Heart of Darkness Summary

Heart of Darkness summary

Charlie Marlow finds work as a ship's commander for a trading company in Africa, near the Congo River. He travels from France to the western African coast on a steamer, then takes a boat to the trading company's Inner Station.

  • On his journey, Marlow is appalled by the conditions of the black slaves. He arrives to find that the boat he was to command has sunk to the bottom of the river. It will take months to repair.

  • Marlow repeatedly hears about a man named Kurtz, who also works for the trading company. There are many rumors about Kurtz: that he's ill, that he's going to be promoted, that he and Marlow are alike.

  • Marlow later learns that Kurtz was the one who ordered an attack on the boat. He appears to have gone mad, and the natives worship him like a god. After Kurtz dies, Marlow returns to Europe.


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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.

Heart of Darkness Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 trip by Marlow up the Congo River in search of a mysterious Mister Kurtz. The events that take place during this river voyage constitute both a literal and a symbolic journey by Marlow into that “immense heart of darkness” that is both the African jungle and the human soul.

The events of the story are relatively simple. Marlow finds himself, as sailors often do, without a position, a situation Conrad knew well. Against his better judgment, Marlow contracts to serve as a riverboat captain for a Belgian company that exports ivory from the Congo. Exactly as happened to Conrad, however, Marlow’s boat is wrecked before he arrives, and he is assigned to serve as a mate on a company steamboat sailing upriver. Marlow goes willingly because he wishes to meet the famous Mister Kurtz, a man who has become renowned equally as a trader of ivory and as a champion of civilization.

Marlow learns, however, that Kurtz is more than an ivory trader, and that the man’s vision of civilization and progress has been changed by contact with the African wilderness. When Marlow arrives at Kurtz’s station, he finds that Kurtz has reverted to savagery and is alternately feared or worshiped by the terrified natives whom he oppresses. Kurtz’s station is ringed with posts decorated with human skulls, and unspeakable rites are celebrated there in honor of the man-god Kurtz. Marlow loads the sick, delirious Kurtz on the boat and hurries back down the river, narrowly escaping an ambush by the terrified and outraged natives. Kurtz dies on the journey.

Marlow takes Kurtz’s belongings, including his precious journal, back to Kurtz’s fiancé in Europe. Having carefully removed the increasingly frenzied and desperate passages that occur toward the end of the diary, Marlow lies to the woman, claiming that Kurtz died as he had wished and as she herself would have wanted, as an apostle for civilization and Christianity. Still, Marlow must recognize the truth that he has witnessed.

The impact of Heart of Darkness comes from the nearly devastating effects Marlow experiences in the Congo. As the story unfolds, the world in which Marlow finds himself grows both more corrupted and more corrupting, so that nothing is left untouched or untainted. Marlow’s adventures become stranger, and the characters he meets grow increasingly odd, starting with the greedy traders whom Marlow ironically describes as “pilgrims,” through an eccentric Russian who wanders in dress clothes through the jungle, to Kurtz himself, that figure of ultimate madness. Only the native Africans, whether the cruelly abused workers who slave for the trading company or the savages who serve Kurtz out of fear and superstition, retain some of their original dignity. To Marlow, however, they are initially beyond his comprehension. Heart of Darkness shows the reader the world through Marlow’s eyes, and it is a strange and terrifying place where the normal order of civilized life is both inverted and perverted.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad presents his narrative in a carefully distanced fashion; little is told directly. The story begins with Marlow and four friends aboard a small boat on the Thames River, talking about their experiences. One of the listeners, who is never named, is the actual narrator of the story he has heard from Marlow; while readers may believe they are listening directly to Marlow, actually they hear his story secondhand. Within this narrative framework, the tale shuttles back and forth as Marlow recounts part of his story, then comments upon it. At times, Marlow makes additional reflections upon his own observations. It is only by retelling the events that Marlow comes to understand them, a gradual revelation that is shared by the reader.

Heart of Darkness makes substantial use of symbolism. Conrad used symbolism—the literary device that uses the images of a work to underscore and emphasize its themes and meanings—in many of his works, especially in his descriptions of the landscape, which grows denser and darker as Marlow’s journey progresses. The technique is essential for Heart of Darkness; the underlying meanings of the story are too terrifying and bleak to be expressed openly. Conrad also uses imagery throughout his story to underscore the meaning of events as Marlow comes to understand them. Opposites are frequent, so that brightness is contrasted with gloom; the lush growth of the jungle is juxtaposed with the sterility of the white traders; and the luxuriant, even alarming, life of the wild is always connected with death and decomposition. Running throughout the story are images and metaphors of madness, especially the insanity caused by isolation. In particular, the decline of Kurtz is a powerfully symbolic expression of the weaknesses of supposedly civilized Europeans. The dominant symbol for the entire work is found in its title and final words: All human nature is a vast “heart of darkness.”

