Heart of Darkness follows one man’s nightmarish journey into the interior of Africa. Aboard a British ship called the Nellie, three men listen to a man named Marlow recount his journey into Africa as an agent for the Company, an ivory trading firm. Along the way, he witnesses brutality and hate between colonizers and the native African people, becomes entangled in a power struggle within the Company, and finally learns the truth about the mysterious Kurtz, a mad agent who has become both a god and a prisoner of the "native Africans." After "rescuing" Kurtz from the native African people, Marlow watches in horror as Kurtz succumbs to madness, disease, and finally death. Marlow’s decision to support Kurtz over his company leaves readers wondering about his moral integrity, and possibly asking the question: "He did WHAT?!" The novel closes with Marlow’s guilt-ridden visit to Kurtz’s fiancée to return the man’s personal letters.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, now his most famous work, was first published in 1899 in serial form in London’s Blackwood’s Magazine, a popular journal of its day. The work was well received by a somewhat perplexed Victorian audience. It has since been called by many the best short novel written in English. At the time of its writing (1890), the Polish-born Conrad had become a naturalized British citizen, mastered the English language, served for ten years in the British merchant marines, achieved the rank of captain, and traveled to Asia, Australia India and Africa. Heart of Darkness is based on Conrad’s firsthand experience of the Congo region of West Africa.
Conrad was actually sent up the Congo River to an inner station to rescue a company agent—not named Kurtz but Georges-Antoine Klein—who died a few days later aboard ship. The story is told in the words of Charlie Marlow, a seaman, and filtered through the thoughts of an unidentified listening narrator. It is on one level about a voyage into the heart of the Belgian Congo, and on another about the journey into the soul of man. In 1902, Heart of Darkness was published in a separate volume along with two other stories by Conrad.
Many critics consider the book a literary bridge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a forerunner both of modern literary techniques and approaches to the theme of the ambiguous nature of truth, evil, and morality. By presenting the reader with a clearly unreliable narrator whose interpretation of events is often open to question, Conrad forces the reader to take an active part in the story’s construction and to see and feel its events for him—or herself.
Heart of Darkness is the tale of Charlie Marlow's journey into the heart of the African Congo, where he encounters the extraordinary Mr. Kurtz. It is an expedition that has a tremendous impact on Marlow. This short novel is divided into three sections. The first section recounts Marlow's appointment as a steamboat operator for a company that procures ivory in the Congo, his journey to the company's Outer Station near the coast, and his travel up the Congo River to the Central Station. The second section describes Marlow's continued journey up river to Kurtz's Inner Station and his initial encounter with Kurtz. In the final section Marlow has a private conversation with Kurtz, Kurtz is forcibly removed from his station and dies, and Marlow and the rest of the company men return to civilization. With the exception of the opening pages and a few minor passages throughout the novel, the story is told from Marlow's perspective.
Marlow sits at the Thames River in the evening with several other people and begins telling the story about how he entered into the dark continent out of nowhere. No one wants to listen but he continues anyway.
Marlow expressed a desire to go to Africa to his Aunt who got him a position as a captain of a steamboat of an ivory company. The previous captain Freslaven died in a scuffle with the natives and Marlow took his place. A few days later, Marlow travels to Africa and gets to the first station where he meets the accountant who keeps track of the funds in Kurtz’s company. The man is interesting to Marlow since he’s been on the continent for three years, yet he keeps himself clean and well dressed. Marlow finds the blacks being poorly treated and ordered to do meaningless work by the whites. Marlow continues down the river on his steamboat with a crew of several whites and about 20 to 30 blacks. As he travels down the river, he comes across this shack where he picks up wood, and a note cautioning him to travel carefully. He continues down the river and becomes surrounded by savages in the fog. Marlow is frightened but the savages don’t do anything... until the fog rises. The savages attack and Marlows men fire back. The arrows of the savages have little effect on Marlow’s men or his boat. And the guns of Marlow’s men have little effect on the savages since they fire too high. Only Marlow’s helmsman dies. Marlow blows the whistle and mysteriously, all the savages retreat in fear. Marlow shortly reaches the inner station where he is greeted by the Russian Fool who seems to survive in the heart of the continent by not knowing what’s going on around him. Kurtz is very ill and needs to be taken back to England, but he does not want to go. In fact, he is the one who ordered the attack on the steamboat so that they couldn’t take him back to England. Kurtz is worshipped by the natives and completely exploits them. Kurtz tries to escape to the natives but Marlow catches him and takes him back to the steamboat head back for England. While still on the river, Kurtz dies saying, “The horror, the horror.” Marlow returns to England. He visits Kurtz’s intended who is still in mourning a year after Kurtz’s death. She still remembers Kurtz as the great man he was before he left, and Marlow doesn’t tell her what he had become before he dies. Marlow gives Kurtz her old letters and leaves.
