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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness Summary

Heart of Darkness is a 1899 novel by Joseph Conrad in which Charles Marlow tells the story of his journey up the Congo River. Here are some key plot points:

  • Marlow secures work with a trading company in Africa. On his journey in the Congo, Marlow is appalled by the brutal working conditions of the Africans forced to work for the company.
  • Marlow travels to the Inner Station of a man named Kurtz, whom he had heard rumors about. Kurtz appears to have gone mad, and the native people worship him like a god. 
  • After Kurtz dies, Marlow returns to Europe to look for other work.


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Last Updated June 26, 2023.

Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad. It was originally published as a three-part story in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 before being collected into a book in 1902. Marlow tells the story of his journey up the Congo River, where he meets Kurtz, an ivory trader. Over the course of his journey, Marlow learns that Europeans may not be as civilized and advanced as they would like to think.

Plot Summary

On the boat Nellie, the Narrator and his companions are sailing down the River Thames as they head out to sea. Reminded of his time in the Congo, Charles Marlow remarks that London is also a dark place. He then tells his companions about his journey through the Congo years before.

The novella then transitions to a first-person recounting of Marlow’s travels. He shares that he always wanted to explore the world, but by the time he was an adult, there were few places left to explore; the Congo River was one of them. When he comes of age, he asks his relatives to help get him appointed to a steamboat in the Congo, and eventually Marlow’s aunt is able to secure passage for him.

He heads to Brussels to sign his contract, where Marlow is greeted by two women wearing all black. Marlow then visits the doctor to make sure that he is healthy enough for the voyage. The doctor measures Marlow’s skull and says that it would be scientifically interesting to document the mental changes that occur in people who go to the Congo directly. He asks Marlow if madness runs in his family.

Marlow then travels down the coast of Africa. The boat stops in several ports to deliver supplies. He comments on the apparent insanity of one ship whose men claim to be fighting natives. To Marlow, however, they appear to be firing at nothing but the natural landscape. After a month, Marlow reaches the mouth of the Congo River, but he still needs to travel two hundred miles in to replace a murdered steamboat captain. Marlow boards another, smaller steamer captained by the Swede. The Swede drops him off at the first Company’s station, where Marlow witnesses a group of chained Africans being overseen by a European with a gun. Eager to get away from the chain gang, Marlow makes his way to the center of the station, passing a dig that has no obvious purpose and a group of dying Africans who crawl into the shade to rest.

Marlow meets the Chief Accountant, who surprises Marlow with his immaculate appearance. The Chief Accountant tells Marlow about a man named Kurtz. After ten days at the first station, Marlow walks to the Central Station, accompanied by an entourage of African workers and another white man. At the Central Station, he learns that his steamer sank and needs to be fished out of the river and repaired. Marlow estimates that it will take a few months to repair the ship. As he works on the steamboat, the brickmaker tries to befriend him and shares that Marlow was recommended by the same people who recommended Kurtz.

As Marlow waits for the rivets needed to fix the steamboat, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition arrives at the Central Station. One evening, he overhears the leader of the Expedition and the General Manager talking about how Kurtz was going to deliver ivory personally but then decided to turn around and let his assistant deliver it instead. After a few weeks, Marlow repairs his boat and sets off down the river, taking two months to navigate the treacherous waters on the way to the Inner Station. Along with the European pilgrims, Marlow takes on a group of cannibals to help navigate the river and get the ship unstuck when it hits shallow waters.

Marlow finds an abandoned campsite with a cryptic message just fifty miles from the Inner Station, warning him to hurry but approach cautiously. Eight miles from the Inner Station, a heavy fog settles around the steamboat, and the crew waits while they hear shrieks from the surrounding jungle. After the fog finally lifts and the steamboat can move forward again, Marlow discovers the meaning of the shrieks when African natives send a volley of poisoned arrows to attack the steamer. The helmsman is killed, and Marlow steers the ship out of danger. He blows the steamboat whistle, which frightens the natives away.

Marlow and his crew arrive at the station, and the Russian explains that because the natives did not want Kurtz to leave, they attacked. He describes Kurtz with great admiration and respect, saying that Kurtz was able to secure more ivory by raiding local villages and trading non-ivory goods from those villages for more ivory. The Russian tells Marlow that Kurtz has fallen ill at least twice, and when the steamboat arrives, Kurtz is ill again. Kurtz has decorated the fence posts with the heads of “rebels.”

Kurtz disperses the natives, and the white men disembark and take Kurtz to one of the cabins, where his poor health is betrayed by his thin body and colorless complexion. He has an impressive voice, even in his infirmity. The General Manager is unhappy with Kurtz’s methods and threatens to hang the Russian for letting things get out of hand. The Russian hastily leaves the Inner Station, but not before informing Marlow that Kurtz ordered the natives to attack the boat when it arrived.

Marlow wakes up in the middle of the night and notices that Kurtz is no longer in his cabin; he manages to catch Kurtz before he escapes back into the jungle. Marlow convinces Kurtz to return to Europe with the steamboat. During the day, the natives gather on the bank, and although Marlow tries to scare them off with the boat whistle, they will not leave. The pilgrims shoot at the natives with guns.

Marlow has an easier time making his way down the river than upstream. Kurtz appears to be suffering psychologically, although his speech remains eloquent and persuasive. He entrusts his papers, mostly letters, and a report, to Marlow. Kurtz seems haunted by his past, uttering, “The horror! The horror!” before the General Manager’s servant pronounces him dead. Soon after, Marlow also gets sick.

Marlow then brings the narrative to Brussels, where he stays with his aunt until he fully recovers from his illness. He shares Kurtz’s report, “Suppression of Savage Customs,” with the representatives of the trading company, who do not want it. He then gives the report to a journalist who claims to have been Kurtz’s friend. Marlow delivers the personal letters and the portrait Kurtz kept of her to Kurtz’s fiancée, who remains in mourning for more than a year after Kurtz’s death.

When she presses him for information, Marlow lies and says that Kurtz’s last word was her name. Marlow ends his narrative as the Nellie reaches the mouth of the Thames, and the Narrator notes that the waterway seems to lead into a heart of darkness.

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