Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Summary

At the beginning of the novella Heart of Darkness Marlow, a thoughtful mariner, sets off a journey up to the Congo River to meet Kurtz, a man known for his great abilities. Marlow is offered a job as a riverboat captain by a Belgian Company to trade in the Congo. As he travels to Africa and then up the Congo, Marlow encounters prevalent disorganization and cruelty in the Company's stations. The native inhabitants of that region have been enforced in the Company's service, and they undergo a terrible overwork and ill treatment at the hands of the Company's agents.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

Marlow arrives at the Central Station that was run by the general manager, a conspiratorial character. He has been trapped there because his steamship has been sunk. He spends several months waiting for the parts to repair it. While his stay at the central station, his interest in Kurtz grows. The manager and the brick maker seem to be afraid of Kurtz as he can be a great threat to their position. It is rumored that Kurtz is severely ill, so the repair of the sunken ship is delayed. Marlow finally gets the parts he needs to repair his ship. After the maintenance of the ship the manager sets out with a few agents and a crew of cannibals on a long, difficult voyage up the river. The dense jungle and the deadening silence make everyone aboard a little nervous and the occasional glimpse of a native village and the sound of drums worse the situation.

Marlow and his crew arrive at a hut with stacked firewood. It is written on a note saying that the wood is for them, but they should approach the fire very cautiously. Shortly after the steamboat has taken on the firewood, it is surrounded by a dense fog. When the fog clears, the ship is attacked by an unseen group of natives, who throw arrows from the forest. The African helmsman, a crew member of the ship, is killed. After sometime, Marlow frightens the natives away with the ship's steam whistle.

Marlow and his companions arrive at Kurtz's Inner Station, thinking that Kurtz might have died. They come ashore and meet a half-crazed Russian trader, who assures them that everything is fine and informs them that he is the one who left the wood. The Russian claims that Kurtz has gone mad and cannot be explained on the normal moral judgment. Marlow finds that Kurtz has established himself as a god with the natives and has gone on several brutal raids in the surrounding territory in search of ivory. The method of his raids for the collection of ivory is very brutal and barbaric which can be proved by the human heads hanging on the fence posts. The pilgrims bring Kurtz out of the station-house on a stretcher, and suddenly a large group of native warriors comes out of the forest and surrounds them. Kurtz speaks to them, and the natives disappear into the woods.

When the manager brings Kurtz, who is quite ill, aboard the steamer, a beautiful native woman, seemingly Kurtz's mistress, appears on the shore and glares at the ship. The Russian reveals to Marlow, after vowing him to secrecy, that Kurtz himself had ordered the attack on the boat to make them believe he was dead so that they might turn back and leave him to his plans. The Russian then leaves the crew in the boat and sails by canoe. The same night, Kurtz disappears and Marlow goes out in search of him. He finds him crawling on all fours toward the native camp saying that he has to be there for a ritual. Marlow stops him and convinces him to return to the ship. They set off down the river the next morning, but Kurtz's health is degrading very fast.

Marlow listens very carefully to Kurtz talk while he guides the ship, and Kurtz entrusts Marlow with a packet of personal documents, including a pamphlet on civilizing the savages which ends with a unclear message that says, "Exterminate all the brutes!" The steamer breaks down, and they have to stop for repairs. Meanwhile, Kurtz dies, uttering his last words—"The horror! The horror! "—in the presence of the bewildered Marlow. Marlow falls ill soon after and luckily survives. When he returns to Europe and goes to see Kurtz's his fiancée, she is still in mourning, even though it has been over a year since Kurtz's death. She praises him as a paragon of virtue and achievement. She asks what his last words were, but Marlow cannot shatter her illusions with the truth. Instead, he tells her that Kurtz's last word was her name.