Plot Summary of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness, a short novel by Joseph Conrad, is widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of symbolism in modern literature. Despite the fact that the story is only a tenth of the length of a typical novel, Conrad’s rich, layered style can make for a long and sometimes frustrating—but ultimately rewarding—reading experience. The main plot revolves around Marlow, a riverboat pilot who accepts a job with a Belgian company looking to expand into the African Congo. When Marlow arrives in Africa, his piloting job morphs into a search for a mystery business employee named Kurtz, who has all but vanished into the African forest. Marlow’s journey is a nightmare adventure through a nation he does not understand, where his European colleagues operate free of rules and “civilised” culture.
Heart of Darkness is A-frame story, a popular structure in the latter half of the nineteenth century. A-frame narrative contains a story within a story: the narrator of the frame tale encounters a character who proceeds to tell the narrator a storey, usually based on personal experience. The narrator of the frame storey is essentially an observer who only interacts with the storyteller before and after the “story within a story” is told, thereby establishing a “A-frame” around the bulk of the narrative. Many of the period’s greats, including Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, adopted this structure. The frame storey technique is used.
This is especially useful when the narrator and storyteller have opposing viewpoints on the major issue of the storey. In Heart of Darkness, the unidentified narrator is filled with pride in his country’s achievement in spreading civilization over the world. This is in stark contrast to Marlow’s viewpoint at the conclusion of the storey.
Conrad, a seasoned sailor, based Heart of Darkness on his own experiences as a steamboat pilot in the Belgian Congo in the 1890s. The work is now widely regarded as a vehement critique of European imperialism that occurred, primarily in Africa, at the end of the nineteenth century. Some later critics, however, see the novel in a less positive light. Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author, has called Heart of Darkness “an offensive and deplorable book,” and Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist.” Some critics accept that the book contains racist sentiments; nevertheless, they contend that these attitudes belong to Conrad’s fictitious creation, Marlow, rather than to Conrad himself. In any event, even Achebe acknowledges that “Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation of Africa,” and he did so long before such sentiments were widespread in Europe.
The novella was first published in three parts in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, and then as a solo work in 1902. The author’s liberal use of symbolism, particularly the frequent usage of “light” and “dark” to express ever-shifting meanings, has sparked over a century of vigorous critical study and kept the book high on reading lists in high schools and colleges across the United States. Conrad also created several other important novels, novellas, and short stories, including Lord Jim (1900), another maritime storey with Marlow as the narrator. Conrad’s place as a master of modern literature was cemented by Heart of Darkness.
Summary of Part I
Heart of Darkness begins at dusk aboard the ship Nellie on the Thames River in London. Five lifelong friends have gathered on the boat, but only one is named: Marlow. The other guys are identified by their current occupation, for example, the Lawyer and the Accountant. All were sailors at one time or another, but Marlow is the only one who is still a sailor. Marlow, like all sailors, has a “proclivity to spin yarns.” At dusk, as the sun sets behind a patch of brooding clouds in the west, the nameless narrator muses on the centuries of big ships and great men the river has seen over the British Empire’s historic expansion.
Marlow abruptly begins to speak of the region’s older, darker history. He imagines how barren and wild the area must have appeared to the first Romans who claimed it as part of their empire two thousand years ago. Despite the fact that the area now contains the most important metropolis in England—and perhaps all of Europe—Marlow is eager to remind out that they “live in the flicker,” meaning that darkness can return at any time. Marlow then describes his own encounter with darkness, which was identical to that of the early Romans, but in Africa. Because his storey takes up the most of the rest of the book, Marlow serves as a narrator to both the reader and his friends on the Nellie.
Marlow, who has just returned after several years in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, tries to keep himself busy in London. He becomes restless, though, and contacts family in continental Europe to assist him in obtaining a career as a boat pilot on the Congo River in Africa. The influence of his family, as well as the fact that a Belgian business has just lost a boat captain in the Congo owing to an argument with a native chief, lands Marlow an immediate position. Marlow travels to Belgium to sign the employment contract, remarking that the city from which the Company works resembles a “whited sepulchre,” or burial tomb. The contract is signed, and Marlow is examined by a French doctor to ensure his fitness for the journey. He bids his aunt farewell and boards a French boat bound for Africa.
