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Heart of Darkness
By Joseph Conrad  (1857-1924)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Plot Structure: Frame Tale
Congo River and The Country
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Author Information
Complete Free Text
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......When a yawl called The Nellie swings into port along the Thames River within sight of London, the crewmen are as still as the breezeless air. The captain stands on the bow looking out to sea. A deckhand called u0093The Lawyeru0094 lies on a carpet while one called u0093The Accountantu0094 arranges dominoes into imaginary buildings. A third man, Marlow, sits back against the mizzenmast. 
.......The unnamed narrator describing the scene says Marlow u0093had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outward, resembled an idol.u0094
.......The sun is setting. Marlow observes that the great city they see before them is u0093one of the dark places of the earth.u0094 He then begins telling them a story about another dark placeu0096the very heart of darkness. It is deep within the jungles of the Congo Free State in Africa. (King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State as a Belgian colony in the late 19th Century.) 
.......Marlow tells the crew that he had been hired at one time by a Belgian company that trades in African ivory at a handsome profit. The company maintained several outposts along a river in the Congo, all of them called u0093stations.u0094 Marlowu0092s mission was to travel more than 200 miles inland, partly on foot but mostly by river steamer, to a company outpost called u0093the Inner Stationu0094 (as opposed to u0093Outeru0094 and u0093Centralu0094 stations along the way). Upon his arrival at the Inner Station, he was to reconnoiter the activities of the outpostu0092s manager, a man named Kurtz, who had been incommunicado for some time with his home office in Belgium. Marlow says he was told that it might be necessary for him, depending on what he found in the jungle, to bring Kurtz back to civilization. Kurtz had been running the Inner Station with amazing efficiency, returning tons of ivory to his employers and earning a reputation elevating him to the status of legend.
.......Here is the story that Marlow narrates about his adventure:
.......After a monthu0092s sea voyage, he arrives on the shore of Africa and must travel the first 30 miles inland, to the companyu0092s Outer Station, on a steamer with a Swedish captain. The captain tells Marlow about another man he took inland who hanged himself. When Marlow asks why the man killed himself, the captain says ominously, u0093Who knows? The sun too much for him, or the country perhaps.u0094
.......After arriving at the Outer Station, Marlow observes natives building a railroad and setting off dynamite. He is struck by their emaciation.
.......u0093I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knobs in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.u0094
.......They are prisoners. What crime had they committed? Perhaps the crime of simply being available for white Europeans to exploit. u0093They were not criminals,u0094 Marlow says, u0093they were nothing earthly nowu0096nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation in the greenish gloom.u0094
.......Marlow must wait 10 days, lodging in a hut, before resuming his trip with 60 hired hands in a tramp through the jungle to reach the Central Station of the Belgian company. There, his own steamer awaits him. During the trek, a few of his men die under the burdens they carry, and at night distant drums pound out strange rhythms. Along the jungle trail, Marlow encounters a native with a bullet hole in his forehead. What happened to him? Why?
.......Upon arriving at the Central Station, Marlow discovers that the steamboat he is to captain to the Inner Station sits submersed after someone piloted it over stones that ripped out its bottom. The manager of the station has no particular qualities to commend him for his work except one: He has the uncanny ability to remain healthy while others around him regularly fall victim to tropical diseases. He is jealous of Kurtzu0092s reputation as a master at his trade and claims that Kurtz is conspiring against him, placing his job in jeopardy. Thus, he is all in favor of bringing Kurtz out of the jungle and plans to accompany Marlow to the Inner Station in order to assist in Kurtzu0092s removal. 
.......During his stay at the Central Station, Marlow learns that Kurtz has ceased communicating with the station and has stopped shipping ivory. Moreover, he hears that Kurtz may be sick.
