Heart of Darkness Additional Summary

Joseph Conrad


(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...

(The entire section is 923 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 946 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

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.)