Summary of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

The novella Heart of Darkness, published by Joseph Conrad in 1899, is set in the world of the supernatural. The book describes Charles Marlow’s voyage up the Congo River as the captain of a steamer. The story’s inspiration came from the author’s own life story. He, like Charles Marlow, worked on a boat steamer for a Belgian ivory trading company.

The story begins with three men aboard the Nellie, a ship cruising down the Themes River. Charles Marlow is one of the men. He begins to reminisce and tell the story of his journey to Africa. In contrast, he calls London and Europe one of the darkest places on the planet due to the atrocities brought about by colonization.

The story’s main character is Charles Marlow. He is portrayed as a philosophical, sympathetic, and kind young man who is ambitious and knowledgeable. As a sailor, he enjoys traveling, discovering new places, and meeting new people. His philosophical nature is mainly revealed through his inner dialogue. He debates whether the people he meets, commonly known as “calorizators,” can be considered civilized or have a justified name. Charles is also skeptical and curious about the events and people around him.

 

Summary and Analysis: Outer Station

Charles is hired by an ivory trading company in Brussels known simply as “the Company.” They eventually send him to Congo as the captain of a steam riverboat.

When he arrives at the first station, Outer Station, he witnesses all of the horrors associated with the ivory trade. He sees Africans in chains, with exhausted faces and exhausted bodies. He also notices that they are treated as objects rather than humans. They are forced to serve the white people in charge as servants. He is taken aback by everything he sees.

 

Summary and Analysis: Central Station

After familiarizing himself with the situation at the Outer Station, he travels up the Congo River to the Central Station, where his team boat awaits him. He meets the General Manager, a cold and calculating man, at the Central Station. The General Manager treats his employees even worse than they do at the Outer Station. He is unconcerned about their plight. He never feeds them, works them to exhaustion and even death, and always chains them up.

The General Manager informs Marlow that his boat is broken and that he will not use it. Marlow is heartbroken. He is supposed to deliver supplies to Kurtz, the Inner Station’s manager known for his intelligence and business acumen. He exports the most ivory of any Station. Marlow has heard rumors about Kurtz’s insanity because he lives so close to the natives and his working methods are pretty brutal even though he is skeptical of the natives and pays little attention to them.

Marlow works tirelessly to repair his boat because he realizes Kurtz and his people would perish without assistance. Marlow overhears a heated argument between the General Manager and his uncle, who arrives at the Central Station with another expedition. The General Manager declares that he wishes to hang Kurtz and his assistant to eliminate his main competitor in the ivory trade. Marlow realizes after that conversation that his ship was not simply broken but was tampered within the act of sabotage. Because the General Manager wants Kurtz dead, he intends to deprive him of essential resources and abandon him to die. Marlow realizes the General Manager is a horrible person.

Marlow meets the Brickmaker at the Central Station. He is the General Manager’s most devoted agent. He is only concerned with his career and wealth, and he wishes to achieve his objectives in any way possible. As the General Manager, he sees Kurtz as a threat and wants him dead and out of his way. Marlow notices his rotten soul and remarks on him:

The papier-mache Mephistopheles was running around, and it occurred to me that if I tried to poke my forefinger through him, I would find nothing inside but a little loose soil, at the most.” (p.68)

This very degrading perception of The Brickmaker’s character portrays him as a person of shallow character by comparing his innards to some loose dirt.

 

Summary and Analysis: Inner Station

Marlow’s ship is finally repaired. Marlow, a group of locals (all of whom are cannibals), and the General Manager set out to bring supplies to Kurtz. They pass through a section of the river that is fogged in. They suddenly realize they are being attacked: natives shoot arrows at them from the riverbank. Marlow attempts to scare them away with the boat whistle, but the attackers manage to kill one of the Africans on board before fleeing the scene.