Long before reaching his destination, Marlow sees the African shoreline, which appears to be impassable due to “a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black,” and stretches as far as the eye can see. The steamboat passes a number of run-down outposts, as well as a cruiser firing cannons into the impenetrable forest for no apparent purpose. A crew member warns Marlow that there is a “camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere,”
After a month of journey, Marlow arrives at the Congo River’s mouth. He joins another ship and proceeds up the river, as he will be stationed more than 200 miles from the coast. The boat’s captain, a Swede, tells Marlow about a recent passenger who hanged himself for no apparent reason. Marlow is dropped off at one of the Company’s stations thirty miles upriver to await future transit. The station is a “scene of inhabited devastation,” full of broken-down machines and seemingly meaningless excavations. Marlow notices a group of black men tied together, deemed criminals by the colonists, and carrying baskets of dirt. Marlow seeks shade in a grove of trees and discovers himself amid a group of black men on the edge of death, each too ill or feeble to continue working. He gives one of the men a biscuit from his pocket before leaving the men to their plight.
Continuing on, Marlow comes across the Company’s head accountant, an extraordinarily well-dressed guy who is the first to mention a name Marlow will come to recognise: Kurtz. When Marlow proceeds upriver, the accountant predicts that he will run into the other Company representative. Kurtz, according to the accountant, is not only “a very remarkable person,” but also brings in more ivory for the Company than all other dealers combined.
Marlow departs camp ten days later with a big caravan to begin the two-hundred-mile, two-week journey to the Central Station. When Marlow arrives, he learns that the boat he was supposed to steer has sunk. It is now his responsibility to recapture the boat and repair it. The station’s general manager, a worried guy who appears concerned about Kurtz’s well-being at an outpost further inland, asks Marlow how long it will take to fix the ship and continue on. Marlow believes that it will take a few months and gets to work right away.
Apart from himself, Marlow notes that none of the employees at the camp appears to be doing anything productive. They spend their time talking about ivory and plotting and strategizing against each other, which never comes to fruition. Marlow meets another Company agent, a brick-maker who has not manufactured any bricks due to a lack of a vital component that has not been stated. The brick-maker is fascinated by Marlow and his ties in Europe, but Marlow is just concerned with mending his ship and learning about Kurtz. The brick-maker tells Marlow that Kurtz is a “prodigy” and accuses Marlow of belonging to the same “gang” as Kurtz—a group that would one day take control of the Central Station.
Marlow finds he will need rivets to accomplish his repairs on the boat after starting work on it. There are no rivets in sight. Despite the fact that he was at Central Station, he had seen stacks and cases of them back in the station he had just left. “Three carriers could have brought everything needed to set that steamboat afloat,” Marlow muses. Marlow requests that the brick-maker, who has a close relationship with the general manager, ensure that he receives rivets. Meanwhile, the general manager’s uncle appears from the bush. He is the commander of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, a hidden group whose sole objective appears to be to “tear treasure out of the bowels of the land,” a calling no higher than “burglars breaking into a safe,” in Marlow’s opinion.
Summary of Part II
As Marlow drifts in and out of sleep on the deck of his stranded steamship one night, he overhears two men conversing below him. It is the general manager and his uncle who are speaking in less than glowing terms about Kurtz. The manager despises Kurtz for his arrogant lack of respect and feels Kurtz is trying to unseat him. The uncle advises the manager that Kurtz—or another nameless “pestilential fellow” believed to be in the neighbourhood at the time—should be hanged as a lesson. The manager mocks Kurtz’s suggestion that stations should be used for more than just commerce, but also for “humanising, improving, and instructing.” Marlow springs to his feet, startling the two men, who then attempt to flee calmly. A few days later, the uncle joins the Eldorado Exploring Expedition and left camp. Marlow later learns that the expedition’s donkeys have all perished. He reports matter-of-factly, “I have no idea what happened to the less valuable animals,” referring to the uncle and his other explorers.
