Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary



Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary


The following texts are the property of their respective authors and we thank them for giving us the opportunity to share for free to students, teachers and users of the Web their texts will used only for illustrative educational and scientific purposes only.



The information of medicine and health contained in the site are of a general nature and purpose which is purely informative and for this reason may not replace in any case, the council of a doctor or a qualified entity legally to the profession.



Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary


Title: Heart of Darkness

Author: Joseph Conrad

Date of Publication: 1902

Genre: Modern novella

Biographical information about the author:

Joseph Conrad was born in 1857 in Poland as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. His father was active in a revolutionary movement to bring Polish independence, and as a result, the Russian government kept Conrad’s family from settling for long in one place. His mother died when he was seven of tuberculosis. His father died of the same illness when he was only eleven. His mother’s brother took him into custody. Five years later, he moved to France to learn to sail. In 1878, he traveled to England and spent the next twenty years sailing on British ships. In 1889, Conrad began writing his first novel Almayer’s Folly; it was published in 1895. In 1890, Conrad was shocked by what he saw when he traveled in the Belgian Congo, on a trip in which gave him a severe illness and disillusioned him towards imperialism. The exploitation he observed there served as an inspiration for Heart of Darkness. Conrad married Jessie George in 1896, and he was ; he was sixteen years older than her. Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in 1898 and 1899. Conrad continued to write until he died of a heart attack in 1924.

Historical background:

Heart of Darkness was written in 1898 and 1899. Europe was undergoing great social changes in this period, is an example of “twentieth century” literature, marked by a questioning of traditions and imperialism. Twentieth century literature actually began in the late nineteenth century. This period is largely marked by the weakening of stable traditions, dominant during the Victorian age, epitomized in the bohemian movement in France. Pessimism was common in the literature of the “twentieth century.” Idealism about imperialism, prevalent in the mid-1800s, was beginning to fall in Britain and Europe as the public became aware of the injustices and exploitations. The Boer War, a brutal and costly struggle between the native South Africans and the British imperialists broke out as Conrad wrote this novella. At the same time, Sigmund Freud was beginning his work on the id, the ego, and the super-ego.

Characteristics of the Genre:

The modern novella often illuminates individual experience, conveys inner consciousness, and focuses on the mystery of the universe, its lack of order and purpose

Plot summary:

         Heart of Darkness begins on the Thames river and told by an unknown narrator. He and several other men are on the deck of a ship when Marlow, a captain, begins to speak. Marlow had always wanted to travel to Africa and up the snakelike Congo River. With the help of his aunt in Brussels, Marlow gets a job as a boat captain on the river with a Dutch trading company that deals in ivory. After getting his assignment at the office in Brussels, he travels to the mouth of the Congo River in a French steamer, which drops off soldiers and clerks at many stations along the African coast. The site of a French man-of-war firing at nothing puzzles Marlow. When Marlow arrives at the mouth of the Congo, a Swedish captain takes him to the company’s Inner Station on a smaller boat. Outside of the station he sees Africans chained and working hard at worthless projects, with others nearby dying slowly. Marlow is impressed with the competence and dress of the accountant who works at this station. It is here that he firsts learns of Kurtz, an exceptional trader who is destined for great things. Marlow then travels to the company’s Central Station, walking two hundred miles inland with a sick, overweight white man who had to be carried by Africans, until they tired of it and abandoned him. Once at the station, Marlow meets the General Manager, a hollow man who got his job not by virtue of his merit but simply by remaining alive. His only talent is making people feel uneasy. The boat Marlow was supposed to captain had been torn up in an accident just before he arrived, so Marlow spends months at the station making repairs and waiting for rivets. During this time, Marlow watches many of the white men do no work and walk aimlessly. One day a building caught fire and they decided to punish an African for it. Marlow then meets another hollow man, the brick maker, who has no materials to build bricks. The brick maker questions Marlow about his connections in Europe, and Marlow learns more about Kurtz, who is besides being an excellent trader, an artist and in Africa for the purpose of bringing light to the natives. Marlow determines that the brick maker is a spy for the manager and that neither likes Kurtz. The mysterious Kurtz increasingly intrigues Marlow. He overhears the manager and the manager’s corrupt uncle express their hatred and jealousy towards Kurtz, who is rumored to be ill. With the repairs complete, Marlow captained the boat upriver, manager on board, towards Kurtz’s station. He employed the help of a group of cannibals, who refrained from eating anyone in his presence. Just before arriving at Kurtz’s station, a tribe of Africans attacked the ship, and his African helmsman was killed, having lost his self-control.  At this point Marlow worries that he may never meet Kurtz, but they find Kurtz’s station upriver. Greeted by a young Russian, Marlow finds out that Kurtz is very ill. He also finds out that Kurtz convinced a tribe he was a deity to use them to get more ivory. Kurtz goes crazy and runs for the woods, devoid of all restraint. Marlow finds him and helps him back to his bed. Kurtz gives Marlow some papers to give to people in Europe. Kurtz eventually dies, saying “The horror, the horror.” Marlow returns to Europe, delivers the papers, and eventually talks to Kurtz’s fiancé. She is still very idealistic and he cannot tell her about Kurtz’s last words, saying instead Kurtz uttered her name before dying.



