Heart of Darkness Summary. it is a novella by Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad in which the sailor Charles Marlow tells his listeners the story of his assignment as steamer captain for a Belgian company in the African interior (1899). The novel is widely regarded as a critique of European colonial rule in Africa, whilst also examining the themes of power dynamics and morality.
Although Conrad does not name the river on which most of the narrative takes place, at the time of writing the Congo Free State, the location of the large and economically important Congo River, was a private colony of Belgium's King Leopold II. Marlow is given a text by Kurtz, an ivory trader working on a trading station far up the river, who has "gone native" and is the object of Marlow's expedition.
|Heart of Darkness Summary
Heart of Darkness Summary
The novel is structured as a story Marlow tells his friends onboard a boat on the Thames. As the sun sets, Marlow becomes introspective and begins to reminisce about the time when, struggling to find work, he decides to take a job on a steamboat in the Congo.
Through his aunt he is awarded a job working for the Company, a Belgian colonial firm that trades in ivory in Africa. From London, he travels to an unnamed Belgian city and interviews his employers. He passes a medical exam and is soon dispatched on a ship to the Congo.
Along the way, he begins to discover the bureaucracy and the violence of the colonial endeavor. At his first stop in the Congo, the Outer Station, he witnesses that the Company has forced the locals into service, whereupon they are overworked and brutalized in the name of profit. He begins to hear rumors of a man named Kurtz, the Company’s best ivory trader who operates far up the Congo River.
After travelling up the river to the Central Station, Marlow discovers that the steamboat he is meant to captain has been damaged. He spends a long time repairing it, all the while hearing more about the mysterious Kurtz. Marlow meets the General Manager (a suspicious, unwholesome man) and the Brickmaker (an ambitious and unscrupulous person), both of whom fear Marlow and view him as a threat to their chances of promotion.
Marlow learns that Kurtz is sick, though Kurtz continues to send ivory to the Company. When Marlow’s ship is finally repaired, he departs the Central Station with a crew of locals and Europeans, including the General Manager. They pass by the dense jungle, and Marlow is perturbed by the eerie silence that surrounds them. Occasionally, they hear the locals chanting or drumming in the distance but rarely see anyone.
Further up the river, Marlow discovers an abandoned cabin with a sign offering free firewood to anyone passing by. The sign also tells travelers to proceed with caution. After stocking up on wood, the steamboat continues upriver and is soon enveloped by a thick fog. Marlow is worried about damaging the boat, while the crew is worried about being attacked. The next day, as the fog lifts, the boat comes under fire from a flurry of small arrows.
Marlow cannot see the attackers but glimpses their bodies in the forest. The crew fires rifles in response but hits nothing; Marlow ends the fight by pulling on the steam whistle and scaring the attackers away. The boat’s African helmsman is hurt during the attack and dies at Marlow’s feet. Marlow pushes his body in the river, annoying the Europeans (who want to bury him in a Christian fashion) and the Africans (who want to eat him).
Shortly after, the boat arrives at Kurtz’s Inner Station. Marlow expects to find Kurtz already dead, but a Russian trader intercepts them at the camp and tells stories of Kurtz’s inspirational actions. Marlow believes the Russian to be half-mad but discovers that Kurtz has won the support of a local tribe and become involved in their superstitious ceremonies. The Russian reveals that it was his abandoned cabin that provided the wood to the men; he tries to convince Marlow that Kurtz is not to be judged like normal people.
Marlow reads articles Kurtz has written and realizes Kurtz has tried to make himself into a god to the local people. He has been raiding villages, killing villagers and taking their ivory; he has become untethered from traditional conceptions of morality whilst in the jungle. Marlow sees several severed heads stuck on stakes in the camp as evidence of Kurtz’s methods. Kurtz is carried out of his cabin on a stretcher by the crew; when the locals try to stop them, Kurtz tells them to relent.