Heart of Darkness Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 distinguished Mr. Kurtz, the powerful and intelligent man who was educating the natives and at the same time sending back record shipments of ivory. The mysterious figure of Mr. Kurtz fascinated Marlow. In spite of the ominous hints that he gathered from various company officials, he became more and more curious about what awaited him in the Congo.

During his journey, as he passed along the African coast, Marlow reflected that the wilderness and the unknown seemed to seep right out to the sea. Many of the trading posts and stations the ship passed were dilapidated and looked barbaric. Finally, Marlow arrived at the seat of the government at the mouth of the river. Again, he heard of the great distinction and power of Mr. Kurtz, who had an enormous reputation because of his plans to enlighten the natives and his success in gaining their confidence. Marlow also saw natives working in the hot sun until they collapsed and died. Marlow had to wait impatiently for ten days at the government site because his work would not begin until he reached the district manager’s station, two hundred miles up the river. At last, the expedition left for the district station.

Marlow arrived at the district station to find that the river steamer he was to command had sunk a few days earlier. He met the district manager, a man whose only ability seemed to be the ability to survive. The district manager, unconcerned with the fate of the natives, was interested only in getting out of the country; he felt that Mr. Kurtz’s new methods were ruining the whole district. The district manager also reported that he had not heard from Kurtz for quite some time but had received disquieting rumors about his failing health.

Although he was impeded by a lack of rivets, Marlow spent months supervising repairs to the antiquated river steamer. He also overheard a conversation that revealed that the district manager was Kurtz’s implacable enemy, who hoped that the climate would do away with his rival. When the steamer was finally ready for use, Marlow and the district manager sailed to visit Kurtz at the inner station, far up the river. The journey was difficult and perilous; the water was shallow, and there were frequent fogs. Just as they arrived within a few miles of Kurtz’s station, natives attacked the vessel with spears and arrows. Marlow’s helmsman, a faithful native, was killed by a long spear when he leaned from his window to fire at the savages. Marlow finally blew the steamboat whistle, and the sound frightened the natives away. The district manager was sure that Kurtz had lost control of the natives. When they docked, they met an enthusiastic Russian traveler who told them that Kurtz was gravely ill.

While the district manager visited Kurtz, the Russian told Marlow that the sick man had become corrupted by the very natives he had hoped to enlighten. He still had power over the natives, but instead of his changing them, they had debased him into an atavistic savage. Kurtz attended native rituals, killed frequently in order to get ivory, and had hung heads as decorations outside his hut. Later, Marlow met Kurtz and found that the man had, indeed, been corrupted by the evil at the center of experience. Marlow learned from the Russian that Kurtz had ordered the natives to attack the steamer, thinking that, if they did so, the white men would run away and leave Kurtz to die among his fellow savages in the wilderness. Talking to Marlow, Kurtz showed his awareness of how uncivilized he had become and how his plans to educate the natives had been reversed. He gave Marlow a packet of letters for his fiancé in Belgium and the manuscript of an article, written sometime earlier, in which he urged efforts to educate the natives.

The district manager and Marlow loaded Kurtz, now on a stretcher, onto the river steamer to take him back home. The district manager contended that the area was now ruined for collecting ivory. Full of despair and the realization that devouring evil was at the heart of everything, Kurtz died while the steamer was temporarily stopped for repairs.

Marlow returned to civilization. About a year later, he went to Belgium to see Kurtz’s fiancé. She still thought of Kurtz as the splendid and powerful man who had gone to Africa with a mission, and she still believed in his goodness and power. When she asked Marlow what Kurtz’s last words had been, Marlow lied and told her that Kurtz had asked for her at the end. In reality, Kurtz, who had seen all experience, had in his final words testified to the horror of it all. This horror was not something, Marlow felt, that civilized ladies could, or should, understand.

Heart of Darkness Summary

Section I
Literally speaking, the action of Heart of Darkness is simply the act of storytelling aboard a ship...

(The entire section is 1465 words.)

Heart of Darkness Section Summary and Analysis

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Heart of Darkness Section I Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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.)

Heart of Darkness Section II Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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...

(The entire section is 5184 words.)

Heart of Darkness Section III Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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...

(The entire section is 4978 words.)