Describe the author’s style:

The complexity of Conrad’s language is often characterized by balanced phrases and parallel structures. He interprets his narrative with long, poetic descriptions of natural scenes. Although sometimes criticized for his verbosity, his word choice, phrasing, and length of sentence, these characteristics tend to elevate his prose to the level of eloquence.


An example that demonstrates the style:

“The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space that tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and greatest, town on earth.” (Page 1)


Memorable Quotes






-“The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.” (Page 14)





-“ I noticed there was a hole in the bottom of his pail.” (Page 20)










-“The horror! The horror!” (Page 64)













-“What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency” (Page 4).


-This quote clearly illustrates the theme that the European presence in Africa was futile and cruel. The Europeans at the outer station were working the Africans to death on projects designed for no apparent purpose. The senselessness of the situation is used by Conrad to show that the Europeans were not going to accomplish anything in Africa.


- In this passage a shed full of native African crafts catches on fire. “A stout man with mustaches” tries to put the fire out but is doomed for failure because of a hole in his pail. European imperialism is represented water pail and the fire represents the vivacious culture that the Europeans are trying to suppress. The water pail cannot possibly put out the fire because all the water leaks out. Conrad uses this the hole in the bucket to show that the European attempt to “civilize” the Africans is futile.




-Kurtz’s last words have a remarkable reflection on a theme from the novel that “A journey is more fulfilling than its end.” When Kurtz realizes that he has reached the end of his journey, his life, he can remember the many experiences and accomplishments he has made during the journey of his life. However, Kurtz also realizes that the path he had chosen for his journey brought about his demise, the end of his journey. This theme is also reflected through Marlow who gains much experience through his journey in Africa but when he returns to Europe he cannot bring closure to his journey. The horror of ending a journey overshadows the experiences that occurred along that journey.


-This quote most clearly supports the theme of the novel that “Without restraint civilization tends toward savagery.” Marlow comments that conquerors like the Romans can remain sane by efficiently doing their work and not deeply involving themselves with the natives.  The focus on efficiency restrains people from answering to only their primal instincts. Marlow is able to remain civil by occupying himself with the responsibilities of being a riverboat captain; however, Kurtz ignores the guidelines of his work and is pulled into the savage culture of the natives.




Role in the story




He is a European sailor who narrates the story. He goes to Africa to pilot a riverboat for a Belgian ivory trading company. It becomes Marlow’s duty to seek out Kurtz, another riverboat captain, and bring him back to the trading companies central.

Marlow plays a significant role in the themes of the novel. During Marlow’s journey up the river Marlow witnesses the futility of the European imperialism, seeing incidents of meaningless abuse and . Upon reaching Kurtz, a brilliant man Marlow had eagerly anticipated meeting, he finds a sick, savage man lost with no restraint. He learned more in his journey from his observations on restraint and the treatment of the Africans than he did when he finally arrived at his goal, which was to speak to Kurtz.




He is the most successful agent for the Dutch trading company. Kurtz becomes so entwined in his trade that he breaks the rules of his company and employs savage techniques to get ivory. He becomes very ill and before his death, he tries to escape civilization and go into the jungle.

