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Originally published as a serialised novella in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 and as a book in 1902, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is a classic of English literature, and is often regarded as one of the greatest novels in the English language.
The novella has experienced its share of controversy since its publication. The 1975 lecture by Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe, Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, serves as a forewarning to the text’s stereotypical depiction of Africans as primitive and uncivilised. Despite the text’s limitations, Heart of Darkness remains an illuminating insight into the horrors of European imperialism.
Joseph Conrad confronted English readers with the dark realities of the colonial project that were masked beneath noble ideals of British sovereignty and greatness. The complex and nuanced writing style of Heart of Darkness makes it a text worth analysing and challenging.
Here’s a summary of the novella's main plot points:
The text in quotation marks is directly quoted from the book.
A group of men on a boat called the Nellie off the bank of the River Thames, waiting for the tide to turn. Charlie Marlow begins to tell the story of his time in the Congo. Determined to explore the Congo region, Marlow had taken up a job with a nameless trading ‘Company’ helming a steamboat and its ivory cargo up the Congo river.
After a thirty-day trip, Marlow arrives at the mouth of the Congo River. There, he encounters men enchained and tortured, who the Company say are criminals. He meets the Company Accountant, who tells Marlow of a ‘remarkable man’ named Kurtz who sends in the most ivory out of all Company employees. When Marlow arrives at the central station, his sleazy Manager tells him that Marlow’s steamboat has sunk.
Marlow sets off to the interior station with a group of ‘cannibal’ natives onboard, who help man the ship. On the way up, a ‘roll of drums’ can often be heard, and Marlow feels like ‘going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world’.
A thick fog obstructs the view, and ‘a very loud cry’ is heard coming from its depths. Suddenly, arrows come hurtling towards the crew, one of them fatally wounding a native, Marlow’s ‘helmsman’. He thinks if the natives are attacking the crew onboard, Kurtz must surely be dead. He feels ‘sorrow’ at the thought that he ‘lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz’.
The men on the Nellie sigh at this, and Marlow gets defensive and explains why he was so fascinated by Kurtz. He says that Kurtz wrote an ‘eloquent’ report for the 'Society of the Suppression of Savage Customs' before he went mad and started participating in ‘unspeakable’ rituals with the natives. After Kurtz went mad, he added ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ at the bottom.
Marlow returns to his story and finally, the steamboat arrives at the interior station. Marlow sees decapitated ‘heads on stakes’ outside the station and finds out that Kurtz makes the natives crawl around him.
Marlow sees Kurtz for the first time when a group of natives appears carrying the skeletal Kurtz on a stretcher. Marlow describes him as an ‘animated image of death carved out of old ivory’. The Russian, one of Kurtz’s ‘disciples’, tells Marlow to keep Kurtz’s crimes a secret when he returns to Europe to preserve his ‘reputation’.
At night, Marlow gets up to see Kurtz ‘crawling on all-fours’ back into the forest. Marlow carries him back to the boat and they leave the next day. The pilgrims shoot at the natives on the shore. One evening, a look comes over Kurtz’s face and he utters his final words, ‘The horror! The horror!’. A native boy declares ‘Mistah Kurtz - he dead’.
Marlow returns to the ‘sepulchral city’ in Europe and feels isolated, as other people don’t know all that he does. He is visited by an official-looking man, who asks for Kurtz’s writings. Marlow decides to give him the report, but leaves out ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’. Marlow visits Kurtz’s fiancée, who begs Marlow to tell her what Kurtz’s final words were. He lies and says his final words were ‘your name’.
The narrative shifts back to the present moment on the Nellie and the frame narrator remarks that the boat seemed to be heading towards ‘the heart of an immense darkness’.
Let’s take a deep dive into the key literary devices in Heart of Darkness.
Heart of Darkness is set in the late 19th century during the height of European imperialism in Asia and Africa. Although an exact date is not given, we can estimate that Marlow’s story is set circa 1889 to 1890, as the novella is based on Joseph Conrad's own trip to the Congo during that time. Thus the 'present-day' setting of Heart of Darkness is actually sometime later in the decade.
