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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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  • Heart of Darkness is a frame narrative in which Marlow relates the events of his trip up the Congo River to several other men. 
  • Conrad tackles themes of imperialism and colonialism in Heart of Darkness. Both Kurtz and Marlow are white outsiders benefiting from the exploitation and denigration of African natives. The language Conrad uses (including racial epithets) reinforces the evils and the inhumanity of colonialism.
  • Kurtz’s descent into madness comes after many years of imperialism, which brings out evils in him that might not otherwise have surfaced. His mental deterioration symbolizes the decay of Western civilization.


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Narrative Point of View

Heart of Darkness is recounted by the Narrator, but it is essentially Marlow’s story, told primarily from Marlow’s first-person perspective. Marlow’s experiences in the Congo occur several years before the narrative’s present. Readers are asked to question the reliability of Marlow’s memory as he describes events that took place in the past. In the frame story, Marlow retrospectively recounts his journey in the Congo to the passengers on the Nellie in the River Thames. Marlow occasionally lapses into silence or is interrupted by the crew who are listening to him. As Marlow admits, the maddening effect of the Congo did impact him, calling into question how much of the narrative is an accurate portrayal of what happened and how much of it is obscured or warped by Marlow’s own deteriorated mental state.


Heart of Darkness is one of the few stories where the setting is almost a character in its own right. The novel’s present setting—London—mirrors the setting of the Congo, but it is the Congo that readers truly learn about. The Swede, after telling Marlow that a man died by suicide, said that maybe it was the sun or the country that overwhelmed him, implying that the setting is enough to drive a man to death. Marlow walks two hundred miles from the first station to the Central Station, remarking on how there seemed to be no one around. He feels alone, as everything is silent, and he frequently passes through abandoned villages. When he starts traveling up the Congo, he compares it to the idea of traveling back in time. He finds it difficult to navigate the river because it is wide and shallow in unexpected places. As a result, Marlow has to metaphorically fight against the river the entire length of the journey. The unsettling nature of the jungle also affects the behavior of the white men, who become “imbeciles” and act like fools, providing evidence for the doctor’s ominous suggestion that “scientifically interesting” changes take place in the minds of those who journey into the Congo.

Timeline and Narrative Progression

The plot advances almost linearly, but because it is shaped by Marlow’s narration, it digresses as Marlow reflects on his experiences. It also jumps forward and backward relative to the general flow of the narrative.

  • For example, Marlow discusses the report Kurtz wrote before Kurtz is fully introduced. He receives this paper, and others, later in the novel, after his crew bring Kurtz back down the Congo to recover his health.

This narrative ordering allows readers to experience Kurtz the way that most of the characters, aside from Marlow, have experienced him—primarily through his words, which express high-minded, noble ideas that inspire Marlow when he reads them. This initial characterization of Kurtz is contradicted by how weak and barbarous he has become when Marlow finally encounters him. His lofty ideals about morality and civilization contrast with the sight of the decapitated heads of “rebels” who presumably questioned his authority.

Inspirations for the Novella

The plot of the novella, and some of the characters in it, are drawn from Conrad’s real-life experiences. As a young man, Conrad also captained a river steamer up the Congo; his predecessor had been killed by Africans, and he met a man like Kurtz shortly before the man’s death. During his journey, Conrad fell violently ill, and his health never fully recovered. Conrad viewed the colonization of Africa by Europe as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience,” and this attitude is reflected in Marlow’s story.

Ivory as a Symbol

One of the primary symbols in the novella is ivory. Marlow does not care about ivory the way some of the other men do. Whereas others hope that ivory will make them wealthy, Marlow travels to the Congo out of a naïve and idealistic desire to venture into the unknown. Ivory is the reason that the Chief Accountant respects Kurtz, who alone brings in more ivory than all the other trading posts combined.

At the Central Station, Marlow remarks that the men seem to worship ivory, talking about it with reverence. They believe it will make them wealthy and enable them to return to Europe in high standing. Kurtz has manipulated the Africans into raiding other villages for ivory and digging up the ivory that they bury for religious reasons. Kurtz even resembles ivory, with his balding head and sickly, colorless appearance. Although the Europeans believe that their whiteness makes them better than the Africans, the Europeans are in fact there to steal from the Africans and sell their treasure for profit.

In pursuit of ivory, the Europeans either manipulate the Africans (as Kurtz does) or brutalize them (as the first station overseers do). Ivory functions as a symbol for the greed of the Europeans, who disguise their avarice behind the veneer of civility and self-righteousness.

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