Kurtz is critical to the meaning of the novel. His initial goals disappeared as he rose to be the top agent in the Belgian Congo. His change from an idealistic imperialist to an ivory-obsessed agent is used to show that the Europeans could not “civilize” Africa. Africa made Europeans un-“civilized.” After being isolated for too long, he had become a beast, with the heads of Africans on poles at his station. Kurtz, a good man in Europe, had lost all restraint, even ignoring the rules of his own company. Conrad illustrates that without restraint, people tend towards savagery through Kurtz’s attempted escape into the jungle.





He lives at the Outer Station and is the company’s main accountant. He greets Marlow and tells him about Kurtz.

Conrad uses the accountant to show that with restraint, a person is sensible and level-headed, even in difficult conditions, in contrast with the helmsman and Kurtz that Marlow will encounter later. The accountant is restrained by his commitment to his appearance and his work.




They work on the boat with Marlow as the boat moves towards the inner station.

The cannibals exemplify the power of restraint. Marlow wonders why these men do not eat him, because they have not eaten anything but rotting hippo meat in months. Marlow sees how complicated the savages are, as he cannot find a single reason why these uncivilized African cannibals are not eating the pilgrims. Some restraint is keeping them from bestiality.



Marlow’s Aunt

She is in the top social circle in Brussels, and she helps Marlow get the job in Brussels.

Marlow’s Aunt believes in imperialism. She plays the role of showing the idealistic European view of imperialism, blind to its exploitation, cruelty, and ultimate futility. While no “progress” is being made on the African cultures, she is enthusiastic about the idea.



Kurtz’s mistress

She is Kurtz’s lover at the inner station; she belongs to the tribe which Kurtz controls.

Kurtz’s mistress provides more basis for the theme that the imperialism is futile. Kurtz went to Africa to civilize “savages” like her but instead he became like her. She is mysterious and the pilgrims did not understand what she was saying or doing.



General Manager

He runs the company and is not particularly talented. He makes people uneasy.

The general manager shows how restraint keeps people from becoming savage. He outlasts Kurtz and everyone else in Africa by being patient and following all of the rules.



General Manager’s Uncle

He is in charge of the corrupt Eldorado Expedition, which Marlow hears came to a bad fate in the wilderness.

The manager’s uncle and his expedition represent the cruelty in the European occupation. They are “sordid buccaneers… reckless without hardihood, greed without audacity, and cruel without courage” (27).



Harlequin Russian

He is Kurtz’s assistant and devoted follower at the inner station.

The Russian’s actions may also depict the theme that restraint keeps people from wild savagery. He is busy talking to and taking care of Kurtz, but in the end, when Kurtz is dying, he is content to walk out into the jungle with practically nothing.



Kurtz’s intended

She is Kurtz’s fiancée back in Europe, whom Marlow visits months after Kurtz’s death.

She represents the idealism behind imperialism, much like Marlow’s aunt. She believes Kurtz died doing good things for the world, when in fact, he died doing no good



The helmsman

He was an African who helped Marlow navigate. When the boat comes under attack, he goes crazy on the deck and is killed by an arrow.

The helmsman shows how the loss of restraint causes a person to become savage. During the attack on the ship, the helmsman lost all restraint and began acting on primal instinct, ultimately leading to his death.






Significance of Opening Scene

The setting begins on the Nellie, a ship at anchor in the Thames River in London. While anchoring there, Marlow tells his companions on the Nellie a narrative about his adventures as a riverboat captain on the Congo River sometime in the past. The Congo story is preceded and followed by a visit to Brussels, Belgium, the headquarters for the ivory company that hires him.

In the opening scene the major themes of the novel are put into progress. The narrator develops the theme that a journey is more fulfilling than its end through the quote “The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea” (2). The sea moves the men and when it finally reaches its goal, moving them to their destinations, it is left with only memories. Marlow then initiates the theme about imperialism through a reference to how the Romans civilized Britain by colonizing the land many years ago, putting themselves in a place they were uncomfortable and into an unconquerable “darkness.” Preceding his story about his journey to the Congo, Marlow refers to the theme about restraint, talking about how the Romans had probably kept themselves sane with work and a goal in mind, or else they would have lost their minds in the wilderness.




Significance of the Closing/Ending

Kurtz’s oil painting -- Kurtz’s painting symbolizes Europeans in Africa.  The painting is a blindfolded woman carrying a torch in darkness.  The torchlight makes her faces look sinister.  The torchlight is the civilized European cultures, while the darkness is “savage” Africa.  The angry look on the woman’s face symbolizes the evils that Europeans do in their attempt to bring civilization to Africa.  Finally, the futility of the European attempt is apparent in Kurtz’s painting; the darkness pushes against the torchlight and prevents it from spreading out. No one is being illuminated.