Written by Joseph Conrad on the eve of the century that would see the end of the empire that it so significantly critiques, Heart of Darknessis both an adventure story set at the center of a continent represented through breathtaking poetry, as well as a study of the inevitable corruption that comes from the exercise of tyrannical power.Overview: Heart of Darkness
A seaman sat upon a tugboat moored in the river Thames narrates the main section of the story. This man, named Marlow, tells his fellow passengers that he spent a good deal of time in Africa. In one instance, he was called upon to pilot a trip down the river Congo in search of an ivory agent, who was sent as part of the British colonial interest in an unnamed African country. This man, named Kurtz, disappeared without a trace--inspiring worry that he'd gone "native," been kidnapped, absconded with the company's money, or been killed by the insular tribes in the middle of the jungle.
As Marlow and his crewmates move closer to the place Kurtz was last seen, he starts to understand the attraction of the jungle. Away from civilization, the feelings of danger and possibility start to become attractive to him because of their incredible power. When they arrive at the inner station, they find that Kurtz has become a king, almost a God to the tribesmen and women who he has bent to his will. He has also taken a wife, despite the fact he has a European fiance at home.
Marlow also finds Kurtz ill. Although Kurtz doesn't wish it, Marlow takes him aboard the boat. Kurtz does not survive the journey back, and Marlow must return home to break the news to Kurtz's fiance. In the cold light of the modern world he is unable to tell the truth, and instead lies about the way Kurtz lived in the heart of the jungle and the way he died.The Dark: Heart of Darkness
Many commentators have seen Conrad's representation of the "dark" continent and its people as very much as part of a racist tradition that has existed in Western literature for centuries. Most notably, Chinua Achebe accused Conrad of racism because of his refusal to see the black man as an individual in his own right, and because of his use of Africa as a setting--representative of darkness and evil.
Although it is true that evil--and the corrupting power of evil--is Conrad's subject, Africa is not merely representative of that theme. Contrasted with the "dark" continent of Africa is the "light" of the sepulchered cities of the West, a juxtaposition that does not necessarily suggest that Africa is bad or that the supposedly civilized West is good.
The darkness at the heart of the civilized white man (particularly the civilized Kurtz who entered the jungle as an emissary of pity and science of process and who becomes a tyrant) is contrasted and compared with the so-called barbarism of the continent. The process of civilization is where the true darkness lies.Kurtz: Heart of Darkness
Central to the story is the character of Kurtz, even though he is only introduced late in the story, and dies before he offers much insight into his existence or what he has become. Marlow's relationship with Kurtz and what he represents to Marlow is really at the crux of the novel.
The book seems to suggest that we are not able to understand the darkness that has affected Kurtz's soul--certainly not without understanding what he has been through in the jungle. Taking Marlow's point of view, we glimpse from the outside what has changed Kurtz so irrevocably from the European man of sophistication to something far more frightening. As if to demonstrate this, Conrad lets us view Kurtz on his deathbed. In the final moments of his life, Kurtz is in a fever. Even so, he seems to see something that we cannot. Staring within himself he can only mutter, "The horror! The horror!"