The novella starts out in the present-day setting of the boat Nellie on the River Thames, but the main setting is the Congo River, where Marlow’s story takes place.
The key settings of the novella are:
Due to its short length, Heart of Darkness is considered a novella. It also has elements of the mystery and horror genres.
Marlow’s story is told orally, in quotation marks, which calls to mind the oral tradition of storytelling. We get the sense that Marlow will tell a tale of an epic quest, but this expectation is left as unfulfilled as Kurtz is ‘hollow’. This quality makes the novella a satire of an epic quest narrative.
In literature, satire is a mode of writing that aims to ridicule, expose, and critique flawed traits, behaviours, and actions. This is often done implicitly through the clever use of techniques such as wit, humour, irony, exaggeration, and incongruity.
The novella also subverts the genre of a colonial adventure story, a popular genre in the Victorian period (think Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe and Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson).
The novella is told through the frame narrative device with two narrators: Marlow’s narration of his story is framed by an unnamed frame narrator, who is with Marlow on the Nellie.
A frame narrative is a story-within-a-story. It is a literary device that creates a layered narrative, with one story being framed by another story.
Imagine the objective events that took place in the Congo are a painting (it would be quite a scary painting). Then imagine that Marlow puts a border on this painting made of white construction paper and writes ‘My time in the Congo’ at the bottom. After him, the unnamed narrator comes along and puts a black border around Marlow’s and writes ‘Marlow’s story’ beneath it. Finally, Conrad puts another border around it and writes at the bottom, ‘The narrator’s account of Marlow’s story’- also known as Heart of Darkness.
The novella can be said to follow a linear structure, as the unnamed narrator documents the events that happen on the Nellie from beginning to end. However, Marlow's story-within-a-story is non-linear, as his narration does not follow a chronological order, but is instead structured around his stream of consciousness.
The novella has two narrators, Marlow and an unnamed narrator.
Marlow is an unreliable narrator and he makes this clear to the reader:
...the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber…" Part I
Marlow presents his perspective as flawed and limited from the outset of his story, as he cannot remember his time in the Congo clearly.
The unnamed narrator on the Nellie is the one who writes down Marlow's story. We get the sense that he has been captivated by Marlow’s story, and is compelled to share it:
I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative." Part I
Could the unnamed narrator also be unreliable, if he admits being personally impacted by Marlow's story?
Let’s take a closer look at the main characters in the novella. All the characters except Marlow and Kurtz are unnamed.
Marlow tells the story of his time as the captain of a steamboat going up the Congo to collect ivory. At present, Marlow resembles a ‘Buddha’, sat cross-legged like he is meditating as he tells his story. He is also described as sickly with ‘sunken cheeks’ (Part I).
Marlow is critical of the cruel practices of Imperialism going on around him, stating from the outset:
The conquest of the earth… is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." Part I
Marlow gradually becomes obsessed with Kurtz, eventually saying he is his ‘devoted friend’. Although Marlow hates lies, he ends up lying to Kurtz’s fiancée when he tells her that Kurtz’s last words were her name.
Kurtz is a megalomaniac who has made the natives believe he is a god, when in fact he is no more than a dictator. Kurtz is a successful ivory trader and a very skilled speaker and writer. He is so persuasive that the Congolese natives and Europeans alike are entranced by him.
Kurtz wrote a report for the ‘Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs’ where he argued that the foreign white man must appear to the natives as a god, giving him immense power over them. Kurtz became power-crazed when he realised he could do anything to the natives. For example, he makes natives crawl towards him and kills those who go against him, mounting their heads on stakes.
Kurtz only recognises ‘The horror! The horror!’ of his monstrous actions in his final words (Part III).
The Accountant is one of the Company’s employees. Marlow meets the Accountant when he first arrives in the Congo and is amazed by his being so well-dressed and groomed.
The Accountant is obsessed with his clerical work, which makes him apathetic when a sick man is moved into his office to recover, calling it a distraction. The Accountant is the first person to bring up Kurtz to Marlow.
