Heart of Darkness (1899) is a short novel by Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, written as a frame narrative, about Charles Marlow’s life as an ivory transporter down the Congo River in Central Africa. The river is “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” In the course of his travel in central Africa, Marlow becomes obsessed with Mr. Kurtz.
The story is a complex exploration of the attitudes people hold on what constitutes a barbarian versus a civilized society and the attitudes on colonialism and racism that were part and parcel of European imperialism. Originally published as a three-part serial story, in Blackwood’s Magazine, the novella Heart of Darkness has been variously published and translated into many languages. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as the sixty-seventh of the hundred best novels in English of the twentieth century.[amazon_link asins=’0486264645,1619490242,037575377X,0393264866,1542047471,0312457537,0553212141′ template=’CopyOf-ProductCarousel’ store=’wiki01d-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’c5e6afc7-992c-11e7-891c-55fd78ad74e2′]
Aboard the Nellie, anchored in the River Thames near Gravesend, England, Charles Marlow tells his fellow sailors about the events that led to his appointment as captain of a river-steamboat for an ivory trading company. He describes his passage on ships into the wilderness to the Company’s station, which strikes Marlow as a scene of devastation: disorganized, machinery parts here and there, periodic demolition explosions, weakened native black men who have been demoralized, in chains, literally being worked to death, and strolling beside them an African guard in a uniform carrying a rifle. At this station, Marlow meets the Company’s chief accountant who tells him of a Mr. Kurtz and explains that Kurtz is a first-class agent.
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Marlow leaves with a caravan to travel on foot some two hundred miles deeper into the wilderness to the Central Station, where the steamboat that he is to captain is based. Marlow is shocked to learn that his steamboat had been wrecked two days before his arrival. The manager explains that they needed to take the steamboat upriver because of rumors that an important station was in jeopardy and that its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill. Marlow describes the Company men at this station as lazy back-biting “pilgrims”, fraught with envy and jealousy, all trying to gain a higher status within the Company, which in turn, would provide more personal profit; however, they sought these goals in a meaningless, ineffective and lazy manner, mixed with a sense that they were all merely waiting, while trying to stay out of harm’s way. After fishing his boat out of the river, Marlow is frustrated by the months spent on repairs. During this time, he learns that Kurtz is far from admired, but is more or less resented (mostly by the manager). Not only is Kurtz’s position at the Inner Station a highly envied position, but the sentiment seems to be that Kurtz is undeserving of it, as he received the appointment only by his European connections.
Once underway, the journey up-river to the Inner Station, Kurtz’s station, takes two months to the day. On board are the manager, three or four “pilgrims” and some twenty “cannibals” enlisted as crew.
They come to rest for the night about eight miles below the Inner Station. In the morning they awake to find that they are enveloped by a thick, white fog. From the riverbank, they hear a very loud cry, followed by a discordant clamor. A few hours later, as safe navigation becomes increasingly difficult, the steamboat is hit with a barrage of sticks—small arrows—from the wilderness. The Pilgrims open fire into the bush with their Winchester rifles. The native serving as helmsman gives up steering to pick up a rifle and fire it. Marlow grabs the wheel to avoid snags in the river. The helmsman is impaled by a spear and falls at Marlow’s feet. Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly, causing the shower of arrows to cease. Marlow and a pilgrim watch the helmsman die, and Marlow forces the pilgrim to take the wheel so that he can fling his blood-soaked shoes overboard. Marlow presumes (wrongly) that Kurtz is dead. In a flash forward, Marlow notes that the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs commissioned Kurtz to write a report, which he did eloquently. A footnote in the report, written much later, states “Exterminate all the brutes!” (Later, Kurtz entreats Marlow to take good care of the pamphlet.) Marlow does not believe Kurtz was worth the lives that were lost in trying to find him. After putting on a pair of slippers, Marlow returns to the wheel-house and resumes steering. By this time the manager is there and expresses a strong desire to turn back. At that moment the Inner Station comes into view.
At Kurtz’s station, Marlow sees a man on the riverbank waving his arm, urging them to land. Because of his expressions and gestures, and all the colorful patches on his clothing, the man reminds Marlow of a harlequin. The pilgrims, heavily armed, escort the manager to retrieve Mr. Kurtz. The harlequin-like man, who turns out to be a Russian, boards the steamboat. The Russian is a wanderer who happened to stray into Kurtz’s camp. Through conversation, Marlow discovers just how wanton Kurtz could be, how the natives worshipped him, and how very ill he had been of late. The Russian admires Kurtz for his intellect and his insights into love, life, and justice. The Russian seems to admire Kurtz even for his power—and for his willingness to use it. Marlow suggests that Kurtz has gone mad.
From the steamboat, through a telescope, Marlow can observe the station in detail and is surprised to see near the station house a row of posts topped with disembodied heads of natives. Around the corner of the house, the manager appears with the pilgrims, bearing Kurtz on an improvised stretcher. The area fills with natives, apparently ready for battle. Marlow can see Kurtz shouting on the stretcher. The pilgrims carry Kurtz to the steamer and lay him in one of the cabins. A beautiful native woman walks in measured steps along the shore and stops next to the steamer. She raises her arms above her head and then walks back into the bushes. The Russian informs Marlow that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer. The Russian refers to a canoe waiting for him and notes how delightful it was to hear Kurtz recite poetry. Marlow and the Russian then part ways.
After midnight, Marlow discovers that Kurtz has left his cabin on the steamer and returned to shore. Marlow goes ashore and finds a very weak Kurtz making his way back to his station—although not too weak to call to the natives. Marlow appreciates his serious situation, and when Kurtz begins in a threatening tone, Marlow interjects that his “success in Europe is assured in any case”; at this, Kurtz allows Marlow to help him back to the steamer. The next day they prepare for their departure. The natives, including the native woman, once again assemble on shore and begin to shout. Marlow, seeing the pilgrims readying their rifles, sounds the steam whistle repeatedly to scatter the crowd on shore. Only the woman remains unmoved, with outstretched arms. The Pilgrims open fire. The current carries them swiftly downstream.
Kurtz’s health worsens, and Marlow himself becomes increasingly ill. The Steamboat having broken down and being under repair, Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers with a photograph. As Kurtz dies, Marlow hears him weakly whisper: “The horror! The horror!”
Marlow blows out the candle and tries to act as though nothing has happened when he joins the other pilgrims, who are eating in the messroom with the manager. In a short while, the “manager’s boy” appears and announces in a scathing tone: “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” Next day Marlow pays little attention to the pilgrims as they bury “something” in a muddy hole. Marlow falls very sick, himself near death.
Upon his return to Europe, Marlow is embittered. He distributes the bundle of papers Kurtz had entrusted to him: Marlow gives the paper entitled “Suppression of Savage Customs” (with the postscript torn off) to a representative of the company that employed both him and Kurtz, knowing that the man was really looking for papers that might disclose the whereabouts of ivory, and not a humanistic treatise. The company representative refuses the document. To another man, who claims to be Kurtz’s cousin, Marlow gives family letters and memoranda of no importance. To a journalist, he gives the report on the suppression of savage customs for publication if the journalist sees fit. Finally, Marlow is left with some personal letters and the photograph of a girl’s portrait—Kurtz’s fiancée, whom Kurtz referred to as “My Intended”. When Marlow visits her, she is dressed in black and still deep in mourning, although it is more than a year since Kurtz’s death. She presses Marlow for information, asking him to repeat Kurtz’s final words. Uncomfortable, Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz’s final word was her name.