Oh, the Style: Heart of Darkness
As well as being an extraordinary story, Heart of Darkness contains some of the most fantastic language in English literature. Conrad had a strange history: he was born in Poland, traveled though France, became a seaman when he was 16, and spent a good deal of time in South America. These influences lent his style a wonderfully authentic colloquialism. But, in Heart of Darkness, we also see a style that is remarkably poetic for a prose work. More than a novel, the work is like an extended symbolic poem, affecting the reader with the breadths of its ideas as well as the beauty of its words._________________
Heart of Darkness Summary
A group of men are aboard an English ship that is sitting on the Thames. The group includes a Lawyer, an Accountant, a Company Director/Captain, and a man without a specific profession who is named Marlow. The narrator appears to be another unnamed guest on the ship. While they are loitering about, waiting for the wind to pick up so that they might resume their voyage, Marlow begins to speak about London and Europe as some of the darkest places on earth. The narrator and other guests do not seem to regard him with much respect. Marlow is a stationary man, very unusual for a seaman. The others do not understand him because he does not fit into a neat category in the same manner that the others do. He mentions colonization and says that carving the earth into prizes or pieces is not something to examine too closely because it is an atrocity. He then begins to narrate a personal experience in Africa, which led him to become a freshwater sailor and gave him a terrible glimpse of colonization. With the exception of two or three small paragraphs, the perspective shifts to Marlow, who becomes the main narrator for the rest of the novel.
Marlow has always had a passion for travel and exploration. Maps are an obsession of his. Marlow decides he wants nothing more than to be the skipper of a steamship that travels up and down a river in Africa. His aunt has a connection in the Administration Department of a seafaring and exploration company that gathers ivory, and she manages to get Marlow an appointment. He replaces a captain who was killed in a skirmish with the natives. When Marlow arrives at the company office, the atmosphere is extremely dim and foreboding. He feels as if everyone is looking at him pityingly. The doctor who performs his physical asks if there is a history of insanity in Marlow's family. He tells Marlow that nothing could persuade him to join the Company down in the Congo. This puzzles Marlow, but he does not think much of it. The next day he embarks on a one-month journey to the primary Company station. The African shores that he observes look anything but welcoming. They are dark and rather desolate, in spite of the flurry of human activity around them. When he arrives, Marlow learns that a company member recently committed suicide. There are multitudes of chain-gang types, who all look at him with vacant expressions. A young boy approaches Marlow, looking very empty. Marlow can do nothing but offer him some ship biscuits. He is very relieved to leave the boy behind as he comes across a very well-dressed man who is the picture of respectability and elegance. They introduce themselves: he is the Chief Accountant of the Company. Marlow befriends this man and frequently spends time in his hut while the Accountant goes over the accounts. After ten days of observing the Chief Accountant's ill temper, Marlow departs for his 200-mile journey into the interior of the Congo, where he will work for a station run by a man named Kurtz.
The journey is arduous. Marlow crosses many paths, sees deserted dwellings, and encounters black men working. Marlow never describes them as humans. Throughout the novel, the white characters refer to them in animalistic terms. Marlow finally arrives at a secondary station, where he meets the Manager, who for now will oversee his work. It is a strange meeting. The Manager smiles in a manner that is very discomfiting. The ship on which Marlow is supposed to set sail is broken. While they await the delivery of the rivets needed to fix it, Marlow spends his time on more mundane tasks. He frequently hears the name "Kurtz" around the station. Clearly everyone knows his future boss. It is rumored that he is ill. Soon the entire crew will depart for a trip to Kurtz's station.