Finally, Marlow and his boat arrive at the Inner Station and meet the Russian trader. This visitor and enthusiast is attracted by Kurtz and his accomplishments here in the bush, and he wants to know more about him. He appears to be very active and talkative. He has been assisting Kurtz with all of his responsibilities at the station. He claims that Kurtz’s wisdom has enlightened him and that his excellent character has influenced him. He claims that Kurtz is attempting to civilize the natives and regard him as a god. The Russian appears to have a crush on Kurtz:

“I swear to you,” he exclaimed, “this man has widened my mental horizons.” (p.85)

When Marlow and others question the Russian about the rumors of Kurtz’s insanity and the barbarian methods of ivory collection, the Russian denies everything. When he and Marlow are alone, he begs him to believe that Kurtz is a great man despite what he may have heard. Around the Russian’s house, Marlow notices many severed heads atop spears. He begins to believe Kurtz’s story about insanity.

Inside the station, they discover Kurtz is gravely ill. They drag him out on a stretcher, but he manages to escape and crawl back to the native’s camp. The Russian informs Marlow that Kurtz believes he has become one of the natives on the inside and does not wish to return to Europe. He also admits that Kurtz was the one who ordered the natives to attack the steamboat in the hopes that they would turn around and believe Kurtz had died. After witnessing all of this, Marlow concludes:

“Something was lacking in him — a minor flaw that when the situation demanded it, could not be discovered despite his magnificent eloquence.” I’m not sure if he was aware of this deficiency on his own accord. I believe the realization came to him at long last — and only at the very end. The wilderness, on the other hand, had tracked him down early and exacted vengeance for the fantastic invasion. This great solitude, I believe, had whispered to him things about himself that he was unaware of, something about himself that he had no conception of until he sought advice from this great solitude — and the whisper had proven irresistibly fascinating. The phrase resounded loudly in his head because he was hollow at his core.” (112) Page 113

Even though Marlow recognizes Kurtz as a great manager who brings a lot of money to the Company, he admits that he has gone insane. It’s difficult to say what caused Kurtz to become this way, but it’s now part of his true identity. Marlow’s words imply that a man who was once ambitious, kind, talented, and intelligent has become “hollow at the core.”

 

Journey Home

Marlow eventually persuades Kurtz to return to Europe. He becomes weaker and weaker as he travels back. One day, he hands Marlow all of the paperwork he’s accumulated during his time in Africa. Marlow takes the matter very seriously and considers himself fortunate to have received these documents. Kurtz, unfortunately, dies a few days later. His final words are:

“What a terror! “What a terror!” (See page 125 for more information.)

The phrase still sparks debate; it could refer to the horrors he witnessed in uncivilized Africa, or it could refer to the horrors he witnessed created by white colonizers who abused their power and mistreated locals.

Marlow decides to give Kurtz’s writing to Kurtz’s fiancée when he returns. He considered giving them to a journalist or a man claiming to be Kurtz’s brother, but he is afraid they will jeopardize Kurtz’s career and tarnish his name.

 

Epilogue

The narrative concludes with the same three men on a boat. They are gliding down a tranquil Themes river. After hearing Kurtz’s story, one of the three men, who also serves as the Narrator, thinks to himself:

‘A dense bank of dark clouds obscured the horizon, and the peaceful stream that connected the world’s farthest reaches flowed sombrely under an overcast sky as if it were heading directly into the heart of a great gloom.’ (p.144)

This quote implies that the Narrator, most likely Joseph Conrad, regards England as a very dark place, “the heart of an immense darkness.” The atrocities of European colonization and barbarian imperialistic views demonstrate the other side of the coin: the heart of darkness is in England, not in the wild and uncivilized jungles.

Heart of Darkness is a novel that depicts European imperialist mentality at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. It provides the reader with a glimpse into a cruel, corrupt, and inhumane world. It reveals some of the dirtiest and darkest aspects of people’s souls, such as their greed and desire to climb the corporate ladder while crushing anyone who gets in their way, such as the General Manager and the Brickmaker. The story also introduces inspiring and bright characters, such as Marlow and the Russian. Most intriguingly, Kurtz’s character is the author’s way of demonstrating what might happen if European and African mentalities collide to drive a person insane.

Joseph Conrad was widely panned both during his lifetime and after his death. He was accused of being racist and of sympathizing with imperialists. The novel, however, should be regarded solely as an excellent description of the author’s contemporary society and a critique of ostensibly civilized Europeans. The author concludes that white European colonizers, in the way they treat Africans, are as savage as they believed Africans to be — because of how inhumane they were.