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A Summary of Heart of Darkness & Analysis by Joseph Conrad


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A Summary of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad, a Polish-English novelist, wrote the novella, “Heart of Darkness,” in 1899. The novella is a tale of one Charles Marlow, a sailor who is assigned a mission by a trading company from Belgium, only called the Company in the narration, as the captain of a ferry-boat into the interior of Africa. Most analysts regard the novella as Conrad’s critique of the effects of European imperialism on Africa, whilst praising it for the novelist’s careful exploration of the themes of morality and power dynamics. Much as the author refrains from mentioning the exact river along which the narrations occur, at the novella’s composition, the Congo Free State, where the enormous and economically significant River Congo was located, was Belgium’s King Leopold II’s private colony. Marlow receives a text from Kurtz, a trader dealing in ivory at a station located far up the river. Kurtz has since gone native ad is Marlow’s expedition intention, the story tells.

Conrad’s work expresses the idea that only so much differentiates civilized persons from savages. His composition is an implicit commentary on racism and imperialism. The work’s setting offers Marlow’s story framework, as he tells of his obsession with Kurtz, a successful ivory trader. The novelist provides parallels between Africa as the dark places and London, which he regards as the most sophisticated town on earth. The novella has been re-produced and translated into numerous languages since its original publication in three parts in commemoration of the 1000th edition of the “Blackwood’s Magazine.” The novella was the inspiration behind “Apocalypse Now,” a 1979 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Furthermore, the Modern Library listed Conrad’s work on the list of one hundred best novels written in English over the twentieth century in 1998, listing it at number sixty-seven. This paper presents an in-depth summary of Conrad’s work, principally highlighting the plot and a presenting a brief summary. The analysis reveals that much of the work is on the effects of European imperialism in Africa written from a Westerner’s perspective and failing to capture and infuse the perspectives of the natives.

Plot Summary of “Heart of Summary”

Charles Marlow narrates the tale of how he came to captain a river steamboat belonging to an ivory trading company, Company, to his friends. He indicates that he was always fascinated by what he calls blank spaces existing on maps, especially Africa, as a child. He indicates that he was majorly attracted to images of rivers on maps. He tells his narrative in a flashback, where he goes to Africa using a steamer. According to the narration, Marlow travels about fifty kilometers (thirty miles) up the river to the Company’s location. He finds ongoing work on a railroad, prompting him to explore the nature of the ravine in the region. The character indicates that he is terrified to discover a region filled with critically ill Africans who formerly worked on the railway and are now on the cusps of death. He now must spend ten days waiting for an assignment at the Outer Station owned by the company. He meets the chief account, who informs him of Kurtz, telling him that he (Kurtz) was in charge of a critical trading post, describing him as an esteemed first-class agent. The account tells of his belief that Kurtz would scale greater heights working at the same rate.

After the ten days, Marlow leaves in the company of sixty men to journey to the Central Station, where a steamboat lays in wait for his command. He learns while at the station that the steamboat had been destroyed in an accident. He hears from the general manager that he could not wait for his arrival, rumoring that Kurtz had been taken ill. Marlow resorts to fish boat from the water, spending months on repair works. Delayed by the lack of spare parts and working tools, the character is frustrated by the duration he had to take to complete the repairs. During this time, he learns of the manager’s resentment for Kurtz, not the admiration he had initially been told. He finishes working on the boat, sets sail, and spends two months towards Kurtz’s station. The seafaring pauses after about thirteen kilometers (eight miles), the journey pauses for a night’s rest. Marlow narrates that they woke up to a fog-filled morning, where the boat was fully enveloped in the thick precipitation. The locals attack the steamboat using arrows, killing the helmsman and prompting Marlow to repeatedly sound the steam whistle to frighten the assailants away.

A man boards Marlow’s boat upon landing at Kurtz’s station. Marlow discovers that the stranger was wanderer from Russia who had strayed into Kurtz’s station. The narrator also tells of how he learned that the locals worshipped Kurtz, noting that the latter had been critically sick lately. The narration indicates at this point that Kurtz had been involved in numerous brutal raids for ivory in the neighboring territory. There is a collection of many severed native heads around the station’s fence posts as testimony to Kurtz’s methods. The stranger, now on board, tells Marlow about Kurtz’s open mindedness and how he admires him even for his willingness and power to use his brains. Marlow begins to speculate that Kurtz had gone mad. Kurtz’s pilgrims stretcher him out of his house, causing a mammoth of native warriors to come out of the forest and surround them (Kurtz, Marlow, the Russian, and the crew) ready for an attack. Kurtz has a short talk with the pilgrims before they go back into the jungle.

