“Heart of Darkness” is a novella written by Joseph Conrad and published in 1899. The story was first published as a three-part serial in Blackwood’s Magazine and was later published as part of a book called “Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories,” in 1899.
Despite the modern success of the novella, during Conrad’s time, it was not well received. Amongst the other books in the “Youth” collection it was the least reviewed. However, by the 1960’s, it was considered the standard assignment in college English courses.
The book tells the story of a steamer captain named Marlow who goes deep into the wilderness of the Congo to rescue a fellow man from the company that he works for named Kurtz. Before rescuing Kurtz, Marlow hears enough stories about the man to make him into somewhat of a mythical figure in his mind.
Marlow and his crew of a mixture of natives Africans and Europeans must face down a group of angered natives to reach Kurtz. When they finally do, it becomes obvious that Kurtz has gone mad out in the wilderness and has convinced the tribe of natives to follow him and treat him as their God. Kurtz dies on board the steamer as they return downriver and Marlow goes back to Europe feeling a debt to the man to tell his story.
Five men are waiting on for the tide to go out while relaxing on the deck of a pleasure ship called the Nellie. The men are as follows, The Captain, the Lawyer, The Accountant, Marlow and the narrator of the book who is unnamed. The men are old friends and as they sit they begin to talk about the great ships that have left via the Thames on journeys of adventure and treasure, often never to return.
Marlow mentions that when the Romans originally came to England, they thought it was a great wilderness full of strange people. He wonders what it would have been like for a young soldier of that time. This makes him think of when he, himself was a sailor captaining a steamship up the Congo River. He says that he first got the idea after returning from a long trip to Asia. In the window of a bookshop, he saw a map of Africa, and it reminded him about his childhood fantasies of the “blank spaces on the map. Marlow managed to get a job with a Belgian company which traded on the Congo River through an aunt who had friends in the company. The company told Marlow that one of their steamer captains had recently been killed in a bust-up with the natives.
Marlow digresses here to tell the story of this man, his predecessor within the company, Fresleven. Years after this story took place; Marlow was sent to recover Fresleven’s bones in the middle of a deserted frican village. Fresleven, he discovered, was killed in a fight over some chickens. He fought with the village’s chief and was killed by the man’s son. He was left to die and the natives, being superstitious, abandoned the village.
After Marlow was given the job, he traveled across the English channel to a city that he does not name, but that reminded him of a “whited sepulcher.” He arrives at the company’s office and finds two receptionists who are knitting black wool. One of them shows him to a waiting room where he looks at a map of Africa. The map has been color-coded by colonial powers. Marlow meets with the head of the company and signs a contract. He is then taken for a physical where the doctor takes measurements of his skull. The doctor tells him that he doesn’t get to see the men that make it back from Africa but that “the changes take place inside,” implying that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
After Marlow is done with the formalities, he says goodbye to his aunt who tells him that she hopes he will help aid the “savages” in Africa and that he will help in “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.” This mind set bothers Marlow as he is aware that the company does not operate for the good of the people of the Congo. He sets off regardless, in a steamer feeling odd like he is setting off for the center of the earth.
The steamer travels along the coast of Africa, and Marlow soon finds himself bored. Finally, the arrive at the Congo River where Marlow gets on another steamship that is going thirty miles upriver. The captain of the ship is a Swedish man who takes a liking to Marlow and invites him onto the bridge of the ship. Marlow disembarks at the station of the company and finds it in terrible shape. The station is filled with piles of decaying machinery. He sees a cliff being blasted for no reason and a group of black men in chains under the guard of another black man who is wearing a ragged uniform. He notes that in Africa, he came to know the “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.”
Marlow comes across a group of native laborers dying in the hot sun behind a grove of trees. He offers one of them a bit of food and sees that there is a string of white, European yarn tied around the man’s neck although he is unsure what it means. Soon, he meets the company’s chief accountant, who is a well-dressed man. The chief accountant tells him that he will probably meet Mr. Kurtz, an agent who poaches more ivory than any of the others put together. He tells Marlow to tell Kurtz that everything is satisfactory there at the outer station. He also says that he is afraid to send the man a written message for fear that it will be intercepted.
Ten days after arriving at the outer station, Marlow boards a caravan that travels for two hundred miles with sixty other men inside. It takes another fifteen days before they arrive at the Central Station where Marlow discovers that the steamer he was set to captain has sunk. The boat had been taken out by the general manager two days before and been torn apart on some rocks. Marlow notes in the current day that he feels that this damage may have been intentional to keep him from reaching Kurtz.