.......Marlow needs rivets to repair his boat. He had seen endless supplies of them after arriving in Africa. But here, in this godforsaken way station, there is not a single rivet to be found. So, in the next few months, he mends his steamship with any material he can findu0096a scrap of this, a piece of that. During this time, a gang of men who call themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition visits the station. u0093To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire,u0094 Marlow says, u0093with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.u0094
.......At long last, with the manager of the Outer Station and a crew that includes cannibals as well as white men, Marlow sets out for the Inner Station, navigating the boat deep into the savage beauty of the jungle. It is a primeval world, full of peril and lush with vegetation that thrives in the humid air and heavy silence. The journey challenges Marlowu0092s every navigational talent with twists and turns and shallow water hiding rocks that could once again undo the boat. At night distant drums beat out rhythms of prayer or peace or war. During the day, Marlow occasionally glimpses natives along the shore sometimes shouting or leaping, sometimes frowning or clapping. Eventually, Marlow stops for wood to stoke the steameru0092s fire and, to his surprise, finds a pile stacked near a hut and a note telling the finder to help himself. 
.......Later, back on the river, the steamer encounters heavy fog, hits a snag, and comes upon hostile natives who shoot arrows and hurl spears at the boat from positions in the dense forest. The white crew members, armed with Winchesters, spray volleys of bullets into the bushes. The boat struggles through the water, brushing overhanging limbs. A black man, Marlowu0092s helmsman, takes a a spear in his side and falls at the feet of Marlow. During all the frenzy, Marlow reaches up and pulls hard on a line that sounds the steam whistle. Again and again he jerks it. Its screeches frighten the natives, who cry out and scramble off into the jungle. The helmsman dies, frowning. 
.......When the boat is under way again, Marlow dumps the body overboardu0096a callous act, some of the crewmen think, but Marlow worried that the cannibals would have eaten the corpse. Oddly, he learns during the rest of the trip that it is the cannibals who keep their place; the white men, whom he calls u0093pilgrims,u0094 are the ones who are hard to control. They are ever ready to shoot at anything that moves; it is all good sport.
.......When the steamer arrives at the Inner Station, a talkative Russian trader dressed in motley, like a clown or a jester, greets Marlow. After serving aboard English ships, the Russian had persuaded a Dutch trading company to equip him for a foray into the jungle to reap profits from its riches. He tells Marlow it was he who left the pile of wood along the river. 
.......After almost two years of traipsing through the bush, the Russian ended up at the Inner Station, where he doctored Kurtz through two sick spells. Kurtz maintains a house at the station, but he only recently returned to it after spending time in the interior of the jungle, perhaps taking part in native rituals. He has manipulated the natives into idolizing him, as if he were a god, for his gigantic ego requires homage. But now he is a sick godu0096u0093bad, very bad,u0094 the Russian says. 
.......Marlow trains a telescope on the house, situated across a field of high grass. What he sees, he says, surprises him but does not shock him: heads impaled on stakes. All of the heads except one face Kurtzu0092s house, paying homage. 
.......u0093There was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there,u0094 Marlow says. u0093They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts . . . .u0094
.......Marlow observes that Kurtzu0096in spite of his genius as an ivory trader and his ability to dazzle and manipulate the nativesu0096is actually a victim of the jungle, the heart of darkness.
.......u0093I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitudeu0096and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.u0094
.......It was the voice of temptation, perhaps, inviting him to walk on the dark side of his soul, canceling moral law and becoming emperor of all that he sees. 
.......Sometime later, Marlow observes savage-looking natives bearing Kurtz on a stretcher to a cabin at the site. 
.......u0093I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving,u0094 Marlow says. u0093It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze.u0094
.......Marlow and his men have a stack of letters for Kurtzu0096missives which had collected to await deliveryu0096and they take them to the sick man. Kurtz fingers them and acknowledges their receipt in a surprisingly robust voice. 
.......Later, outside, a beautiful native woman appears, then disappears. Days later, she visits Kurtz for an hour while Marlow is nearby. During her conversation with Kurtz, she repeatedly points to Marlow. What she is saying is a mystery to Marlow, for he has no knowledge of native dialects. However, it becomes quite obvious that she has been serving as Kurtzu0092s mistress.
.......Sometime later, the manager of the Outer Station visits Kurtz and receives a browbeating for saying he wants to u0093saveu0094 Kurtzu0096that is, take him out of the jungle.
