Heart of Darkness Summary by Joseph Conrad
An Introductory Note:
First published in Blackwood’s magazine as a three part serial in 1899 and published in 1902, Heart of Darkness centers on the experiences of protagonist Charles Marlow as he is assigned the duty to transport ivory down the Congo River. Conrad cleverly uses foreshadowing as a technique to convey the novella’s themes of hypocritical imperialism, the contradictory views on civilized as opposed to barbaric societies, racism, and the conflict between reality and darkness.
Heart of Darkness tells a story within a story. The novella begins with a group of passengers aboard a boat floating on the River Thames. One of them, Charlie Marlow, relates to his fellow seafarers an experience of his that took place on another river altogether-the Congo River in Africa. Marlow’s story begins in what he calls the “sepulchral city,” somewhere in Europe. There “the Company”-an unnamed organization running a colonial enterprise in the Belgian Congo-appoints him captain of a river steamer.
He sets out for Africa optimistic of what he will find. But his expectations are quickly soured. From the moment he arrives, he is exposed to the evil of imperialism, witnessing the violence it inflicts upon the African people it exploits. As he proceeds, he begins to hear tell of a man named Kurtz-a colonial agent who is supposedly unmatched in his ability to procure ivory from the continent’s interior. According to rumour Kurtz has fallen ill (and perhaps mad as well), thereby jeopardizing the Company’s entire venture in the Congo.
Marlow is given command of his steamer and a crew of Europeans and Africans to man it, the latter of whom Conrad shamelessly stereotypes as “cannibals.” As he penetrates deeper into the jungle, it becomes clear that his surroundings are impacting him psychologically: his journey is not only into a geographical “heart of darkness” but into his own psychic interior and perhaps into the darkened psychic interior of Western civilization as well. After encountering many obstacles along the way, Marlow’s steamer finally makes it to Kurtz.
Kurtz has taken command over a tribe of natives who he now employs to conduct raids on the surrounding regions. The man is clearly ill, physically and psychologically. Marlow has to threaten him to go along with them, so intent is Kurtz on executing his “immense plans.” As the steamer turns back the way it came, Marlow’s crew fires upon the group of indigenous people previously under Kurtz’s sway, which includes a queen-figure described by Conrad with much eroticism and as exoticism. Kurtz dies on the journey back up the river but not before revealing to Marlow the terrifying glimpse of human evil he’d been exposed to.
“The horror! The horror!” he tells Marlow before dying. Marlow almost dies as well, but he makes it back to the sepulchral city to recuperate. He is disdainful of the petty tribulations of Western civilization that seem to occupy everyone around him. As he heals, he is visited by various characters from Kurtz’s former life-the life he led before finding the dark interior of himself in Africa.
A year after his return to Europe, Marlow pays Kurtz’s partner a visit. She is represented-as several of Heart of Darkness’s female characters are as naively sheltered from the awfulness of the world, a state that Marlow hopes to preserve. When she asks about Kurtz’s final words, Marlow lies: “your name,” he tells her. Marlow’s story ends there. Heart of Darkness itself ends as the narrator, one of Marlow’s audience, sees a mass of brooding clouds gathering on the horizon-what seems to him to be “heart of an immense darkness.”
An Analytical Summary:
I. Heart of Darkness follows Marlow, a knowledge-seeking sailor, a s he embarks up the Congo River to join up with Kurtz, alleged to be an idealistic man with many talents.Marlow assumes a job as a riverboat captain for a Belgian organization with interests in the Congo known simply as the Company. During his journey to Africa, and later to the Congo, Marlow faces tremendous inefficiencies and unimaginable brutality in the Company’s stations.
II. The local inhabitants of the area have been forced into servitude for the Company, and they face great abuse at the hands of the agents of the Company. The nastiness and squalor of imperial business contrasts vividly with the impassive and majestic jungle that borders the settlements of the white man.
