Summary of the Novel
Five men sit on board the Nellie, a boat docked in the Thames. An unnamed narrator introduces them to the reader: the owner of the boat, a lawyer, an accountant, and Charlie Marlow, who tells the story of his journey to the African jungle.
He introduces his tale by referring to ancient times in Britain, some nineteen hundred years ago. After help from an aunt, Marlow gets a job commanding a ship for an ivory trading company. Before he leaves, he meets two knitting women and a doctor from the company who make him feel uneasy.
He sails from Europe on a French steamer. The endless coastline and the appearance of sweating and shouting black men fascinate him. After more than thirty days, he leaves the French steamer for a boat captained by a Swede. He makes it to the company’s Outer Station. Rotting equipment and black slaves chained by the neck appall him. Even when he runs from the sight of them, he sees black workers starving and dying slowly. He meets the company’s chief accountant, a man whose neat appearance stands out from the company’s chaos. He waits ten days here. The hot weather and many flies irritate Marlow. During this time, though, the accountant mentions Mr. Kurtz, a remarkable man, a first-class ivory agent, a favorite of the Administration.
Marlow leaves the Outer Station with a white companion and a caravan of sixty blacks. Through thickets, ravines, and paths they travel two-hundred miles in fifteen days to the Central Station. Marlow finds his steamboat sunk at the bottom of the river. It will take months to repair. He meets the manager, a man Marlow dislikes because he talks without thinking. He speaks of Kurtz, saying he is ill, perhaps dead. Like the accountant, the manager praises Kurtz and reiterates his importance to the company. Marlow turns his back on the manager and concentrates on repairing his steamboat. Everywhere he looks, he notices “pilgrims,” white men who carry staves and speak of nothing but ivory. A shed full of goods burns one night. While going to see it, Marlow overhears the manager speaking with another agent about Kurtz.
Marlow meets a brickmaker. He invites Marlow to his room, where he asks him many questions about Europe. As he leaves the room, Marlow sees a sketch in oils of a blindfolded woman carrying a torch. Kurtz had painted it, he says, more than a year ago.
They talk about Kurtz, the agent saying he expects him to be promoted soon. He says Kurtz and Marlow belong to the same “gang” because the same people had recommended both of them. Marlow realizes this man resents Kurtz’s success.
Marlow tells the agent he needs rivets to fix the boat. When Marlow finally demands the rivets, the agent abruptly changes the subject. They do not arrive for many weeks. Marlow boards his steamer after the agent leaves. He meets a boilermaker, a good worker with a long beard. They dance on deck after Marlow tells him the rivets will come soon. Led by the manager’s uncle, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition appears. Marlow overhears them speak about Kurtz. He had come downriver a few months ago with ivory, but turned back. He had left a clerk to deliver the shipment, instead. He had spoken of Kurtz’s illness then, with no further word coming in the last nine months.
The rivets arrive, Marlow repairs the boat, and they resume the journey. The manager, a few pilgrims, and twenty natives accompany Marlow on the steamer. It takes two months to get close to Kurtz’s station. During that time, drums roll, people howl and clap, and the jungle becomes thick and dark.
They find an abandoned hut fifty miles below Kurtz’s station. Marlow discovers a faded note, a coverless book, and a stack of firewood. Eight miles from Kurtz’s station, Marlow and the manager argue over their navigation. Marlow wants to push on, but the manager urges caution. A mile and a half from their destination, the natives attack the boat. A spear kills the helmsman, who falls at Marlow’s feet. They throw his body into the river, a simple funeral. They come upon a man on shore. A Russian, this “harlequin” speaks admiringly of Kurtz. He tells them of Kurtz’s serious illness.
While the manager and the pilgrims go to Kurtz’s house, Marlow finds out many things from the Russian about Kurtz. Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer, he had discovered villages, and had even tried to kill the Russian over some ivory. Most importantly, the natives worshipped Kurtz, and offered sacrifices in his name.
They bring Kurtz to the steamer on an improvised stretcher. Physically weak, Kurtz still speaks with power. The natives line the shore to watch their god leave. A black woman, Kurtz’s mistress, joins them. Kurtz escapes from the steamer that evening. Marlow follows him, finally returning Kurtz to the boat. Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers. He dies a few days later. His last words—“The horror! The horror!”—haunt Marlow. They bury him in a muddy hole the next day.
