Heart of Darkness Summary: A Comprehensive Guide

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novella that tells the story of Marlow, an introspective sailor, and his journey up the Congo River to meet Kurtz, a reputed man of great abilities. The novella is set in the late 19th century, during the height of European imperialism in Africa. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive summary of Heart of Darkness, including its major themes, characters, and plot.

Plot Summary

The novella begins on the deck of the Nellie, a British ship anchored on the coast of the Thames. The anonymous narrator, the Director of Companies, the Accountant, and Marlow sit in silence. Marlow begins telling the three men about a time he journeyed in a steamboat up the Congo River. For the rest of the novel (with only minor interruptions), Marlow narrates his tale.

As a young man, Marlow desires to visit Africa and pilot a steamboat on the Congo River. With the help of his well-connected aunt, Marlow gets a job as a pilot on a steamship on the Congo River in Africa for a European business. First, he travels to the European city he describes as a “whited sepulcher” to visit the Company and then to Africa and up the Congo to assume command of his ship.

Marlow takes a job as a riverboat captain with the Company, a Belgian concern organized to trade in the Congo. He is tasked with transporting ivory and supplies up the Congo River to the Company’s stations. Along the way, he encounters the brutal realities of colonialism and the exploitation of African labor.

Marlow’s journey takes him deeper into the heart of darkness, both literally and metaphorically. He encounters Kurtz, a man of impressive abilities and enlightened morals, who is marked for rapid advancement in the Company. Kurtz is reputed to be an idealistic man of great abilities, but Marlow discovers that he has become a megalomaniacal figure, worshipped by the natives as a god.

Marlow listens to Kurtz talk while he pilots the ship, and Kurtz entrusts Marlow with a packet of personal documents, including an eloquent pamphlet on civilizing the savages which ends with a scrawled message that “Exterminate all the brutes!” The steamer breaks down, and they have to stop for repairs. Kurtz dies, uttering his last words—“The horror! The horror!”—in the presence of the confused Marlow. Marlow falls ill soon after and barely survives.

Eventually, he returns to Europe and goes to see Kurtz’s Intended (his fiancée). She is still in mourning, even though it has been over a year since Kurtz’s death, and she praises him as a paragon of virtue and achievement. She asks what his last words are, but Marlow cannot bring himself to shatter her illusions with the truth. Instead, he tells her that Kurtz’s last word was her name.

Major Themes

Heart of Darkness explores several major themes, including imperialism, racism, and the darkness of the human soul. The novella is a critique of European imperialism in Africa, which is portrayed as a brutal and exploitative system that dehumanizes both the colonizers and the colonized. The natives are portrayed as primitive and savage, while the Europeans are portrayed as arrogant and cruel.

The novella also explores the theme of racism, as the Europeans view the natives as inferior and less than human. This is exemplified by Kurtz’s pamphlet, which advocates for the extermination of the natives. The theme of the darkness of the human soul is also central to the novella, as Marlow’s journey up the Congo River takes him deeper into the heart of darkness, both literally and metaphorically.

Major Characters

  • Marlow: The protagonist of the novella, Marlow is an introspective sailor who journeys up the Congo River to meet Kurtz.
  • Kurtz: A man of impressive abilities and enlightened morals, Kurtz is marked for rapid advancement in the Company. He is reputed to be an idealistic man of great abilities, but Marlow discovers that he has become a megalomaniacal figure, worshipped by the natives as a god.
  • The Intended: Kurtz’s fiancée, who is still in mourning for him when Marlow returns to Europe.
  • The Manager: The head of the Company’s station in the Congo, who is jealous of Kurtz’s success and fears that he will be replaced by him.
  • The Russian: A trader who lives at Kurtz’s station and is devoted to him.

Conclusion

Heart of Darkness is a powerful and complex novella that explores the themes of imperialism, racism, and the darkness of the human soul. Through Marlow’s journey up the Congo River, Joseph Conrad critiques European imperialism in Africa and exposes the brutal realities of colonialism. The novella’s major characters, including Marlow, Kurtz, and the Intended, are complex and multi-dimensional, and their interactions reveal the complexities of human nature. Overall, Heart of Darkness is a timeless work of literature that continues to resonate with readers today.