III. Marlow lands at Central Station, managed by an unpleasant and conspiratorial individual. He soon learns that his steamship has sunk and then spends the next several months waiting for a shipment of parts so that it can be repaired. During this time, he develops a keen interest in Kurtz. The manager, and his favorite employee, a brickmaker, appear to view Kurtz as a threat to their position with the Company. Kurtz is reputed to be ill, making the stall in fixing the ship all the more costly.
IV. The parts to repair the ship eventually arrive and he, along with the manager and a few cohorts – including a band of cannibals – begin a difficult trek up the river. The dense jungle surroundings and the deafening silence cause those aboard the ship to become slightly agitated, and the occasional sight of native villages or the sound of beating drums cause the Company agents to panic.
V. Marlow and the crew happen upon a hut with a stack of firewood. A note indicates that the wood is for their use, but that they should approach with caution. Soon after the steamer begins to take on the firewood, it is surrounded by a thick fog. When the fog dissipates, it becomes obvious that the ship is under attack by a band of natives firing arrows from deep in the forest. An African helmsman is murdered before Marlow is able to scare away the native attackers with the ship’s steam whistle.
VI. Eventually, Marlow and the men find their way to Kurtz’s inner station, fully prepared to find him deceased. Instead, they are met by a crazed Russian trader, who indicates that he is the one who left the wood. The Russian believes that Kurtz has enlightened him and that he is not able to be subjected to the same moral judgement as those around him. Evidentially, Kurtz has established himself as a godly figure in the eyes of the natives and has ventured out on brutal raids in search of ivory.
VII. The vast collection of severed heads placed on top of fence posts around the station are said to be a testament of his preferred methods. The Company men bring Kurtz out of the station on a stretcher, where he is then surrounded by a large group of native warriors. After some discussion with Kurtz they disappear back into the woods.
VIII. The manager brings a deathly ill Kurtz onto the steamer. A stunningly beautiful native woman, reputed to be the mistress of Kurtz, stares at the ship from the shoreline. The Russian discloses that she is involved with Kurtz and that she has caused problems before. He then shares with Marlow, after swearing him to secrecy, that Kurtz had been the one who ordered the attack on the steamer in hopes of making them believe that he had died so that they would turn around and abandon their plans.
IX. The Russian then departs by canoe. Kurtz disappears under the cloak of night, but is soon found crawling towards the native camp. Marlow pleads with him to return to the ship and the set sail the following morning. Kurtz’s health is in steady decline.
X. Marlow lends and understands ear to Kurtz while he steers the ship, and Kurtz presents him with a selection of personal documents, including a portfolio on civilizing the savages which ends in a very specific message – Exterminate the brutes! XI. The steamer breaks down, causing the crew to need to stop to repair the ship. Kurtz dies while muttering ‘The horror! The horror!’ Marlow is confused by these final words. He too soon falls ill, and barely misses death.
XII. Soon he returns back to Europe, where he meets the intended fiancé of Kurtz, who is still in mourning more than a year later. She asks what her beloved’s final words were. In a bid to bring peace to her shattered heart, Marlow lies and tells her that his last words were her name.
The title alludes to the essential concerns of this modernist novella: the mysteries of Africa, “the dark continent,” from the colonialist point of view and the equally compelling mysteries of the ignorance, evil, and fear residing in the human heart.
Interestingly, Conrad partly based the novella on his personal experience while he spent some time travelling in Africa, and even served as a captain on a steam boat, where he encountered some of the issues prevalent in the novella. A classic proven to stimulate the mind, Heart of Darkness enthralls with its unrestricted possibility of individual interpretation, and the overwhelming questions about human nature that the book incites. Central to Conrad’s work is the idea that there is little difference between “civilised people” and those described as “savages.
” Heart of Darkness implicitly comments on imperialism and racism. Originally issued as a three-part serial story in Blackwood’s Magazine to celebrate the thousandth edition of the magazine, Heart of Darkness has been widely re-published and translated into many languages. It provided the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness 67th on their list of the 100 best novels in English of the twentieth century.
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