The central story is related by Marlow, a sailor and adventurer who appears in other Conrad works such as Lord Jim. Marlow recalls his experiences as the captain of a steamboat in the Congo, far from the safety of civilization. There, at a station on the edge of the jungle, he hears rumors of a Mr. Kurtz, a remarkable, admired white man who operates a trading post located deep in the wilderness. The more Marlow learns of Kurtz, the more interested he becomes, for Kurtz has cut off contact with the outside world, and there are suggestions that he is seriously ill.
After numerous delays, Marlow steams up the winding, snakelike river toward Kurtz’s trading post. Marlow feels that he is heading into a prehistoric time. Along the way, his boat is attacked by savages, and when they finally reach Kurtz’s station, Marlow is shocked to see a display of human heads, the spoils of cannibal war. Kurtz himself is clearly demented and dying, and Marlow slowly realizes that the man is regressing to a primitive state, consumed by his own inner capacity for savageness.
Before Kurtz dies, he recognizes the extent of his change and is appalled. When Marlow returns to England, he lies to protect Kurtz’s good name. Like Kurtz, Marlow has seen the heart of darkness within all men.
Conrad first published the story of Kurtz in 1899 as “The Heart of Darkness” for Blackwood’s Magazine, but he revised it heavily for inclusion in Youth: A Narrative, And Two Other Stories in 1902. The tale has influenced writers as different as T. S. Eliot and William Faulkner, and it was the major inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now.
Beach, Joseph W. The Twentieth-Century Novel: Studies in Technique. New York: Century, 1932. Conrad’s narrative style and his characterizations (especially of Kurtz) are discussed. How Conrad’s life experiences are related to the plot is hypothesized.
Gillon, Adam. Joseph Conrad. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A book-length exploration of Conrad’s style and how his technique evolved, especially regarding the narrator, Marlowe. There is also an analytical consideration of Kurtz.
Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. New York: Atheneum, 1958. Examines some of the autobiographical elements of the work as well as Conrad’s attitudes toward social and historical events of his time. Provides useful insights into Kurtz’s character.
Hay, Eloise K. The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Presents the view that Heart of Darkness is not the masterpiece critical acclaim would suggest. Explores the social events and political climate of the time to show some of the influences on the plot and style.
Watt, Ian. “Heart of Darkness.” In Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. A discussion of sources and ideological perspectives relative to Kurtz and the Victorian era. A scholarly assessment in a readable style.