Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness book cover
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What happens in Heart of Darkness?

  • Charles Marlow sits on the deck of the Nellie, a ship anchored in the Thames, with the Director of Companies, the Accountant, and the unnamed narrator. Marlow begins telling the men the story of his journey up the Congo River.
  • Marlow had secured work as a ship's commander for a trading company in Africa. He sailed from France to the trading company's Central Station in the Congo. On his journey, Marlow was appalled by the brutal living and working conditions of the Africans forced to work for the Company.
  • Marlow arrived at the Central Station to find that the boat he was to command had sunk to the bottom of the river. While it was being repaired, Marlow heard stories about a man named Kurtz, who also worked for the trading company. It was rumored that Kurtz was a man of great abilities, that he was ill, and that he and Marlow were alike.
  • Marlow and several men travel to Kurtz' Inner Station, and as they arrive they are attacked by native Africans. Marlow later learned that Kurtz was the one who ordered this attack. Kurtz appeared to have gone mad, and the native people were worshipping him like a god. After Kurtz died, Marlow returned to Europe to look for other work.

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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...

(The entire section is 1,180 words.)