Kurtz’s entourage carries him to the steamboat, laying him in the cabin. An attractive native woman, seemingly a mistress of Kurtz’s, appears at bank, staring out at the steamer. The Russian opines that the woman has been involved with the sick Kurtz, and that she had been the cause of trouble in the past because of her control over him. One further learns that the Russian informs Marlow, after he swears him to secrecy, that the attack on the boat was Kurtz’s making. He says that Kurtz wanted the crew to believe that he was dead so that the company could leave him to his plans. Marlow also learns from the manager that Kurtz has critically harmed the Company and its business using his unsound methods.

The strange Russian further reveals to Marlow that Kurtz is convicted that the company is out to kill him, where Marlow affirms that hangings were discussed. The Russian then paddles off using a canoe, afraid of the manager’s displeasure. Readers also discover that Kurtz vanishes in the night, prompting Marlow to go seeking for him, only to find him crawling on all fours, as he approaches the native camp. At this time, Marlow pleads with him to go back to the ship. The crew sets off down the Congo the following morning even though they discover that his health is fast failing.

The steamer also breaks down during the trip, as they stop for repairs. Kurtz hands over a bunch of papers to Marlow, including a photograph and his commissioned report, informing him to keep them hidden from the manager. Kurtz is near death the next time Marlow speaks to him. He hears him only frailly as he whispers, “The horror!” twice before a manager’s boy tells the crew that he had died a few moments later. Marlow only gives Kurtz’s pilgrims little attention the next day as they burry Kurtz in a muddy hole, whom he referred to as “something.”

Marlow returns to Europe contemptuous and embittered of what he thinks of as the “civilized” world. A host of callers seek to retrieve the papers that he had received from Kurtz but Marlow denies them, only releasing those in which he had no interest. He delivers Kurtz’s report to a media personality, asking them to publish the documents if they consider it fit. However, Marlow retains the photograph of Kurtz’s fiancée and some personal letters. The character (Kurtz’s lover) is still in a deep mourning state when Marlow visits her even when it has been over a year since his burial. The woman presses Marlow to give as much information about her lover as he could, insisting on his final words. Marlow informs her that Kurtz had mentioned her name at his last breathe. For this case, readers discover that Marlow does not want to shutter her illusions by telling the truth about Kurtz and how he died.

A Short Analysis of “Heart of Darkness”

Readers can understand “Heart of Darkness” using its semiautobiographical association with the novelist’s life at the most superficial level. Conrad’s career, much like the protagonist, Marlow, also took him sailing up the Congo. Conrad was also profoundly affected by his witnessing of human depravity while on his boat expedition of European imperialism across Africa, much like Marlow. However, it is overtly reductive for any reader to boil down the novella to the commonalities existing between it and the author’s experiences. For this case, it would useful to study “Heart of Darkness” elements that are critical to the birth of modernism. For instance, the author’s utilization of multiple narrators, the narrative’s achronological unfolding, his infusion of one story within another narrative, and as it would be popularized over the 20th century, and the novelist’s most post-structuralist distrust in language stability. The narrative simultaneously pays reverence to Victorian rales on which Conrad grew up, evidenced by the common heroism so foundational to his tale’s narrative. In this sense, readers understand the novel as a straddle of the demarcation between a waxing modernist sensibility and a waning Victorian one.

The type of post-structuralist language treatment—his insisting that words cannot inherently express the real—is among Conrad’s most resoundingly modernist aspects existing in his work. Readers find that Marlow’s journey is filled with encounters with unspeakable things, with unprintable words, and with an eminently inscrutable world. This way, language repeatedly fails what it is supposed to achieve—to communicate. The phenomenon is best summarized in Marlow’s communication with his audience, when he says that it is not possible to depict the life-sensation of an epoch of a person’s existence—that which constitutes its meaning and truth—its penetrating and subtle essence, and that people live as they dream alone. Further, readers find that eloquent as he was, Kurtz failed to adequately speak of the horrifying darkness he had observed around him, resorted to twice say, “The horror! A few critics have argued that the novella’s appeal to the masses results from its ambiguity in language, the free rein the book allows the audience to interpret. Still, others insist that this aspect is the work’s greatest weakness, perceiving the novelist’s incapacity to name things as an unlikely value in a writer who they regard as one of the best in literature. Albeit, this aspect is itself an evidence to the breadth of how “Heart of Darkness” may be interpreted.

An examination of the text from a post-imperialist standpoint has paved the way for the emergence of more derisive critiques. For instance, some think that the novelist was a thoroughgoing racist out to maltreat and dehumanize Africans so that he could utilize them as a backdrop on which he could explore the interiority of the White man. This perspective is mostly right, considering that as much as Conrad rebuked the evils of imperialism, he did only so much to destroy the racism undergirding the system. Rather, he chose to posit the African natives as one element of the natural environment. Notably, Conrad’s work has been regarded as being among the West’s most insightful readings concerning European colonialism on the African continent but it does not assign any significance and particularity to the inhabitants and natives of the continent themselves. Altogether, readers can get glimpses of life in colonial Congo and Africa at large, concluding that the West was out to benefit from the resource-rich “empty space” of Africa at the expense of the natives.



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