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.
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.