Marlow returns to Europe. He becomes sick, running a fever. Three people call on him to retrieve Kurtz’s writings. A company officer, a musician claiming to be Kurtz’s cousin, and a journalist want his papers for their use. Marlow gives them unimportant documents, saving the personal ones for Kurtz’s Intended.
More than a year after Kurtz’s death, Marlow visits this woman. At her door, he hears Kurtz’s last words ring. In a drawing room, Marlow meets her, a beautiful lady suffering over Kurtz’s death. Marlow never answers her questions directly. He lies to her, saying Kurtz’s last words were her name. She cries to release herself from the agony of loss. Marlow feels bad for betraying Kurtz’s memory, but glad for saving the woman from the truth.
With Marlow’s story ended, we return to the Nellie. The narrator describes Marlow sitting in the pose of a Buddha, then raises his head to the “heart of the immense darkness” in the distance.
The Life and Work of Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad was born Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski in a Russian-ruled province of Poland (now part of the Ukraine) on December 3, 1857. His father was a poet, a writer, and a political activist. His mother was also politically involved. As a result of his parents’ participation in the Polish independence movement, young Conrad and his mother and father were forced into exile in northern Russia in 1862. In the next few years, by the time Conrad was eleven, both his parents had died, and the boy had been sent to live with his uncle, Thaddeus Bobrowski. Conrad dropped out of school when he was sixteen and took up life on the sea, first joining the French merchant marines and sailing as apprentice and then steward to Martinique and the West Indies. At the age of twenty-one, Conrad joined a British ship, and served with the British merchant marines. During this time, he achieved the rank of captain, became a naturalized British citizen, and traveled to Asia, Africa, Australia, and India. A trip to the Belgian Congo in 1890, during which Conrad sailed the Congo River, was crucial to the development of the 1899 work Heart of Darkness.
Poor health, from which Conrad had suffered all his life, forced his retirement from the British merchant marines in 1894. Conrad had begun writing while still in the service, basing much of his work on his life at sea. His first novel, Almayer's Folly, was published in 1895 and began Conrad’s difficult and often financially unrewarding career as a writer. Not until 1913, with the publication of the novel Chance, did he achieve true critical and financial success. Nevertheless, Conrad managed to earn his living by his pen, writing all his novels in his acquired language, English, and always returning to the sea and the outskirts of civilization for his most enduring themes.
In addition to Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s most notable early works include The Nigger of the ‘‘Narcissus’’ (1897), Lord Jim (1900), Youth, containing Heart of Darkness, (1902), and Typhoon (1902). The novels that are widely regarded as Conrad’s greatest works are Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), Under Western Eyes (1911), and Chance (1913). The novel Victory, which appeared in 1915, may be the best known of these later works. Conrad collaborated on two novels with his friend and fellow novelist Ford Madox Ford, The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903).
Joseph Conrad married in 1896, had two sons, and died of a heart attack in England on August 3, 1924. He was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, where many of England’s greatest writers lie. Although he often struggled to write in his adopted language, Conrad is now considered one of the greatest prose stylists in English literature.
Conrad based Heart of Darkness on his journey to the Belgian Congo in 1890. By checking his diaries at the time, we can trace his experience against his fictional portrayal. But this novella is more than an autobiographical account of his time spent there. It is a modern work that challenges the basic ethical question of good and evil in mankind, a topic explored by many authors. We need only think of the Adam and Eve myth, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange to name a few. Francis Ford Coppola based his film Apocalypse Now on this philosophical concept by updating Conrad’s story to the Vietnam War and the Southeast Asian jungle of the 1960s.
Conrad also tackled the political environment of the Congo in Heart of Darkness. When King Leopold of Belgium founded the “International Association for the Suppression of Slavery and the Opening Up of Central Africa,” he attempted to impose civilization and order. Greed, though, fostered widespread abuse. By the time Conrad visited the Congo, exploitation festered everywhere. Brutality and degradation reigned, not progress and enlightenment. The natives’ sufferings and Kurtz’s writings about them reflect the historical reality.