Kurtz is taken to a cabin on the steamboat. He is very sick and needs urgent medical attention. Marlow sees Kurtz’s mistress—a local woman—and the Russian implies that she has corrupted Kurtz. As the crew plan to take Kurtz away, the Russian flees on a canoe. Before the ship departs, Kurtz tries to escape by crawling into the jungle, but Marlow stops him.
They travel back down the river while Kurtz’s health worsens. Marlow spends most of his time with Kurtz and is eventually entrusted with safeguarding the man’s memory. The boat breaks down, delaying their return. Kurtz dies from his sickness. Soon, Marlow also falls sick. He is forced to return to Europe and is nursed back to health by his aunt. People visit him to learn more about Kurtz. Marlow visits Kurtz’s fiancé but cannot tell her the truth about what Kurtz became, so he lies to her. Marlow ends his story, reflecting on the profound impact Kurtz made on him in a short space of time.
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Heart of Darkness Themes
Colonialism and its Hypocrisy: The novel is a scathing critique of European colonialism in Africa, particularly its exploitation of the land and its people. Marlow's journey up the Congo River exposes the brutality, greed, and corruption inherent in the colonial system. The contrast between the Company's lofty ideals and the reality of its operations on the ground highlights the hypocrisy of colonialism.
Civilization vs. Savagery: The novel blurs the lines between civilization and savagery, questioning whether the supposed superiority of European culture is truly valid. Characters like Kurtz and the natives challenge Marlow's preconceived notions about civilization and its supposed moral superiority. The novel suggests that both "civilized" and "savage" impulses exist within all humans, and the environment can play a role in bringing them out.
The Duality of Man: Heart of Darkness explores the inherent darkness within human nature, even in those considered civilized. Characters like Kurtz and the Company officials succumb to greed, violence, and cruelty, revealing the potential for evil that lurks beneath the surface. Marlow's own internal struggle between his civilized instincts and his fascination with the darkness within himself further emphasizes this theme.
The Illusion of Truth: The novel questions the idea of a single, objective truth, suggesting that reality is subjective and shaped by individual perception. Marlow's journey up the river is a descent into uncertainty and ambiguity, where truth becomes elusive and unreliable. The conflicting narratives surrounding Kurtz and the Company's motives highlight the malleability of truth and the dangers of accepting any single version of events.
The Absurdity of Evil: Heart of Darkness portrays the senselessness and randomness of evil, particularly in the context of colonial violence. Kurtz's descent into madness and the Company's ruthless exploitation of the natives are presented as absurd and ultimately meaningless. The novel suggests that evil often operates without reason or logic, leaving behind only destruction and suffering.
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Heart of Darkness Characters
Charlie Marlow a 32 year-old man who has "followed the sea." Marlow's story of his voyage up the Congo River constitutes almost all of Conrad's novel. He pilots the steamboat sent to relieve Kurtz and is shocked by what he sees the European traders have done to the natives.
Kurtz an ivory trader for the Company. Kurtz works out of the Inner Station and is remarkably effective at acquiring ivory. A well-educated European, he is described as a "universal genius" and begins his work in the Congo as part of a virtuous mission. However, while in the jungle, he sets himself up as a god to the natives. By the time Marlow reaches him, he is emaciated and dying.
The Manager Working out of the Central Station, the Manager oversees the Company's activities in the Congo. (He is based on a real person, Camille Delcommune.) The Manager is able to inspire uneasiness in others; Marlow later figures out that he was responsible for the wreck of his steamboat. The Manager fears that Kurtz is trying to steal his job.
The Accountant Also working out of the Central Station, the Accountant somehow manages to wear spotless clothes in the sweltering heat and complains about the groans of a dying man who is brought to his office for fear of being distracted and making clerical errors in the Company's books. He also confides to Marlow some of the Company's shady business practices.
The Brickmaker Although his name suggests the nature of his position, the Brickmaker does not make any bricks because of a shortage of materials. When Marlow meets the Brickmaker at the Central Station, Marlow suspects that he is "pumping" him for information about the Company's plans.
