62 pages 2 hours read

Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1899

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Heart of Darkness is an 1899 novel by Joseph Conrad detailing the story of Marlow, the captain of a steamboat, who travels up the Congo River to find a man named Kurtz. This guide uses the 2003 Barnes & Noble Classic edition.

Plot 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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