Heads on poles around Kurtz’s hut – The heads that Marlow sees when he arrives at Inner Station symbolize the ultimate failure of European attempts at civilizing Africa. Kurtz has killed the very people he intended to civilize. In Africa, the Europeans lose site of their idealistic goals, and therefore cannot accomplish them

Rivets – The rivets that Marlow needs to fix his steamboat represent the civilizing influence of work.  Marlow tells his listeners of this, saying that it disguises the deeper truth of things when one becomes involved in one’s tasks.  In Heart of Darkness, the rivets make it possible for Marlow to continue his job and leave the insanity of Center Station.


Marlow is disgusted by the people of Brussels when he returns; he sees these people as living trivial, self-important lives that offend Marlow in his knowledge gained from his journey. Marlow visits The Intended to give away personally the last physical possessions of Kurtz and to symbolically end his memory of Kurtz; Marlow and the Intended discuss Kurtz for some time, and then Marlow tells her that he uttered her name as his last word, to keep her in her happy reality rather
than the more gruesome one. By telling this lie, Marlow has decided to allow the idealism about imperialism to go on. Marlow’s story has little noticeable effect on the crew except for the narrator; while the Director tells the people aboard the boat that they have lost the ebb, the nameless narrator become introspective and sees something like the heart of darkness in the clouds above London.

Old AP Questions


1972, 1976, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2002 (B), 2003 (B), 2004, 2004 (B)


Possible Themes

  • Imposing one's form of civilization on another through imperialism is futile, causing more chaos than it is worth.
  • Without some form of restraint, people tend to degenerate into savagery.
  • Often, the journey towards a goal is actually more fulfilling that the achievement of that goal.


Source : http://www.scspk12.org/high-school/workspace/assets/teacher-files/heart-of-darkness-ii-1294695609.doc

Web site link: http://www.scspk12.org/high-school/

Google key word : Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary file type : doc

Author : not indicated on the source document of the above text

If you are the author of the text above and you not agree to share your knowledge for teaching, research, scholarship (for fair use as indicated in the United States copyrigh low) please send us an e-mail and we will remove your text quickly.


Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary

Joseph Conrad       HEART OF DARKNESS    1902



The novel opens on the Nellie, a cruising yawl (sailing vessel), anchored outside London on the Thames River. On board are the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, the narrator and Marlow. Marlow tells them a tale, which makes up the entire novel. At points in the narration, readers are reminded of this scene of telling. The last paragraph of the novel returns the reader to Marlow on the Nellie.

Marlow tells his companions of his trip to Africa as a seaman. Out of work and feeling extremely alienated by the city of London, Marlow begins looking for a contract to go to sea. When he cannot find one, he contacts his aunt, who is living on the European continent and who has contacts in a Trading Company, which operates in Africa. After having a physical, where his head is measured in the interests of science and to find out if changes happen to people who go to Africa, Marlow ships out. He later finds out that his aunt has represented him to the company as an idealist who believes that the European mission in Africa is to bring enlightenment to the natives rather than to grab their resources for the sake of money.

When Marlow arrives in Africa, he finds mass destruction of the earth, the people, and even the machinery. He sees what seems like senseless work and senseless dying on the part of the Africans. He finds the Europeans to be oblivious to the immorality of what they are doing.

At the Outer Station, Marlow meets the Chief Accountant, whom Marlow admires somewhat ironically because in the midst of the chaos he "kept up his appearance." The Chief Accountant tells Marlow of Kurtz, a man who runs the Inner Station and who sends back more ivory than all the rest of the company's agents. Marlow next travels to the Central Station, run by the Manager, who Marlow finds embodies all the worst of the European imperialism. He calls the Manager a hollow man without values. The Manager is purely greedy and desperately competitive with other agents.

Marlow finds an atmosphere of petty intrigue at the Central Station and regrets having to stay there for months because his steamer is out of order. He lacks the necessary parts-- rivets--to repair his riverboat and leave the Central Station. While there, Marlow hears more about Kurtz this time from the Manager, who is jealous of Kurtz's success. He also finds that Kurtz is a "universal genius", gifted in oratory, painting, and poetry, but has recently stopped sending ivory down the river and has gone out of communication. Marlow begins to idealize Kurtz as a sort of a savior, who can redeem the petty greed of imperialism with an idea. He suspects that the Manager is intentionally delaying the sending of relief to Kurtz in order to dispose of him as competition in the company.