The Harlequin a Russian freelance trader who meets Kurtz in the jungle. He admires Kurtz immensely, telling Marlow, "This man has enlarged my mind."
Kurtz's Native Mistress Kurtz's native mistress. She is very protective of Kurtz and leads a chant on the bank of the river when Kurtz leaves the Inner Station. She dresses in bright colors.
The "Pilgrims" European agents at the Central Station waiting for a chance to be promoted to trading posts, so they can then earn percentages of the ivory they ship back.
The Helmsman a native crewman on Marlow's steamboat. He is killed by a spear during an attack on the boat.
The Doctor When in Brussels, Marlow is examined by the Doctor at the Company's headquarters. He is interested in the effects of the jungle (and the lack of restraint it offers its inhabitants) on European minds.
Marlow's Aunt Using her influence with the wife of a high Company official, she helps Marlow get his post as a steamboat pilot for the Company.
Kurtz's Intended a demure and mourning young woman; Marlow visits her after he returns to Europe and lies to her about her fiancée's last words. She is dressed in black.
The Narrator an unnamed man on board the Nellie who relates Marlow's story to the reader.
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Questions and Answers about Heart of Darkness Plot
What is Heart of Darkness mainly about? Heart of Darkness examines the horrors of Western colonialism, depicting it as a phenomenon that tarnishes not only the lands and peoples it exploits but also those in the West who advance it.
What is the main theme of Heart of Darkness? Heart of Darkness explores the issues surrounding imperialism in complicated ways. As Marlow travels from the Outer Station to the Central Station and finally up the river to the Inner Station, he encounters scenes of torture, cruelty, and near-slavery.
Is Heart of Darkness a book or short story? Heart of Darkness is a novella written by Joseph Conrad. It is widely regarded as a significant work of English literature and part of the Western canon. The story tells of Charles Marlow, an Englishman who took a foreign assignment from a Belgian trading company as a ferry-boat captain in Africa.
Why the story is called Heart of Darkness? The phrase 'Heart of Darkness' refers to the inmost region of Africa (which was in those times still in the process of being explored) and the black people who still led primitive lives. The title is appropriate for the novel because Marlow has described his experiences of the Congo and people of Congo.
What kind of story is Heart of Darkness? Heart of Darkness draws on several literary genres, including romance, tragedy, symbolic narrative, and colonial adventure. Romance and tragedy are the most traditional genre categories in this list, and Conrad's novella combines elements from both.
What does Kurtz symbolize? Kurtz is important in Heart of Darkness because he symbolizes British imperialism. He illuminates the evil that occurs during that period of time both in real life and in the novel.
Who is the hero of Heart of Darkness? Marlow serves as the protagonist of Heart of Darkness, and most of the novella features him telling his own story from his own perspective.
What is the conclusion of the Heart of Darkness? At the conclusion of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlow lies about the dying words of the grieving fiancée's villainous lover, Kurtz. He relates what her tearful questioning shows him she longs to hear, acting from fear of destroying her faith in Kurtz's love for her.
What is the moral of Heart of Darkness? Greed destroys the colonists' moral values and their only thought becomes making a profit without acknowledging the harm they are doing to the natives. They have selfishly put themselves and their own wealth before the wellness and humanity of the people they desire to profit from.
What is the evil in Heart of Darkness? The primary antagonist in Heart of Darkness is Kurtz, whose descent into madness makes him the clearest embodiment of corruption and evil in the novella, and ultimately the character that fully disillusions Marlow in regard to European conquests.
Why does Kurtz say the horror? And now for those famous final words: "The horror! The horror!" (3.43). Marlow interprets this for us, saying that these words are the moment Kurtz realizes exactly how depraved human nature is—that his inability to exert even a shred of self-control is the same darkness in every human heart.
What is Conrad's message in the heart of darkness? Central to Conrad's work is the idea that there is little difference between "civilised people" and "savages." Heart of Darkness implicitly comments on imperialism and racism. The novella's setting provides the frame for Marlow's story of his fascination for the prolific ivory trader Kurtz.