Marlow meets with the general manager who he feels gives off an uneasy presence. He then sets about having the ship pulled from the river and repaired. The repairs take an extra three months during which time one of the grass houses in the village burns down, and a native man is accused of burning it. The man is taken out into the wilderness and beaten. After he recovers, he disappears entirely into the forest.
Marlow meets with the brickmaker in the company and is invited back to the man’s house which he notes is very luxurious. After a while, he realizes that the brickmaker is attempting to find out how much he knows about the company’s board of directors and what their intentions are. Marlow knows nothing about the board, however. But he does notice that there is a strange painting on the wall of a woman holding a lighted torch. He asks about it, and the brickmaker reveals that it is the work of Kurtz. The brickmaker tells Marlow that Kurtz was sent as an emissary for the West by the directors and that he is a prodigy and bound for quick promotion. He also reveals that he has seen correspondence saying that Marlow is a favorite of the directors. This leads the brickmaker into trying to get into Marlow’s good graces since he thinks that he is allied with Kurtz. Marlow lets the brickmaker believe that he has influence as he sees it as an opportunity to get some supplies for repairing his ship.
One evening Marlow overhears the general manager discussing Kurtz. The general manager worries that Kurtz has come to the Congo intending to turn the stations into bastions of civilization with strong morals and that he wants to take over the managers position. He remembers that Kurtz had sent down a large load of ivory in a canoe a year earlier but that Kurtz himself had only made it 300 miles down the river before turning back. Kurtz’s clerk had informed the manager that Kurtz was ill. Soon, the repairs on Marlow’s steamer are completed, and he prepares to leave on his two-month journey up the river to meet with Kurtz, along with the manager and several other men. The ship is manned by a crew of natives that the company workers call “cannibals,” although they prove to be fairly reasonable people.
As they are traveling up the river, the men often hear drums along the banks in the forest and sometimes catch glimpses of native tribesmen. Some of the men are frightened of the natives, but Marlow feels a kinship with them for some reason that he cannot describe. Fifty miles from their destination, the crew spots a hut with a stack of firewood on the bank. There is a note attached that reads: “Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously.” The manager tells Marlow that the wood was probably left by Kurtz’s clerk, the Russian trader. The steamer needs the firewood for fuel, but it still continues to struggle as it goes up the river. The day after finding the wood, the steamer arrives at a point eight miles from Kurtz’s location. Marlow wants to keep going forward, but the manager tells him they must wait for daylight as the water is more dangerous there.
The night is oddly still and silent, and a fog starts to move over the river at dawn. Out in the fog, the men hear a cry followed by a clamor of voices. They begin to prepare for an attack by the natives. The Europeans are disturbed, but the African crewmen are alert and ready for a battle. The leader of the cannibals tells Marlow that his men want to eat the leader of the voices in the fog. The manager tells Marlow to continue up the river and to take every risk if necessary. Marlow refuses as he feels that they might ground the steamer which would put them in an even worse situation. He tells the manager that he doesn’t feel like the natives will attack as he thinks that their cries do not sound like war cries but cries of sorrow.
The fog begins to lift slowly, and they reach a spot a mile and a half from Kurtz’s station. This is where they meet the natives who try to fight them back. The air begins to fill with arrows and Marlow rushes into the pilot’s deck to protect himself. The trees along the river bank are swarming with people. The men on the boat being firing rifles into the brush and they produce a cloud of smoke that obscures his sight.
Marlow takes the wheel of the steamer and goes close to the bank to avoid the snag that is approaching. He begins sounding the steam whistle which scares the attackers away. Before he can, however, his helmsman takes a spear to the side and falls at Marlow’s feet. Marlow stands over the man, helplessly as he dies.
He wonders if the surrounding natives are a sign that Kurtz is now dead, too and feels disappointment at the idea. At this point, one of the men listening to Marlow’s story breaks in to comment on how absurd it is. Marlow laughs at the man, knowing that he has never experienced anything close to the likes of the Congo and, though he admits that his story is ridiculous it is true, and his disappointment at the idea of never getting to meet Kurtz was real as well.
Marlow also notes that Kurtz had a fiancee in Europe. He doesn’t find this at all significant except for the air of possession that Kurtz adopted when speaking about her. In fact, Kurtz spoke of everything – ivory, the stations, the river – as being somehow innately his and that was what disturbed Marlow the most about him. He also mentions a report that the man had written up at for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. The report is well written except for a handwritten note at the end that reads, “Exterminate all the brutes!”.
Marlow assumes that this note came after Kurtz had assumed a position of power amongst the savages and had been present as many “unspeakable rites” where he had witnessed sacrifices made in his name.
