Marlow, the narrator and impartial observer of the action who becomes the central figure of the story. Because he is an observer and never centrally involved in the action of the story, he survives to tell the tale. He tells his listeners about his childhood passion for maps and about his declared intention to go, someday, to the heart of Africa. This thoroughly British Everyman describes how, years later, he signs on for the journey, with the help of his aunt. An accident has befallen the steamer that he was to have commanded, and the previous captain was murdered. Because of the damage done to his intended vessel, Marlow waits months for repairs that eventually allow him to command his steamboat. He then makes the difficult and perilous trip upriver to retrieve a sick agent, Kurtz, who dies on board shortly after being rescued. Marlow’s voyage into the heart of Africa becomes, symbolically, a journey into the core of his being as well as into the evil at the center of human experience. After talking with Kurtz, with whom he identifies, he is able to see deeply into his own being. Even after returning to Brussels, Marlow is haunted by the memory of Kurtz.
Kurtz, a powerful and intelligent man who manages an inland trading station in the Belgian Congo. His fame is based partly on the fact that he brings in more ivory than all the others put together, and his station is surrounded by heads on stakes. After having arrived in the Congo with high ideals and a self-imposed mission to “civilize” the natives (he was entrusted with making a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs), he is instead converted by them to savagery and is destroyed by the dark and weak aspects of his own personality. He represents the dark continent, that is, a continent that has been subjected to the evils of colonialism. Kurtz’s awareness of his downfall and his conviction that evil is at the heart of everything is revealed in a long talk that he has with Marlow. After Kurtz falls into a fever and dies, Marlow becomes the custodian of his papers and last wishes.
The District Manager
The District Manager, an avowed enemy of Kurtz who wishes that the climate would do away with his rival. He believes that Kurtz’s new methods are ruining the entire district. His only interest while in the Congo is in collecting as much ivory as possible, and he is oblivious to the fate of the natives. His only desire is to get out of the country.
Russian Traveler, an admirer and disciple of Kurtz. He later tells Marlow about Kurtz’s ultimate corruption and about his grave illness.
Kurtz’s Fiancée, a woman who Marlow wishes to retain the belief that Kurtz is good and powerful.