The Manager's uncle arrives with his own expedition. Marlow overhears them saying that they would like to see Kurtz and his assistant hanged so that their station could be eliminated as ivory competition. After a day of exploring, the expedition has lost all of their animals. Marlow sets out for Kurtz's station with the Pilgrims, the cannibal crew, and the Manager. About eight miles from their destination, they stop for the night. There is talk of an approaching attack. Rumor has it that Kurtz may have been killed in a previous one. Some of the pilgrims go ashore to investigate. The whirring sound of arrows is heard; an attack is underway. The Pilgrims shoot back from the ship with rifles. The helmsman of the ship is killed, as is a native ashore. Marlow supposes that Kurtz has perished in the inexplicable attack. This upsets him greatly. Over the course of his travels, he has greatly looked forward to meeting this man. Marlow shares Kurtz's background: an English education, a woman at home waiting for him. In spite of Marlow's disappointment, the ship presses onward. A little way down the river, the crew spot Kurtz's station, which they had supposed was lost. They meet a Russian man who resembles a harlequin. He says that Kurtz is alive but somewhat ill. The natives do not want Kurtz to leave because he has expanded their minds. Kurtz does not want to leave because he has essentially become part of the tribe.
After talking for a while with the Russian, Marlow has a very clear picture of the man who has become his obsession. Finally, he has the chance to talk to Kurtz, who is ill and on his deathbed. The natives surround his hut until he tells them to leave. While on watch, Marlow dozes off and realizes that Kurtz is gone. He chases him and finds Kurtz in the forest. He does not want to leave the station because his plans have not been fully realized. Marlow manages to take him back to his bed. Kurtz entrusts Marlow with all of his old files and papers. Among these is a photograph of his sweetheart. The Russian escapes before the Manager and others can imprison him. The steamboat departs the next day. Kurtz dies onboard a few days later, Marlow having attended him until the end.
Marlow returns to England, but the memory of his friend haunts him. He manages to find the woman from the picture, and he pays her a visit. She talks at length about his wonderful personal qualities and about how guilty she feels that she was not with him at the last. Marlow lies and says that her name was the last word spoken by Kurtz—the truth would be too dark to tell her.
Marlow sits on the Nellie at the Thames River in the evening with several other people and begins telling the story about how he entered into the dark continent. No one seems particularly interested, but he continues anyway.
Marlow, who revels in exploring the uncharted areas of the world, expressed a desire to go to the center of Africa. His Aunt, who has connections with the Company, is able to secure a position for Marlow as captain of a steamboat. The previous captain, Freslaven, died in a scuffle with the natives and Marlow took his place. A few days later, Marlow travels to Africa and gets to the Outer Station, where he meets the chief accountant, who keeps track of the funds. The man is interesting to Marlow since he's been on the continent for three years, yet he keeps himself clean and well-dressed. Marlow learns from him that there exists a Mr. Kurtz, who is a first-class agent and the best ivory trader in the Company. Marlow finds the blacks being poorly treated and ordered to do meaningless work by the whites.
Eventually a caravan arrives and takes Marlow 200 miles north to the Central Station. The general manager, a man who invoked uneasiness, informs Marlow that his steamer had sunk to the bottom of the river. Upon hearing this, Marlow decides to devote himself to retrieving the steamer and fixing it up. At the station, Marlow meets the brickmaker, a character who seems intent on pumping Marlow for information about the Company's affairs in Europe. One day, a grass shed at the station goes up in flames, and a negro is beaten for allegedly starting the fire. When the negro recovers, he flees towards the woods and is never heard from again. Later, while Marlow is in the brickmaker's quarters, he notices a somber painting of a blindfolded woman holding a torch. The brickmaker reveals that the painting was done by Mr. Kurtz, currently the chief of the best station. Eventually Marlow is able to fix up his ship and continue his journey.
Marlow continues down the river on his steamboat with a crew of several whites, about 20 to 30 blacks, and a few cannibals. As he travels down the river, he comes across an abandoned shack where he picks up wood, and a note cautioning him to travel carefully. He continues down the river and becomes surrounded by savages in the fog. Marlow is frightened but the savages don't do anything... until the fog rises. The savages attack and Marlow's men fire back. The arrows of the savages have little effect on Marlow's men or his boat. And the guns of Marlow's men have little effect on the savages since they fire too high. Only Marlow's helmsman dies. Marlow blows the whistle and mysteriously, all the savages retreat in fear.