Marlow says that he feels somehow responsible for what is done in Kurtz’s memory and that he must remember the man, though he still isn’t sure whether he was worth the lives that were lost in his name. Marlow returns to his story at this point. Marlow’s helmsman had just died, and he blames the man’s death on him firing out onto the riverbank. Marlow throws the man’s body overboard, and the natives on board become upset that he will not receive a proper burial.
Kurtz’s station comes into view then over the river. The Russian trader waits on the river bank for them. He seems half insane and talks incessantly. He apologizes for the attack and tells them that everything will be okay now. The Russian talks to Marlow while the manager and some of the other men go up the hill to fetch Kurtz.
The Russian tells Marlow that he was a merchant seaman and was sent by a Dutch company to Africa. The Russian confirms that he left the firewood for them down the river. He tells him that the natives aren’t as bad as they seem although he does not seem convinced of this himself. He says that they may have attacked only because they do not want Kurtz to leave. However, the Russian does want Kurtz to leave and begs Marlow to take him away. He says that he first met Kurtz when they spent a night camped in the forest together and that befriending the man has enlarged his mind in many ways. He has nursed him through two illnesses and has sometimes not seen him for months at a time as Kurtz went with the natives to raid the countryside for ivory.
Kurtz had convinced the native tribe to follow him as their leader. The Russian says that he has tried to get Kurtz to return to civilization many times and that the man is very ill now. Marlow looks through his binoculars at the station and sees several severed heads on poles surrounding it. The Russian says with shamefully that these are the heads of rebels and Marlow laughs in disbelief.
The company men emerge from the station with Kurtz on a self-made stretcher of sorts. At that moment, a band of natives runs out of the forest yelling but Kurtz speaks to them, and they move back and allow the group to pass. The manager and the men bring Kurtz to one of the ship’s cabins. Kurtz receives some of his mail, in which someone from the company has written to him about Marlow. Kurtz says that he is glad to see him.
The manager enters to speak with Kurtz and Marlow goes back out to the deck. On the riverbank, he sees a few natives watching the ship leave and a beautiful woman who is wearing many ornaments. She disappears into the forest after a moment. The Russian implies to Marlow that she was Kurtz’s mistress and that she has caused trouble with her influence over Kurtz.
This conversation is interrupted by Kurtz yelling at the manager inside the cabin. He accuses them of coming only to collect the ivory and not to help him. He yells at the manager from messing with his plans.
The manager comes out and tells Marlow that he plans to report everything that Kurtz has done to the company management. Marlow tells the manager that he thinks Kurtz is remarkable and with this statement he permanently dismantles his chances of moving forward with the company and alienates himself to the manager.
The manager walks away, and the Russian tells Marlow that Kurtz ordered the raid on the steamer hoping that it would lead the manager to assume that he was dead so they would turn back. Marlow warns the Russian that the manager has spoken of having him hanged. The Russian is unsurprised by this and leaves in a canoe with some natives.
In the middle of the night, Marlow wakes to find that Kurtz’s cabin is empty. He is worried, but does not inform anyone and leaves the ship alone to search for Kurtz. He finds Kurtz crawling on all fours back to the station. Kurtz rises to his feet when he sees him, and Marlow realizes that despite the man’s sickness, he could easily call out the natives to attack him. Kurtz begins to complain about the failure of all of his plans and Marlow assures him that he is still thought of as a success within the company. He tells him that he will be lost if he stays there and helps him back to the ship.
The next day, the steamer departs, and the natives watch it leave from the shore. Kurtz’s mistress rushes down to the shore and calls to him and the natives begin to raise a cry of their own. This spooks the men on the ship who begin firing into the crowd. Many of the natives run away, but Marlow notes that the mistress is left standing as the gunfire obscures his view.
As the steamer makes it’s way back down the river, Marlow finally gets an opportunity to talk with Kurtz and is disappointed that the legendary figure that he had heard so much about seems to be fairly consumed with childish desires of fortune and fame. Kurtz gives Marlow some papers for safekeeping as he is worried that he manager will lie about what happened in the station. Kurtz’s condition worsens, and his speech begins to ramble and lose focus. One night, Kurtz dies, and his last words are, “The horror! The horror!”
The men bury Kurtz on the Riverside the next day, and Marlow becomes ill and nearly dies himself on the journey back. However, he recovers and leaves Africa soon after. He returns to the company office where a representative is sent to retrieve the papers that Kurtz gave to him. But Marlow only gives them the pamphlet of “Suppression of Savage Customs” with the note at the end torn off. A journalist eventually takes the pamphlet for publication.
