Michael J. Cummings...©
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 “The
Lawyer" lies on a carpet while one called “The Accountant" arranges dominoes
into imaginary buildings. A third man, Marlow, sits back against the mizzenmast.
unnamed narrator describing the scene says Marlow “had sunken cheeks, a
yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms
dropped, the palms of hands outward, resembled an idol."
sun is setting. Marlow observes that the great city they see before them
is “one of the dark places of the earth." He then begins telling them a
story about another dark place–the 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.)
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 “stations."
Marlow’s mission was to travel more than 200 miles inland, partly on foot
but mostly by river steamer, to a company outpost called “the Inner Station"
(as opposed to “Outer" and “Central" stations along the way). Upon his
arrival at the Inner Station, he was to reconnoiter the activities of the
outpost’s 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.
is the story that Marlow narrates about his adventure:
a month’s sea voyage, he arrives on the shore of Africa and must travel
the first 30 miles inland, to the company’s 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, “Who knows? The sun too much for him, or the
arriving at the Outer Station, Marlow observes natives building a railroad
and setting off dynamite. He is struck by their emaciation.
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."
are prisoners. What crime had they committed? Perhaps the crime of simply
being available for white Europeans to exploit. “They were not criminals,"
Marlow says, “they were nothing earthly now–nothing but black shadows of
disease and starvation in the greenish gloom."
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?
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 Kurtz’s 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 Kurtz’s removal.
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.
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 find–a scrap of this, a piece of that.
During this time, a gang of men who call themselves the Eldorado Exploring
Expedition visits the station. “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the
land was their desire," Marlow says, “with no more moral purpose at the
back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe."
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 Marlow’s 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 steamer’s fire
and, to his surprise, finds a pile stacked near a hut and a note telling
the finder to help himself.
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, Marlow’s 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.
the boat is under way again, Marlow dumps the body overboard–a 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
“pilgrims," are the ones who are hard to control. They are ever ready to
shoot at anything that moves; it is all good sport.
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.
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 god–“bad,
very bad," the Russian says.
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 Kurtz’s house, paying homage.
was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there," Marlow says.
“They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification
of his various lusts . . . ."
observes that Kurtz–in spite of his genius as an ivory trader and his ability
to dazzle and manipulate the natives–is actually a victim of the jungle,
the heart of darkness.
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
solitude–and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating."
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
later, Marlow observes savage-looking natives bearing Kurtz on a stretcher
to a cabin at the site.
could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving,"
Marlow says. “It 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."
and his men have a stack of letters for Kurtz–missives which had collected
to await delivery–and they take them to the sick man. Kurtz fingers them
and acknowledges their receipt in a surprisingly robust voice.
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 Kurtz’s mistress.
later, the manager of the Outer Station visits Kurtz and receives a browbeating
for saying he wants to “save" Kurtz–that is, take him out of the jungle.
are interrupting my plans now," Kurtz tells the manager. “Sick! Sick! Not
so sick as you would like to believe."
the district manager later pulls Marlow aside, he says Kurtz’s methods
are unsound and is doing more harm than good for the company. Marlow observes
that Kurtz is a “remarkable man." The district manager says, “He was."
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.
the Russian prepares to return to civilization after receiving ammunition
and supplies from Marlow. Before leaving by canoe, he tells Marlow of Kurtz’s
talent for reciting his own poetry.
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 “lost"
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.
was on the threshold of great things," Kurtz says.
jungle holds a spell over him; he simply does not want to give up. Kurtz’s
soul, Marlow says, has gone mad. Yet Marlow manages to prevail.
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, Marlow’s
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 fright–all
except for that savagely beautiful woman, who reaches out her arms toward
the boat. And then crewmen open fire.
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. “Oh, I will wring your heart yet," 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, “I am lying here in the dark waiting for death."
long after he dies. The last words Marlow hears him speak are “The horror!
Kurtz is aware of the depth of evil into which he plunged himself.
The next day, the crewmen bury him in a “muddy hole."
year after his return to Belgium, Marlow gives the packet of papers to
the person for whom they were intended, Kurtz’s fiancée, who mourns
his loss, saying he was such a remarkable man, such a good man. “Men looked
up to him–his goodness shone in his every act." When she asks Marlow about
Kurtz’s last moments, he lies: “The last word he pronounced was–your name."
Marlow ends his story, he resumes his pose, looking like an idol, a Buddha.
The unnamed narrator aboard observes at that moment–as black clouds appear
in an overcast sky–that the Thames, as it flows out to sea, “seemed to
lead into the heart of an immense darkness."
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
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.
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.
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
Kurtz's native mistress, African tribesmen, cannibals who serve on Marlow's
steamboat, white Europeans who serve on the same boat.
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 Kurtz–the tangling undergrowth
of evil desires that seize control of his soul–as the jungle without.
Type of Work and Themes
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:
Structure: Frame Tale
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 Homer’s 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 atavisms–feral, 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 sides–some good, some
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 scene–a port along the Thames
River near London as the sun begins to set–and describes the captain and
the crewmen, one of whom is Charles Marlow, the second narrator.
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 “heart of darkness." Marlow’s tale continues
uninterrupted except at short breaks when the first narrator describes
Marlow’s demeanor or appearance, or informs the reader of the time of night,
as the tale progresses. A literary work with an “outer narrator" who introduces
an “inner narrator" (such as Marlow) is often referred to as a frame
tale. The outer narrator’s story is like the frame around a painting;
the inner narrator’s story is the painting itself.
develops Marlow’s story with an ingenious mix of elegant imagery and everyday
language–the latter including truncated sentences and colloquialisms–expressed
through Marlow’s intimate first-person narration. Occasionally Marlow addresses
the reader with the second-person “you." Overall the writing is first rate,
with rich characterization that provides insights into the psychological
motivations and moral convictions–or lack of them–of his characters. Descriptions
of exploited Africans are striking:
They were dying
slowly–it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals,
they were nothing earthly now–nothing 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 young–almost a boy–but
you know with them it’s hard to tell. I found nothing else to do but to
offer him one of my good Swede’s ship’s biscuits I had in my pocket. The
fingers closed slowly on it and held–there was no other movement and no
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
Congo River and the Country in Conrad's Time
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
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
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.
birth name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski.When
he was a child, Conrad learned about the great English authors–including
Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, and Sir Walter Scott–from 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.
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.
first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published in 1895, marking the
first time he used the name Joseph Conrad instead of his birth name. Many
other distinguished works–including
The Nigger of the Narcissus,
of Darkness, Lord Jim,
Typhoon, and Nostromo–followed
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
Books and Films Available
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
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.
an essay arguing that Heart of Darkness presents this motif: The
appearance of things is often vastly different from its core reality.
and savagery collide in Heart of Darkness. But who are the savages,
the native Africans or the Europeans?
Companion to Joseph Conrad
Conrad: A Biography
Jim on DVD
Now on DVD (Based on Heart of Darkness)