.......u0093You are interrupting my plans now,u0094 Kurtz tells the manager. u0093Sick! Sick! Not so sick as you would like to believe.u0094
.......When the district manager later pulls Marlow aside, he says Kurtzu0092s methods are unsound and is doing more harm than good for the company. Marlow observes that Kurtz is a u0093remarkable man.u0094 The district manager says, u0093He was.u0094
.......Marlow learns that it was Kurtz who had ordered the attack on the steamer. He wanted to scare the crew off so that he could remain in the jungle to carry out his enterprises.
.......Meanwhile, the Russian prepares to return to civilization after receiving ammunition and supplies from Marlow. Before leaving by canoe, he tells Marlow of Kurtzu0092s talent for reciting his own poetry. 
.......After Marlow decides it is time for Kurtz, too, to return to civilization, his crewmen take Kurtz aboard but he later escapes. When Marlow searches for him, he finds him crawling in deep grass. Marlow tells him he will be u0093lostu0094 if he does not return, although Marlow knows that Kurtz is already lost. Worried that Kurtz will call out to his native friends for help, Marlow threatens to bash his head if he makes a sound.
.......u0093I was on the threshold of great things,u0094 Kurtz says. 
.......The jungle holds a spell over him; he simply does not want to give up. Kurtzu0092s soul, Marlow says, has gone mad. Yet Marlow manages to prevail. 
.......The next day at noon, he and his crew carry Kurtz into the pilot house of the boat before their trip out of the jungle. When natives gather, Marlowu0092s crewmen begin reaching for their guns as if they are about to have a sporting good time. So Marlow blows the steam whistle to drive the natives off and, thus, save them from a hale of bullets. The natives run off in a frightu0096all except for that savagely beautiful woman, who reaches out her arms toward the boat. And then crewmen open fire.
.......After the boat is on its way, Kurtz speaks out deliriously of all his plans; it seems that the jungle, which had become part of him, is fighting for possession of him. u0093Oh, I will wring your heart yet,u0094 he says, addressing the mysterious wilds. Along the way, the boat lapses into a mechanical problem, and Marlow puts in at an island to effect repairs. While there, Kurtz gives him some papers and a photograph tied together with a shoestring, saying he wants Marlow to keep them away from the meddlesome Outer Station manager. One evening, when Marlow goes to check on Kurtz, the sick man says, u0093I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.u0094
.......Not long after he dies. The last words Marlow hears him speak are u0093The horror! The horror!u0094 
Apparently, Kurtz is aware of the depth of evil into which he plunged himself.  The next day, the crewmen bury him in a u0093muddy hole.u0094
.......A year after his return to Belgium, Marlow gives the packet of papers to the person for whom they were intended, Kurtzu0092s fiancée, who mourns his loss, saying he was such a remarkable man, such a good man. u0093Men looked up to himu0096his goodness shone in his every act.u0094 When she asks Marlow about Kurtzu0092s last moments, he lies: u0093The last word he pronounced wasu0096your name.u0094
.......When Marlow ends his story, he resumes his pose, looking like an idol, a Buddha. The unnamed narrator aboard observes at that momentu0096as black clouds appear in an overcast skyu0096that the Thames, as it flows out to sea, u0093seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.u0094
.......The action takes place in the early 1890s. It begins on a boat anchored within sight of London, England, then shifts to Africa during a flashback in which Charles Marlow, one of the crew members, tells a story about a trip he took up the Congo River to the "heart of darkness." 

Charles Marlow: Marlow, who refers to himself as "Charlie," is a pensive but adventurous seaman with a knack for telling a good story. While a small boat on which he is serving sits at anchor near London, he tells his fellow crewmen a harrowing tale about a trip he took up the Congo River in Africa. Marlow represents Joseph Conrad, the author of Heart of Darkness, who traveled up the Congo in 1890 and witnessed firsthand European exploitation of African natives. 