Marlow completes repairs to his boat and travels up the Congo with the manager, a few pilgrims from the Central Station, and a crew of natives. Marlow compares the voyage upriver to “returning to the world’s earliest beginnings,” a place of silence but not of peace. It is, as Marlow puts it, “the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” The expedition takes two months, but Marlow is kept busy by the numerous difficulties inherent in piloting an uncharted river. His indigenous, dubbed cannibals despite the fact that they are never observed eating anyone, prove to be diligent workers. Marlow is particularly fond of the fireman, who is in charge of the boat’s boiler. Marlow refers to him as an “improved specimen,” but also likens him to a “dog dressed in parody breeches and a feather hat and walking on his hind legs.”
The boat approaches a cottage fifty miles from Kurtz and his Inner Station with a stack of cut wood meant for them and a note telling them to approach the station with caution. Marlow discovers a well-used book in the hut devoted to numerous trifling issues of seamanship. He discovers notes left by the previous owner in the margins, allegedly written in some sort of code. He carries the book with him as a diversion from the surrounding jungle’s gloom.
They become stranded in dense fog a few days later when the boat is within 10 miles of the Inner Station. They hear a human cry from somewhere nearby while they wait for the fog to lift. The pilgrims on board dread an attack by the indigenous people, but Marlow believes they will be protected by the thick fog. They continue into the fog, coming within a mile and a half of Kurtz’s Inner Station. There, a narrow sandbank divides the river, forcing Marlow to manoeuvre the boat close to land.
At that precise time, a hail of arrows rains down from the shore upon the boat. The pilgrims shoot back blindly with their rifles. The native helmsman of the boat is also struck by a spear while attempting to return fire. Marlow sounds the steam whistle on the boat, and the invaders flee. The helmsman is assassinated, leaving a puddle of blood in the pilothouse, soaking Marlow’s shoes. Marlow discards his shoes in the river. Marlow is certain after the unexpected attack that Kurtz must be dead in such a violent place. Marlow is overcome with loneliness at this notion, despite the fact that he has never met the man. Marlow dons dry slippers, drags the dead helmsman’s body from the pilothouse, and tosses him overboard to avoid being eaten by the cannibals.
Finally, they arrive at the Inner Station. On the coast, they are greeted by a young Russian man dressed in brightly patched attire, “almost like a harlequin.” He is already aware of the boat attack but assures them that everything is great now. The manager and the pilgrims make their way to Kurtz’s house. Marlow remains behind with the Russian and discovers that he was the one who abandoned the wood stack at the downriver cottage. Marlow demonstrates the book he retrieved from the cottage, and the Russian expresses gratitude for its return. Marlow notices that the annotations in the margin are written in Russian, not code. Marlow also learns why his boat was assaulted from the Russian: the indigenous people do not want the white men to take Kurtz away from them.
Summary of Part III
Marlow is informed by the Russian about how he met Kurtz and how Kurtz quickly won his devotion. Additionally, he mentions that Kurtz enlisted the assistance of the local tribe in acquiring ivory—not through trade, but through murder. Despite his noble ideals, Kurtz appears to be concerned with collecting ivory. He once threatened to murder the Russian for receiving a small piece of ivory as a gift from a local leader. Even after this, the Russian maintains the closest relationship with Kurtz possible; he even looked after the man when he became ill. However, this time, Kurtz’s condition is severe enough to require more urgent treatment.
Marlow surveys the high mansion where Kurtz is resting through his binoculars. He is astounded to discover that the surrounding fence posts are crowned with beheaded native heads. The Russian admonishes Kurtz, alleging that these are rebel leaders. Marlow observes, “Those rebellious heads on their sticks appeared very subdued to me.” Kurtz is escorted out of the house on an improvised stretcher. Tribal members swarm out of the woods, encircling the stretcher and its bearers. Kurtz rises to his feet and says something Marlow can not hear, and the tribesmen disperse. Kurtz is placed in a small cabin on the boat by the guys carrying him. Suddenly, a finely dressed indigenous woman comes on the coast alongside the steamer; she stares carefully at the men on board before walking away. According to the Russian, if she attempted to board the ship, he would have attempted to shoot her, and she was familiar with Kurtz.