Marlow finds Kurtz’s fiancee and goes to see her, finding her still in mourning although it has been over a year since Kurtz died. He gives her the papers that Kurtz gave to him and she asks if he knew Kurtz well. He only says that he knew him as well as it is possible for one man to know another. The fiancee tells Marlow that she will mourn Kurtz forever and asks what the man’s last words were. Marlow, feeling guilty, lies that Kurtz said her name before dying.
Marlow ends his story, and the narrator of the book looks at the dark sky which makes the water seem “to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
Marlow – he protagonist of the story. Marlow is the main narrator, who tells a story from when he was a young steamer captain and was asked by a Belgian company to travel up the Congo river to retrieve a worker who had gotten lost in the wilderness. Marlow is a philosophical man who, upon hearing the stories of the inspiring, almost mythical Kurtz, finds himself wanting to meet the man.
However, Marlow is also independent-minded and is not afraid to tell the manager that he disagrees with his opinions on Kurtz and the natives. After meeting Kurtz and talking with him, Marlow finds himself let down by how clearly insane living in the Congolese wilds has made him. By the end of the book, Marlow is skeptical of European imperialism although he does initially share most of the prejudices against the Congolese as his fellow Englishmen.
Kurtz – the manager of the Inner Station and the man that Marlow is supposed to retrieve.
Before meeting Kurtz in the narrative, we learn that he is gifted in many ways. He is a talented musician, a gifted artist and has a lot of charisma and a strong ability to lead. Marlow hears from so many people about him that he becomes something of a mythical figure that Marlow is determined to meet.
When he meets Kurtz, the man is sick and has somehow convinced the natives of the area to worship him as a god. Kurtz is shown to be a powerful writer and obviously exerts the same presence as a speaker. Marlow says that in his excessive fraternization with the natives, Kurtz has “kicked himself loose of the earth” but that this has incurred the wrath of the people in the company and white society in general.
In the end, Kurtz dies before he can return to England and Marlow finds himself compelled to protect the secret of what happened to the man at the end of his life.
General Manager – the chief agent of the company within the Congo. The general manager runs the Central Station, which Marlow finds to be in terrible disrepair. Marlow suspects that the general manager is only in charge because he is the only man that has managed to survive this long. He seems average and unremarkable, but Marlow quickly realizes that he seems to have an unnerving presence that produces uneasiness in everyone around him. This allows him to exert control over everyone around him.
The Russian Clerk – Kurtz’s clerk. A former Russian sailor who traveled to the Congo as a trading representative for a Dutch company. By the time Marlow and his crew find the Russian he is half insane from his time in the wilderness. The Russian reveals that he has been caring for Kurtz the whole time and that they have been friends.
Joseph Conrad Biography
Joseph Conrad was born on December 3rd, 1857 in Kiev, Russia. The son of a man who was all at once a writer, political activist, and translator, Conrad had a lot to live up to from the start. Conrad’s father belonged to the “Red” party whose goal was to bring back the past partitions of the boundaries of Poland as well as land reform and the abolition of serfdom. Because of his father’s political activism, as a child, Conrad’s family moved repeatedly. In 1861, they were exiled to Vologda, 300 miles north of Moscow but two years later Conrad’s father’s sentence was commuted, and the family was sent to Chernihiv in the Ukraine.
In April of 1865, Conrad’s mother Ewa died of tuberculosis. Conrad’s father attempted to home school him but died in 1869, leaving Conrad in the care of Ewa’s brother, Tadeusz. As a child, Conrad was a poor student, and eventually his uncle sent him away to a cousin who ran a boarding house for orphan boys.
At the age of 16, Conrad was sent away to France to begin a career as a sailor. Though he had no finished school, he was a very intelligent boy who already spoke several languages and was well read in the literature of his time.
In the 1870’s, Conrad worked as a merchant marine in France and eventually became a captain. He spent 19 years as a sailor, and most of his stories and characters were derived from this time. Conrad retired from his sea-faring life in 1893 at the age of 35, part of the reason being that he wished to pursue a career in writing.
His first novel, “Almayer’s Folly” was published two years later in 1895 and was quickly followed by a string of more successful books going into the 20th century until, at the end of his life, Conrad had published 20 novels in all, as well as more short stories and essays.
In March of 1896, Conrad married a woman by the name of Jessie George, and the couple had two boys, Borys and John. The family lived in many different countries, such as France, England, and the United States throughout the early 1900’s.
In August of 1924, Conrad died of a heart attack at his home in Kent, England. His funeral was attended by a large crowd and he was interred at Canterbury Cemetery, Canterbury.