Kurtz: Intelligent, resourceful man who lives in the jungle while harvesting ivory for a Belgian company. In his primitive surroundings, he gives free reign to his dark side, manipulating and controlling the natives and setting himself up as a kind of idol. Eventually, his evildoing and the pestiferous environment sicken him physically and mentally. It is Marlow's mission to bring him out of the jungle and return him to civilization, but he dies on the ride down the river toward the sea.
Unnamed Narrator: Minor character who sets the scene and, from time to time, describes Marlow while the latter tells his story. 
District Manager Barely competent manager of the Outer Station whose sole commendable quality is that he remains healthy in the jungle environment. He believes Kurtz is plotting against him.
Swedish Captain: He commands a steamboat that takes Marlow on his first leg of his journey up the Congo River. 
Russian Trader: Talkative trader who has made his way into the jungle on his own. He greets Marlow upon the latter's arrival at the Inner Station and updates Marlow on the condition of Kurtz.
Fiancée of Kurtz
Minor Characters: Kurtz's native mistress, African tribesmen, cannibals who serve on Marlow's steamboat, white Europeans who serve on the same boat.
.......The climax occurs when Marlow at long last reaches Kurtz, only to discover that the jungle has corrupted him physically, morally, and mentally. The jungle, of course, is as much the jungle within Kurtzu0096the tangling undergrowth of evil desires that seize control of his soulu0096as the jungle without.

Type of Work and Themes
.......Heart of Darkness is a novella (short novel) that conveys its meaning on symbolic and literal levels. It does not slip neatly into a distinct genre. It is clear, though, that Conrad intended the novel to do the following in revealing his themes:

  • Present an odyssey in which a traveler, Marlow, confronts the dangers of a foreboding wilderness and the people it holds in its grasp. In so doing, he also confronts his own inner self. Like the hero of Homeru0092s Odyssey, that ancient tale in which one man becomes every man in the journey through life, Marlow is a curious adventurer who presses on in the face of danger. His journey teaches him that the darkest and most perilous place in the world is not the jungle, but the heart of a human being who succumbs to his evil impulses.  
  • Expose the inhumanity of European exploitation of Africa and its people. 
  • Call attention to the dark force in the human soul which, when allowed  license to express itself, reduces men to atavismsu0096feral, unfeeling, primeval organisms that feed on others without conscience or moral direction.  
  • Present the tragedy of a brilliant and admired man, the Belgian trader Kurtz, who succumbs to this dark force. He is not unlike the hero of a Greek tragedy in that he is a supposedly a noble human being who, through self-delusion and repression of his conscience, suffers a downfall. In the end, he understands but fails to subdue the evil within himself.  
  • Demonstrate that human beings are complex creatures with manifold motivations and perceptions. Marlow both admires and despises Kurtz, for Kurtz has many sidesu0096some good, some monstrously evil.  
Plot Structure: Frame Tale
.......To tell his story, Conrad uses two narrators, both serving on a small boat, a yawl called The Nellie. The first narrator, unidentified, is only a minor character in the story. He sets the sceneu0096a port along the Thames River near London as the sun begins to setu0096and describes the captain and the crewmen, one of whom is Charles Marlow, the second narrator. 
.......Marlow takes over as the main narrator and central character of the story when he begins telling the crew about a journey that took him to Africa and up the Congo River to the u0093heart of darkness.u0094 Marlowu0092s tale continues uninterrupted except at short breaks when the first narrator describes Marlowu0092s demeanor or appearance, or informs the reader of the time of night, as the tale progresses. A literary work with an u0093outer narratoru0094 who introduces an u0093inner narratoru0094 (such as Marlow) is often referred to as a frame tale. The outer narratoru0092s story is like the frame around a painting; the inner narratoru0092s story is the painting itself. 
.......Conrad develops Marlowu0092s story with an ingenious mix of elegant imagery and everyday languageu0096the latter including truncated sentences and colloquialismsu0096expressed through Marlowu0092s intimate first-person narration. Occasionally Marlow addresses the reader with the second-person u0093you.u0094 Overall the writing is first rate, with rich characterization that provides insights into the psychological motivations and moral convictionsu0096or lack of themu0096of his characters. Descriptions of exploited Africans are striking:
They were dying slowlyu0096it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly nowu0096nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. . . . I began to distinguish the gleam of eyes under the trees. Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed youngu0096almost a boyu0096but you know with them itu0092s hard to tell. I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my good Swedeu0092s shipu0092s biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed slowly on it and heldu0096there was no other movement and no other glance. 