Marlow overhears Kurtz arguing with the manager inside Kurtz’s cabin. Kurtz maintains that the manager has come to save the ivory, not him. Additionally, he maintains that he is not so ill that he should be relieved of his duties. The manager exits the cabin and informs Marlow that Kurtz has destroyed the region for the Company, causing far more harm than good.
The Russian informs Marlow that he has placed his trust in him to look after Kurtz and will depart. Additionally, he informs Marlow that Kurtz directed the Indians to assault the steamboat as it approached. Kurtz planned to scare the manager and his crew into returning to Central Station, convinced that he was already dead. Marlow hands the Russian pistol ammunition, tobacco, and a pair of shoes to the man, who then vanishes into the darkness.
Marlow is awoken just after midnight by drumming and a rush of ceremonial screaming. He searches Kurtz’s cabin and realises that he has gone missing. Marlow steps ashore and makes his way toward the drumming, looking for Kurtz. He catches up to Kurtz thirty yards from the nearest native fire, crawling toward it like a man under the power of immense enchantment. Kurtz cautions him to leave. Marlow threatens and then flatters Kurtz in an attempt to convince him to return to the boat. Kurtz speaks of his grandiose intentions and the manager’s attempts to ruin him, but Kurtz returns to the boat, much to Marlow’s relief.
The steamer sails at noon the following day, and a thousand indigenous people line the shore to witness the “splashing, thumping, fierce river-demon beating the water with its terrible tail and blowing black smoke into the air” as it transports Kurtz away. Kurtz is relocated to the pilothouse, which boasts superior ventilation to his prior quarters. Along the shore, the indigenous woman comes, and the entire tribe breaks out a chorus of yells. Marlow blows the steam whistle to disperse the natives before the pilgrims may cause problems.
Their pace away from Kurtz’s camp is twice as rapid as it was on their approach there, but Kurtz’s condition quickly deteriorates. The ship has a mechanical failure and is forced to make an emergency stop. Kurtz, realising his demise is imminent, hands up his personal files and a portrait of his prospective wife in Europe to Marlow. When Marlow checks in on him one night, Kurtz informs him that he is waiting to die. Marlow brushes aside the statement, but Kurtz, who appears to be lost in some vision, gently exclaims, “The horror! The abomination!” Marlow abandons him and joins the other pilgrims for dinner in the mess-room. The manager’s assistant enters shortly afterwards and notifies them that Kurtz has died. While the pilgrims hurry to see, Marlow remains in the mess-room. The following day, the pilgrims bury Kurtz in a muddy pit.
Marlow transports Kurtz’s documents all the way to Europe, despite the manager’s attempts to seize them as Company property. He meets with many individuals, including Kurtz’s cousin—to whom he presents some of Kurtz’s family letters—and a journalist who regards himself as a colleague of Kurtz.
According to the journalist, Kurtz would have made an excellent leader for an extremist political organisation. When Marlow inquires as to which political party, the journalist says, “Any political party.” Marlow presents the man with one of Kurtz’s published reports, and the journalist departs satisfied.
The final of Kurtz’s possessions are intended for his fiancé’ e, and Marlow pays her a visit to present them. Although it has been a whole year since the death of Kurtz, she continues to wear black and appears to be in sorrow. The two evaluate Kurtz’s strengths, and his prospective wife describes his death as a loss to the entire world. The woman implores Marlow to inform her of Kurtz’s final words. Marlow lies and says, “The last word he pronounced was—your name.” Knowing she desires comfort more than truth, Marlow lies and says, “The last word he pronounced was—your name.” The woman sobs, claiming that she was aware of this all along.
Marlow brings his storey to a close. The narrator stares out over the Thames, which appears to flow “into the heart of an immense darkness” beneath a gloomy and foreboding sky.