A number of factors influenced Conrad and other twentieth-century British writers. We have to first understand Victorian England and the reasons why the modern novelist rejected the values and beliefs of that time to mold a new society founded on different ideals.
Victorian England believed in materialism and progress. Their bourgeois (middle class) values served to stabilize all facets of society, so they believed. The writings of Jane Austen Charles Dickens and George Eliot represented the standards of their time, with Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, and Middlemarch serving as landmarks in fiction at that time. Their novels usually followed the traditional three-volume format. They focussed on many details, often writing at length about seemingly insignificant details.
As the era closed, reaction against Victorian life, commercialism, and community spread. The artist stood, not as a member of society, but in isolation from it. Once embraced by authors, religious faith even declined.
With formal religion destroyed, writers needed to discover a new faith to follow—with art often filling the void. In his preface to The Nigger of Narcissus, Conrad wrote: “Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its very aspect.” For him, art was religion.
New techniques emerged for novelists to tell their stories. The stream of consciousness and internal monologue emphasized a shift in focus from the external world to the interior world. Dreams, thoughts, and explanations of a character’s mental process replaced lengthy descriptions of external objects. Even though Conrad did not use these devices per se, he did focus on the internal world of his characters, and the reality of their dreams and thoughts. Marlow’s story suggests a nightmarish journey into the unknown.
More than any other factor, the advent and progression of psychology shaped the new vision of man in the universe, as well as the artist’s conception of him. Freud’s ideas showed the different aspects of man’s personality. With Freud’s analysis, man is not easily understood unless we consider his multi-layered make-up. His terms “ego,” “id,” and “super-ego” reveal the depth of our conscious and subconscious mind. After Freud’s work appeared, many works received a “psychological” interpretation. This added a depth of meaning to each work which had not existed before.
If we look at Heart of Darkness specifically and apply Freud’s concept of the human psyche, we can analyze Marlow’s journey not only as a literal one, but a psychological one. Marlow and Kurtz represent different aspects of man’s personality. Marlow reflects the “ego” (man’s more rational side), while Kurtz represents the “id” (man’s primitive force within). This difference explains why Marlow recoils at Kurtz’s barbaric behavior.
The recurring symbols in Conrad’s work show Jung’s influence. Many things represent not only their actual meaning, but a symbolic one, as well. The jungle, Marlow’s journey, and even Kurtz himself suggest other ideas and meanings besides their literal ones. Since Conrad gives no clues, the reader must interpret each one.
Bergson’s theories of time relate to Conrad’s use of a non-chronological narration. He could have had Marlow tell his story without any alteration in time, by starting at the beginning and proceeding straight through until the end. Instead, Conrad lets Marlow jump ahead, then return at whim. This technique merges the past with the present, making the reading more challenging. It shuffles the pieces of a strict chronological plot. As with the symbols, the reader must order the time to organize the sequence of events.
In his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus Joseph Conrad wrote how an artist’s (writer’s) success allowed readers a “glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” He also said: “Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect.” In each case, notice his reference to the “truth.” Here, Conrad proclaimed what his contemporaries felt. Only the artist could lead society to the truth. Only the work itself could enable society to understand the truth. The modern artists stood before their audience like prophets addressing the multitudes. The twentieth-century novelists’ work represented a way for the reader to see the new reality.
List of Characters
“I”—An unnamed “I” narrator.
The Director of Companies—Captain and owner of the boat.
The Lawyer and The Accountant—People on the boat in the Thames.
Charlie Marlow—Also on the boat. Tells the story of his journey to see Kurtz deep in the jungle.
Kurtz—The manager of an ivory station who has rejected conventional societal beliefs.
Two Knitting Women—They sit outside the outer office.
The Doctor—He examines Marlow before his journey.
The Aunt—Related to Marlow, she helps him get the appointment to the ship.
The Swedish Captain—The man in charge of a little sea-going steamer.
The Accountant—The bookkeeper who draws attention because of his neat appearance.
The Dying Agent—The man tormented by flies at the station.
The Manager—Leader of the station who survives because of his excellent health.