.......Marlow often provides brief descriptions of his experiences to supplement detailed descriptions. His abbreviated glimpses of reality are not unlike those of impressionist painters who attempt to capture a moment or a mood in an instantaneous rendering of what they see. Conrad is especially effective when describing the atmosphere of the jungle: dark, forbidding, mysterious, primeval. At times, he waxes into lengthy digressions, but they are often enthrallingu0096building suspense. 
The Congo River and the Country in Conrad's Time
.......The Congo River, one of the longest in the world, forms in central Africa in a country that was known as the Congo Free State in the late 19th Century. The name of the country changed several times in the 20th Century and is known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). From its headwaters, the river flows north in the DRC, then west, then southwest to the Atlantic Ocean. 
.......Joseph Conrad traveled up the Congo River in 1890 and later based Heart of Darkness on this voyage. Marlow, the main narrator of Heart of Darkness, arrives on the Atlantic coastline of Africa, then travels up the Congo to several sites in the jungle. (Traveling "up" a river means traveling toward its source, or headwaters; traveling "down" a river means traveling away from its source.) King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State in the late 19th Century and commissioned the famous Anglo-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley to establish trading posts along the river. Supposedly, these trading posts were set up to civilize and develop the Congo region while ending the slave trade. However, the Belgians exploited the native population while capitalizing on the Congo as a rich source of ivory. 
Author Information 
.......Joseph Conrad, one of the most important novelists in English literature, was born in 1857 to Polish parents in Berdichev, Ukraine, a country in eastern Europe that was annexed as part of Poland in 1569 but incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 19th Century. Ukraine is now an independent country. 
.......Conradu0092s birth name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski.When he was a child, Conrad learned about the great English authorsu0096including Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, and Sir Walter Scottu0096from his father, a poet who also translated English books into Polish and French. Young Joseph could read translations of these authors in both of those languages. His parents, devout Roman Catholics, raised him in that religion. When he was still an adolescent, his father and mother died, and thereafter his uncle saw to his upbringing and schooling. 
.......In 1874, Conrad abandoned his studies to fulfill a longing to go to sea. Subsequently, he served on French and British merchants ships, sailing around the world. During this time, he became not only a master mariner (acknowledged with a British certificate in 1886) but also a master of the English language. He also became a British subject. In the late 1880's, he began to write. In 1890, he traveled up the Congo River from the Atlantic coast, then back, on a four-month journey. The trip provided him all the background he needed for Heart of Darkness
.......His first novel, Almayeru0092s Folly, was published in 1895, marking the first time he used the name Joseph Conrad instead of his birth name. Many other distinguished worksu0096including The Nigger of the Narcissus, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Typhoon, and Nostromou0096followed within a decade. The British government invited him to receive knighthood in his later years, but he declined the honor. He died of a heart attack in 1924 at Bishopsbourne, England. 


Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • What truths about life did Marlow learn on his journey into the jungle?
  • What does the heart of darkness, the deepest part of the jungle, symbolize?
  • What does Kurtz's physical illness symbolize?
  • In 1890, Conrad made his own trip up the Congo River on a boat named the SS Roi des Belges. Research Conrad's trip and write an informative essay about how his experiences on the trip influenced him when he wrote Heart of Darkness.
  • Do the two women in Kurtz's life, the savage beauty in the jungle and his fiancée back in Belgium, represent two sides of Kurtz? Explain your answer.
  • Write an essay arguing that Heart of Darkness presents this motif: The appearance of things is often vastly different from its core reality. 
  • Civilization and savagery collide in Heart of Darkness. But who are the savages, the native Africans or the Europeans?
Books and Films Available at Amazon.com
The Portable Conrad
Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad: A Biography
Lord Jim on DVD
Apocalypse Now on DVD (Based on Heart of Darkness)