Marlow shortly reaches the Inner Station, where he is greeted by the Russian Trader, a man who seems to survive in the heart of the continent by not knowing what's going on around him. Kurtz is very ill and needs to be taken back to England, but he does not want to go. In fact, he is the one who ordered the attack on the steamboat so that they couldn't take him back to England. Kurtz is worshipped by the natives and completely exploits them. That night, Kurtz tries to escape to the natives but Marlow catches him and takes him back to the steamboat to head back for England. While still on the river, Kurtz dies saying, "The horror, the horror." Marlow returns to England. He visits Kurtz's Intended who is still in mourning a year after Kurtz's death. She still remembers Kurtz as the great man he was before he left, and Marlow doesn't tell her what he had become before he dies. He tells her that Kurtz's last words were her name. Marlow gives Kurtz her old letters and leaves.
Conrad's prose is very descriptive and informative. He portrays terrifying images and conveys horrifying truths in a mystic voice that contrasts effectively with the true horrors of his message. Foreshadowing and suspense is used to heighten this exciting novel.
Conrad deals in this novel with the dark heart of mankind, a topic he seems to enjoy writing about. He tells us that man in inherently evil and his evils is only masked by civilization.
In the book, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, all the characters are pulled into a web of black despair, but none are saved by the flip of a light switch or shown the way out by an enlightened man. Conrad uses the darkness of the situation contrasted to the light of society to show man's dependence on western morals, and how when these morals are challenged by the darkness, the light crumbles under its newly weakened foundation. The contrast between light and dark is most stark in the themes of setting, the changes in Europeans as they drive farther into the Congo, and the white man's collapse under the ultimate darkness of the innermost Congo.
The setting of Heart of Darkness is a very critical part of the book, and Conrad goes to extreme lengths to highlight the evil radiating from the region in which he sets his book. First, the tale is told in a frame story pattern, in which Marlow is relating his experience to friends in a setting different from that of the primary tale. But the setting where Marlow tells his tale is a foreshadow of what is to come. Marlow presents his story on a boat in the dark of night, creating a sense of evil surrounding the story. The darkness is so deep where Marlow rests during the telling of his tale, that he cannot see his friends, and instead tells the story to the darkness itself. Once the narrative begins, Conrad quickly places his character in another situation which only foretells of the place to which he is going.
The uncivilized/civilized comparison and the descriptions of darkness heighten when Conrad increases the contrast by moving Marlow into an oasis of civilization, the Outer Station. The Outer Station is an outpost on the coast of Africa, owned and commanded by white Europeans, but kept alive by the slave work of black natives. Upon setting foot on shore, Marlow begins to see glimpses of the darkness that awaits him. The natives along the path are described in a manner closer to animal than human:
"Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner... others were scattered about in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of massacre or pestilence."
The scene disturbs Marlow a great deal, and he hastens to reach the camp. There, he comes upon another man like himself, dressed in pure white, and is temporarily rescued from the setting Conrad has created. Conrad continues to create a setting that is described as dark and dreary, always colored as black, brown, or yellow. Marlow always interprets this to represent evil, which is upheld by the actions of the natives within the Congo.
Marlow has never traveled to an area that is populated by non-Europeans. He enters the Congo expecting all the actions and ideas of the natives to follow his pre-established ideals, but finds a truth very different than he predicted.
Marlow's revelation does not come to him immediately. His awareness of the truth of reality increases as the pushes further into the Congo. Upon leaving the Outer Station, Marlow sets forth with his team of sixty men, and quickly notices the solitude that accompanies the first leg of their journey. Marlow then makes the rational explanation that if natives came to England and forced all the white men to carry their stuff, the Europeans would move away quickly also. This statement is curious, because it highlights the brutality of the whites, a theme that Marlow does not believe in very strongly. The end of the march finds Marlow and his team in the Central Station, an outpost where the European culture is still present, but corroding under the influence of the native culture. Whereas the Outer Station was described as organized, orderly, and under strict control by the Europeans, the Central Station is described as "on black water surrounded by scrub and forest... white men with long staves in their hands appeared languidly amongst the buildings..." Here the stockade is broken, leaving gaps for entry, and the Whites within are fearful of attack, but still have a higher degree of safety and control over the natives than outside the Station. The closer Marlow moves to the center of the Congo, the more European culture is eroded by the natives around them.