The Pilgrims—Workers who carry long staves. They want any chance to obtain ivory.
The Brickmaker—He does secretarial work for the Manager, but doesn’t seem to make bricks.
The Boilermaker—A good worker who talks to Marlow about the rivets they need.
The Manager’s Uncle—The leader of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. He only talks to his nephew.
The Helmsman—A black man killed by arrows shot by the natives.
The Russian—Wearing bright colored clothes, he greets Marlow at Kurtz’s station.
Kurtz’s Black Mistress—The woman in the jungle. She wears many bracelets, charms, and beads.
A Clean-Shaved Man, Kurtz’s “Cousin,” a Journalist—Three men who visit Marlow after Kurtz’s death. They want Kurtz’s papers.
Kurtz’s Intended—The woman in Europe who Marlow visits a year after Kurtz’s death.
Estimated Reading Time
Due to Conrad’s complex language, the long paragraphs, and the chronological shifts in narration, Heart of Darkness will probably take longer to cover than another work of equal length, with an actual reading time of six to seven hours.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Heart of Darkness was based upon Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo as first mate on the riverboat Roi des Belges in 1890, during which he was overwhelmed by intense moral revulsion at the degradation and exploitation of the natives by the ruthless European traders. Conrad noted that, in turn, the savage jungle quickly eliminated the slight beneficial effects that civilization gave to the white plunderers. His observations and reactions to this situation were transmuted into one of his most powerful works.
The character of Marlow, introduced in the short story “Youth,” reappears as the narrator and central character of Heart of Darkness. The center of Heart of Darkness is a...
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
A group of men sit on the deck of the cruising yawl, The Nellie, which is anchored one calm evening in the Thames estuary. One of the seamen, Marlow, reflects that the Thames, at the time of the invading Romans, was one of the dark and barbarous areas of the earth. Dwelling on this theme, he begins to tell a story of the most barbarous area of the earth that he has experienced.
Through his aunt’s connections, Marlow once secured a billet as commander of a river steamer for one of the trading companies with interests in the Belgian Congo. When he went to Belgium to learn more about the job, he found that few of the officials of the company expected him to return alive. In Brussels, he also heard of the...
(The entire section is 946 words.)
Section Summary and Analysis
Section I Summary and Analysis
The Director of Companies: captain and owner of the boat
“I”: unnamed narrator on the boat
The Lawyer, The Accountant: people on the boat in the Thames
Charlie Marlow: also on the boat; tells the story of his journey to see Kurtz deep in the jungle
Two Knitting Women: they sit outside the outer office
The Doctor: he examines Marlow before his journey
The Aunt: related to Marlow, she helps him get his appointment to the ship
The Swedish Captain: the man in charge of a little sea-going steamer
The Company’s Chief Accountant: his neat appearance contrasts with the chaos of the station
(The entire section is 4167 words.)
Section II Summary and Analysis
The Helmsman: a black man killed by arrows shot by natives
The Russian: man who greets Marlow at Kurtz’s station
While on his boat, Marlow hears the manager and his uncle talk about Kurtz. They stand on the shore alongside the steamboat. Without moving, he listens. The manager fears Kurtz’s influence. Threatened by Kurtz’s influence and success, the manager says, “Am I the manager—or am I not?” The uncle hopes the climate will eventually ruin Kurtz.
From the “absurd sentences,” Marlow hears how Kurtz had traveled three hundred miles with a shipment of ivory nine months ago. Kurtz had then returned upriver in a...
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Section III Summary and Analysis
Kurtz’s Black Mistress: black woman in the jungle who wears many ornaments
A Clean-Shaved Man, Kurtz’s “Cousin,” a Journalist: three people who visit Marlow in Europe to get Kurtz’s papers
Kurtz’s Intended: Kurtz’s fiancée in Europe
Marlow looks at the Russian, whose “improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering” existence fascinates him. He wonders how he had survived in the jungle. Marlow imagines he will disappear before his eyes. The Russian tells Marlow to take Kurtz away quickly. Marlow does not envy the Russian’s devotion to Kurtz because he had not “meditated over it.” He believes it is a...
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