men on the boat. His musings on Britain’s past as a colony under Roman rule prompts him to tell his companions a story about his experiences in Africa. This narrative forms the main part of the novel. Throughout his atmospheric and visceral account, Marlow addresses his listeners directly only on a few occasions (“as you know”), reminding the reader that his account is a story within a story.

The narrative voice in Heart of Darkness emphasizes impressions, feelings and the physical quality of the locations Marlow visited on his journey. Conrad describes the Congo River and the African jungle in dense, poetic prose as being places of terror. Heart of Darkness follows the ancient mythical form of an odyssey, in which a hero sets off toward unknown lands and, faced with life-threatening dangers, undergoes internal change.

Interpretation

  • Heart of Darkness is a criticism of colonialism: The circumstances Marlow encounters in colonial Africa are so terrible and hopeless that they conjure up visions of hell.
  • On a deeper level, the novel can also be read as a reflection on man’s existential struggle. It shows how human beings succeed – or fail – to prove themselves in extreme situations.
  • The novel explores the nature of good and evil. The skeptical and humanitarian Marlow meets two types of Europeans on his journey: the brutal and greedy (those working for the trading company) and the crazy (the Russian). Marlow’s expectations of finding in Kurtz someone who has managed to hold on to his ideals and allow circumstances to corrupt him are disappointed: In fact, Kurtz is depicted as the incarnation of evil.
  • The impenetrable, threatening quality of the African jungle and the stifling heat define Marlow’s view of the Congo. The natives belong to this primeval and hostile environment. This portrayal of the natives has led to people criticizing Conrad’s novel as being racist.
  • Conrad writes in dichotomies – darkness and light, white and black, male and female, civilization and wilderness – and subverts them. For example, it is white fog that prevents Marlow and his companions from seeing clearly, and Conrad describes Kurtz as “carved out of ivory” in the midst of a crowd of men “made of dark and glittering bronze.”

Historical Background

European Colonialism

It was not until the second half of the 19th century that the European colonial powers started exploring the African interior as a place to colonize. This was mainly due to the sheer size of the continent; its impenetrability, especially in the tropical regions; and the adverse climate. Journalist and explorer Henry M. Stanley (1841–1904) played a prominent role in the colonialization of Africa and the Congo. He explored the resource-rich Congo delta and offered it first to the English and then to the Belgians.

Leopold II (1835–1909), King of Belgium, took control of the Congo region – 75 times the size of Belgium – for the sole purpose of filling his own coffers. Many consider the Belgian exploitation of the Congo and its people as one of the most brutal colonial regimes of the era. In Europe, people were often ignorant of the true nature of this regime; false propaganda extolling the civilizing and missionary goals of colonialism blinded them. In Conrad’s novel, the utterances of Marlow’s aunt and Kurtz’s fiancée reflect the propaganda’s effectiveness. When news of the atrocities committed in the Congo began to reach Europe, the atmosphere there started to change. British journalist Edmund Dene Morel (1873–1924), with whom Conrad exchanged letters, contributed significantly to this change by starting the first human rights campaign in history.

Development

Heart of Darkness links closely to Conrad’s personal life. Yet, despite its biographical nature, the narration has a dreamlike quality to it as Conrad translates his personal experience of the Congo into a literary form beyond realism and pure facts.

Conrad, originally from Poland, only turned to writing after almost 20 years working for the merchant navy. In 1890, a Belgium company sent him to the Congo, and Marlow’s journey closely follows the route Conrad took. The journey turned into a traumatic event for Conrad. A severe case of malaria and dysentery brought him to the brink of death and damaged his health for the rest of his life. His realization of the true nature of the European regime in Africa brought his criticism of colonialism – already apparent in his earlier work – to the fore in Heart of Darkness.

Reviews and Legacy

Today, Heart of Darkness – together with Lord Jim – is one of the best-known of Conrad’s works. The novel is considered a masterpiece of English literature, despite English not being Conrad’s native tongue. Initially, his writing didn’t prove successful with the public. It wasn’t until he published his later novels Chance, Victory and The Shadowline that he could earn a living from his craft. It is interesting to see that these novels are now viewed as less significant.

Many other writers of his and the next generation admired Conrad’s work. Among them were Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and George Orwell (in England); André Gide, Paul Valéry, and Albert Camus (in France); and Thomas Mann (in Germany). Conrad moved beyond the traditional narrative form to focus on states of consciousness, thereby introducing a thoroughly modern way of storytelling. His novels tackle questions of human existence, explore how people behave under extreme circumstances, and examine whether their behavior remains morally sound or becomes perverted. Other important literary works, especially those written after World War II, follow in the footsteps of Conrad’s novels. Similarly bleak descriptions of Africa appear in the works of the Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul, for example, A Bend in the River.

Heart of Darkness provided the blueprint for Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (1979). The film is set in Cambodia during the time of the Vietnam War, when a renegade American elite soldier called Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, establishes a reign of terror deep in the jungle.

About the Author

Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Polish parents in Berdyczew, Ukraine, on December 3, 1857. Poland at that time was under czarist autocracy, and Conrad’s father was an activist in the fight against Russian rule. His activities led to the family being exiled to Russia. Conrad’s mother fell ill during their exile and died. When his father died in 1869, Conrad’s uncle took him in; the boy’s wish to go to sea appalled him. The uncle did everything to dissuade him but eventually gave in. In 1874, Conrad began his service in the French merchant navy. Soon after, he got involved in smuggling and, as a result, lost all his money. After a failed suicide attempt, he joined the British merchant navy and started a career as an officer. In 1886, he became a British citizen and received his Master’s certificate in the British merchant service. Three years later, he started writing his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, in English – his third language. A journey to the Congo turned into a traumatic event, and Conrad was horrified to discover how the colonialists treated the natives. The stress of the journey and the climate so severely affected his health that he had to return to England sooner than planned. He finished his first novel in 1894 and published it under the name Joseph Conrad, which he used from then on. The novel received positive reviews from the critics, and Conrad decided to settle in Kent with his wife, Jessie George, and become a writer. One of his most important works was the short novel Heart of Darkness (1899), in which he processed his experience of the Congo. Conrad died of heart failure on August 3, 1924.


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