At a Glance

  • Heart of Darkness is structured as a story within a story. In the frame narrative, Marlow is sitting on the deck of a ship with three other men, relating the events of his trip up the Congo River. This journey forms the central narrative of the novel.
  • Conrad tackles themes of imperialism and colonialism in Heart of Darkness. Both Kurtz and Marlow are white outsiders benefiting off the exploitation and denigration of African natives. The language Conrad uses (including racial epithets) reinforces the evils and the inhumanity of colonialism.
  • Kurtz himself is a symbol of Western civilization. His 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.


(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
Heart of Darkness is framed as a story within a story. The point of view belongs primarily to Charlie Marlow, who delivers the bulk of the narrative, but Marlow's point of view is in turn framed by that of an unnamed narrator who provides a first-person description of Marlow telling his story. The point of view can also be seen in a third consciousness in the book, that of Conrad himself, who tells the entire tale to the reader, deciding as author which details to put in and which to leave out. Beyond these three dominant points of view are the individual viewpoints of the book's major characters. Each has a different perspective on Kurtz. These perspectives are often conflicting and are always open to a variety of interpretations. Whose point of view is to be trusted? Which narrator and which character is reliable? Conrad leaves these questions to the reader to answer, accounting for the book's complexity and multilayered meanings.

The novel takes place in the 1890s and begins on a boat sitting in the River Thames, which leads from London to the sea, waiting for the tide to turn. Marlow's story takes the reader briefly onto the European continent (Belgium) and then deep into Africa by means of a trip up the Congo River to what was then called the Belgian Congo, and back to Europe again. The Congo is described as a place of intense mystery whose stifling heat, whispering sounds, and strange shifts of light and darkness place the foreigner in a kind of trance that produces fundamental changes in the brain, causing acts that range from the merely bizarre to the most extreme and irrational violence.

The book's structure is cyclical, both in geography and chronology. It begins in the 1890s, goes back several years, and returns to the present. The voyage describes almost a perfect circle, beginning in Europe, traveling into the heart of the African continent, coming out again, and returning almost to the exact spot at which it began. The novel was originally published in serial form, breaking off its segments at...

(The entire section is 867 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Capital and largest city of Great Britain. The story opens with five men on a cruising yawl on the River Thames on a hazy evening at sundown. One of the men present is named Marlow. He is the only one of the men who is still active as a sailor or naval officer. Marlow begins telling a long story by remarking that the Thames has a dark history. He is referring to ancient times when the Romans first colonized England. At that time, London was an uncivilized place for the relatively sophisticated Romans to be entering.


*Brussels. Capital city of Belgium. Marlow tells a story concerning his voyage to the heart of the African continent. The company that has hired Marlow to fix a river steamer and become its captain is headquartered in Brussels. At the time of the story, the 1890’s, Belgium was a colonial power in control of a large portion of central Africa. Marlow must visit the company offices to obtain his commission and get orders concerning his new job. The people who work at the company headquarters treat him as though they do not expect him to return. The entire story Marlow tells shows that he has strong contempt for the way the Belgians have managed the country. He compares the city to a sepulcher—white on the outside but full of rotting bones.

*Congo River

*Congo River. Greatest waterway in Central Africa. Joseph Conrad never names these places by their proper names, but it is obvious from his descriptions of them and their place on the map of Africa that he is referring to Congo Free State and to the lengthy Congo River. Marlow also discusses the company’s lower station and a central station, analogous to Stanley Falls, far up the Congo River in the center of Africa. The trip that the steamer, captained by Marlow, makes up the Congo River to relieve Kurtz is eventful and dangerous both because of African attacks and because of tropical diseases. The journey into the heart of the dark rain forest is symbolic of the journey into the dark depths of the human soul.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Published by Gale Cengage

European Presence in Africa
In 1890 Joseph Conrad secured employment in the Congo...

(The entire section is 776 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story opens as a nameless narrator aboard the cruising yawl Nellie, anchored in the Thames River in England, begins to relate...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Conrad uses a variety of techniques to advance his narrative and to imbue it with a parable like quality of universal experience extrapolated...

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Conrad uses a variety of techniques to advance his narrative and to imbue it, like a parable, with a quality of universality derived from...

(The entire section is 369 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The combined exploitative forces of capitalism and imperialism are the objects of Conrad's social criticism in Heart of Darkness, objects...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

  • 1890s: The iron steamship has supplanted the sailing ship. The British, French, and Dutch Merchant Marines are...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Because of his experiences in Poland, Conrad hated totalitarianism. What evidence do you see of this hatred in Heart of Darkness?...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Critics have pointed out that Marlow's journey is a descent to the underworld, similar to Dante's in The Divine Comedy. Explain the...

(The entire section is 106 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Research the Belgian atrocities, committed in the Belgian Congo between 1889 and 1899, and compare them to the evidence of same presented...

(The entire section is 131 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Heart of Darkness has precedents in the tales of Chaucer and Boccaccio, the epic poetry of Virgil and Dante, in the literature of the...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

His first novels, Almayer's Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), established Conrad as an observer of persons...

(The entire section is 259 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Directed by Nicolas Roeg, Heart of Darkness was adapted for television and broadcast on TNT in 1994. The film features Tim Roth as...

(The entire section is 136 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Adams, Richard. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin, 1991.

Bloom, Harold, ed....

(The entire section is 618 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

  • In Lord Jim, published in 1900, another maritime tale, Conrad deals with issues of honor in the face of...

(The entire section is 273 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. New York: McGraw- Hill, 1960. A useful biography of Conrad in political, social,...

(The entire section is 226 words.)