Marlow finally repairs his steamer and travels further up the Congo River toward the Inner Station, where Kurtz lives, taking on board with him the Manager and other company officials sent to find out what had happened to Kurtz. During the trip, Marlow is terrified by the immensity of nature that surrounds him. Here nature is unconquered and uncontrolled, making Marlow feel small and powerless, alienated from his usual identity as a European. Marlow is also terrified and fascinated by the Africans he sees along the shore. He struggles with "the suspicion that they were not inhuman," that he has some "remote kinship" with them. He is relieved by the antics of his fireman, an African man, whom Marlow refers to as "an improved specimen" and who fits all of Marlow's expectations of Africans as superstitious, child-like, and foolish.

As Marlow approaches Kurtz's station, natives using arrows and spears assault his riverboat. Marlow watches as his helmsman, an African, dies and ironically feels a strange bond to him, more so than he does to the Europeans on board. The Europeans, whom Marlow refers to as pilgrims, reveal their true inhumanity as they fire randomly into the bush, hoping to kill as many natives as possible. As Marlow contemplates the situation in Africa, he becomes extremely anxious that Kurtz may be dead and he may never be able to talk to him.

Before meeting Kurtz, Marlow breaks the story line to talk to his companions on the Nellie. He describes his extreme alienation from the Europeans and their actions in Africa, his intense interest in talking to Kurtz, and he tells them that he ends up lying to Kurtz's Intended (his fiancé), even though Marlow hates a lie worse than anything. Marlow then returns to the narration of his story and tells of his encounter with the Russian, a man dressed like a harlequin, who cheerfully describes Kurtz as a sort of god to the Africans. He reveals that Kurtz is an egomaniac, a man who "wanted an audience", and who made the African chiefs crawl to him.

As Marlow listens to the Russian, he uses binoculars to look at Kurtz's station. He sees human skulls resting on poles outside of Kurtz's house and realizes the ruthless nature of the man. He also learns that Kurtz ordered the attack on the steamer by the natives, for he does not want to leave the Inner Station. Marlow is very disturbed by what he sees and hears about Kurtz and describes him as an empty man, "hollow at the core," who is all talk with no real beliefs. While the Russian is on board the steamer, Kurtz's African supporters come out to make a show of force. Among them is an African woman, apparently Kurtz's lover, who is richly dressed and beautiful. She is forlorn that her lover is being taken from her. When the steamer pulls away from the station the next day, she reaches out in anguish towards the departing boat and is needlessly shot by the brutal Europeans.

The Europeans manage to bring Kurtz on board, but he escapes and flees to shore. Marlow leaves the boat to find Kurtz on land. As Marlow subdues him, Kurtz tells Marlow that he had had "immense plans" for Africa. He then realizes that Kurtz's "soul was mad." Marlow coaxes Kurtz back on board, but Kurtz dies during the journey. His last words, "The horror, the horror!" seem to refer to the entire human condition.

Marlow returns to Europe and manages to keep Kurtz's papers, entrusted to him, away from company officials. He also visits Kurtz's Intended, feeling that Kurtz's vision enters her house with him. He hears the words "the horror, the horror!" echoing in his ears; but when the Intended wants to know Kurtz's last words, he answers that Kurtz dies saying "your name." He also lies and tells her that Kurtz purpose in Africa was noble to the end. The novel ends back on the Nellie with a sky of black clouds overhead and the river seeming "to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."



Source : http://quinte2011-12.wikispaces.com/file/view/Heart+of+Darkness+-+Short+summary.doc

Web site link: http://quinte2011-12.wikispaces.com/

Google key word : Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary file type : doc

Author : not indicated on the source document of the above text

If you are the author of the text above and you not agree to share your knowledge for teaching, research, scholarship (for fair use as indicated in the United States copyrigh low) please send us an e-mail and we will remove your text quickly.


Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary



If you want to quickly find the pages about a particular topic as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary use the following search engine:




Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary


Please visit our home page



Larapedia.com Terms of service and privacy page




Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad summary