Just before Marlow reaches the Inner Station, the natives attack his steamer and manage to kill a native who ran the wheelhouse with Marlow. Upon his death, he falls to the floor next to Marlow who then remarks, "...my feet felt so warm and wet that I had to look down. It was the shaft of a spear that, either thrown or lunged through the opening, had caught him in the side just below the ribs... my shoes were full; a pool of blood lay very still, gleaming dark-red under the wheel." The sudden blast of brutality from the natives shocks Marlow so much that he instinctively reaches for anything from his comforting culture. What he finds is the steamer's whistle. Pulling repeatedly on the whistle creates two reactions: it calms Marlow, and it scares the natives from their attack and into hiding. Just as the native civilization scares Europeans, the product of the European culture drives away the natives. The final stop is the Inner Station, where a station hardly exists. There is no stockade here, no barrier separating the Native from European culture, and no safety from the presence of a white race. The only safety in this innermost Station is spawned from Mr. Kurtz, who has become a god to the natives. The savageness and brutality that Marlow willingly undertakes is not rooted in some desire within himself to hold up under pain, or even to acquire the enlightenment that he eventually does. The objective to all of Marlow's journey is to find and rescue Mr. Kurtz, the manager of the Inner Station, and the best ivory man the company has.
Marlow develops a fascination with Kurtz even before they ever meet, which drives him to enter this mission and remain with it until the end. As it turns out, both are very similar characters. Each came from European society with morals and ideals that have been knocked out from beneath them as they move deeper into the heart of darkness. Marlow's morals have been destroyed as he moves to each station. Each stop cuts him off from his moral foundation. The final blow to Marlow comes during the attack on the river. When his helmsman dies, it severs his link to civilization.
Marlow's anxiousness roots from the unconscious understanding that he is alone, and nothing connects him to the civilization he knows. From this time until Marlow returns to civilization, his morals and ideals are actively altered by the native culture. Marlow falls into an enlightening depression as he begins to understand the natural cruelty of the world. Kurtz was identical to Marlow, but has remained cut off from civilization for so long that he has been radically changed by the natives. His morals have been ripped out from under him, leaving nothing to base reality and sanity on. The hut in which he resides is surrounded by stakes with human heads, all facing inwards towards the house. Kurtz's moral collapse has brought him enlightenment. This enlightenment, however, can only be seen in the civilized side of himself, a side that rarely resurfaced from the corrupt shell (but instantly emerged upon the arrival of Marlow). The culture had altered Kurtz enough to have him write a paper on preserving the native culture, but the enlightenment shot through, visible in a scrawled postscript: "exterminate all the brutes!" The arrival of Marlow is enough to save the now enlightened mind (Marlow and Kurtz can withstand the corruption by drawing off of each other's western morals), but not enough to save the body weakened from the inner conflict. All that remains for Kurtz is to pass the enlightenment on (to the unfortunate Marlow, who must now live with the understanding of the true nature of the world) and then to die, which he does in his enlightened state, his last words being "The horror! The horror!"
Conrad's tale is in itself a fable, which leaves us with a moral that is very difficult to accept. Heart of Darkness warns us that the world is itself an evil thing, and the civilized population has refused to accept that fact. They create morals to mask the truth that they don't want to see. This masking is what makes us human, but we must always understand that it is only a mask and not the truth, because one day everyone will be faced with the darkness of the true nature of our world. And just like the child who is alone in the dark, one day someone won't be there to turn the light on for us. Then we'll be forced to stare into the heart of the darkness, and it will break us, as it did to Kurtz, or enlighten us, as it did for Marlow.