Heart of Darkness Book summary

Joseph Conrad




Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a novella first published in 1899. Much like the narrator of the book, Marlow, most readers at the turn of the 19th century were unaware of the atrocities that were being committed in European colonies.

 The novella is a story within a story that follows Marlow, a sailor, as he recounts his journey up the Congo River as a Steamboat captain. As he travels up the river, he begins to hear of a famous trader named Kurtz. He soon comes to realize that Kurtz’s success became possible because he sets himself up as a god among the natives of the forests that surround the river. During his journey on the Congo river, Marlow encounters various obstacles and characters that symbolize the deplorable corruption and exploitation that was prevalent during the European colonial period in Africa. The book is a critique of imperialism and a commentary on the effects of colonialism on both the colonizers and the colonized. It is regarded as a classic of English literature and a seminal work of modernist literature.

The novella explores the darker aspects of European imperialism and the psychological toll it took on those involved. The character of Kurtz represents the ultimate corruption of the colonial project, as he becomes mad with power and engages in brutal and inhumane acts. The “Heart of darkness” refers to moral decay and inhumanity that lies at the core of European imperialism. The novella also explores the theme of human nature and the thin line between civilization and savagery, suggesting that the veneer of civilization can easily be stripped away to reveal the darkness within.


Plot Summary


Heart of Darkness begins with the narrator, Marlow, reflecting on his experiences as a sailor. He is sitting on a boat with several other men, including the Director of Companies and three other men of various vocations. The men are waiting for the tide to turn so that they can set sail up the Thames river. Marlow begins to tell the story of his journey on the Congo river in Africa as a steamboat captain. He recounts how he secured the commission through the aid of his aunt, who believed that colonial work was essentially about spreading European wisdom among the African savages. Upon reaching the mouth of the river, he begins hearing of a fabled Ivory located up the river and begins to strive for a meeting with the exemplary. Kurtz. Marlow describes the journey as difficult and dangerous, with treacherous rapids and hostile local tribes. 

Along the way, he meets several colonial administrators and hears stories of Kurtz’s growing power and influence over the people. Marlow also describes the depravity and greed of the colonial enterprise in the Congo as the European companies exploit the land and resources for their gain, often at the expense of the local people. Upon arrival in Africa, he witnesses a French ship aimlessly firing cannons at the African coastline to keep the locals cowed. When he reaches the Central Station, he discovers that the boat he was to captain has been severely damaged, and it takes him three months to repair it. While working on the repairs, he learns more about the corrupt and inefficient European bureaucrats of the company. He discovers that the general manager and the brickmaker perceive Kurtz, the best ivory trader, as a threat to their positions. They both conspire on removing him from their way.

When the ship gets repaired, Marlow, along with pilgrims and natives, departs the Central Station. They sail through the dense dark forest. The trip is tiring and tremendously difficult due to the nature of the shallow river. The eerie silence of the forest is often broken by the sound of the natives beating their drums, deep in the jungle. Marlow checks for snags in the river to ensure the ship’s safety, but this is made all the more difficult by the intense blinding fog that surrounds them throughout the day. They come across a cabin in the woods, and Marlow picks up an old sailor’s handbook with something written on it in a coded language. After facing so many difficulties, when they reach the inner station, they are attacked by the natives with spears and arrows. The crew fire blindly in the forest with their rifles, but they only manage to repel the attack with the steam whistle which the natives find to be terrifying. Unfortunately, Marlow’s helmsman is one of the only men killed in combat.

When they reach the inner station, Marlow encounters a Russian trader, who provides a stark contrast to the other European traders in the Congo. He is intelligent, and sensitive and assures Marlow that the natives are simple people who attacked the ship as they didn’t want Kurtz to leave. Marlow finally reaches Kurtz’s compound and is shocked to find him in a state of physical and mental decline. Despite his weakness, Kurtz’s charisma and influence over the local people are still evident. When Kurtz is brought to the boat on a stretcher, the natives appear ready to battle, including Kurtz’s mistress, but Kurtz calms them down. The Russian realizes that General Manager might get him killed, so he slips into the forest, telling Marlow that Kurtz ordered the attack on the boat. Kurtz escapes the ship that night, and Marlow catches him crawling near a native camp.

Marlow convinces Kurtz to return to the steamship. They set sail the next day, but Kurtz is too ill to reach Europe. He hands over some confidential papers to Marlow, as he is worried that General Manager will use them for his benefit. His last words are ‘The horror! The horror!’. Marlow retires to the dining hall when a crewman comes with the news that Kurtz has died. Soon, Marlow falls sick. He returns to Europe, where he is nursed back to health by his aunt. Kurtz’s cousin visits Marlow telling him that the fabled man had been a musician. Marlow somehow gathers the nerve to visit Kurtz’s fiancee, who has been in mourning for a year. She is dressed in black, and Marlow hides the truth from her that Kurtz didn’t utter her name from his mouth when he died. He spares her the truth of Kurtz’s actions in the Congo.

Marlow is deeply affected by what he has seen and experienced. The novel ends with Marlow pondering the ‘heart of darkness’ that lies within human nature and how imperialisation and colonization can bring out the very worst in people.

  • Author(s)

    Joseph Conrad
  • Publication date

    1899 serial; 1902 book

  • Language


  • Classification

    Historical fiction

  • Pages





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