The Manager lives at the central station, where Marlow first meets him. His strange smile ‘inspires uneasiness’ in Marlow because it makes everything he says sound insincere (Part I).
The Manager feels that Kurtz is a threat to his position in the Company and it is implied that the Manager sabotaged Marlow’s steamboat on purpose to starve out Kurtz.
The Russian, or ‘the Harlequin’, is a freelance trader who lives by the inner station where Kurtz is based.
A commedia dell'arte stock character. The Harlequin is a simple-minded gentleman's servant.
He calls himself a ‘simple man’ (Part III), and he practically worships Kurtz, whom he says has ‘enlarged’ his mind.
The Intended is Kurtz’s fiancée, who Marlow goes to see after he has returned from the Congo. She believes she knows Kurtz best.
The novella explores a wealth of contrasting themes, such as civilisation and wilderness, reality and dream-like unreality, fascination versus repulsion, the Other, and the coloniser. For now, let’s take a deep dive into the novella’s central themes of identity and morality in relation to imperialism.
Heart of Darkness places importance on individuality and the ability to think independently in the novella. Characters who don’t think for themselves are depicted negatively, as they are left nameless, being called ‘the Manager’ or ‘the pilgrims’.
If you lack a strong sense of self and don’t think for yourself, you become easier to manipulate and control by people who do. The character of the Russian is a good example of this: he is blindly devoted to Kurtz, staying with him even after Kurtz threatens to kill him. He has no sense of himself and lacks independent thought, which makes him latch on to Kurtz, unable to address Kurtz’s actions critically.
But I don’t understand these matters. I am a simple man." Part III
Marlow admires Kurtz for his individuality, so he chooses to preserve his memory in the end. Marlow believes that there are two versions of Kurtz, the ‘original’ Kurtz and the ‘hollow’ Kurtz:
The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham." Part III.
It is the ‘original’ version of Kurtz that had not yet given into dark urges, going mad with greed and power, that Marlow wants to preserve. Therefore he lies to Kurtz’s Intended. He also saves the 'noble' part of his report with the notion that the coloniser can use his power for ‘unbounded good’, but leaves out the bit written by the hollow Kurtz (‘Exterminate all the brutes!’).
Marlow also admires Kurtz’s ability to come to his own moral conclusions when he recognises the evil of his actions: ‘The horror! The horror!’ because he thinks he wouldn’t be able to do the same:
I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it.' Part III.
The novel's complex exploration of identity opens up many questions. Why was Marlow so drawn to Kurtz? Was his appreciation for him fuelled by madness brought on by the Congo climate? Was it wrong of Marlow to want to preserve Kurtz's memory? Why did he see merit in Kurtz's ideas?
Conrad portrays imperialism as evil and fundamentally greedy, as it is all about making a profit from an exploitative trade. The greed of imperialism makes the ‘coloniser’ cold and ruthless. The greedy Manager, Brickmaker, and Kurtz are all described as hollow inside, as if their greed had emptied their moral character to make space for material possessions.
Confronted with a wild world that they see as entirely different from their 'civilised' societies, the Congo reminds Europeans of prehistoric times, which makes them want to abandon all social and moral norms.
In the 19th century, a new understanding of the origins of humans was emerging due to Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution:
The wildness of the jungle and the seemingly uncivilised way of life of the natives reminds the Europeans of the ‘First Ages’ when humans behaved without regard for social and moral norms:
I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness— that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions." Part III
Marlow thinks that it is natural to feel animalistic urges, but what is important is self-restraint, which Kurtz lacked because Imperialist greed got to him.
But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff— with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief." Part II
What Marlow is saying here is that you need to have your own moral values and genuinely believe that violence is wrong, rather than just blindly following social and moral norms, as these won’t hold up when you are in the jungle without a society or government to condemn your immoral crimes.
Heart of Darkness is considered one of the first Early Modernist novels, as it is written in an innovative and experimental way, marking a break from the literary traditions of the Victorians. Heart of Darkness is important because it offers a rich and complex insight into the horrors of imperialism and its impacts.
To learn more about the importance of the novel, head to our Heart of Darkness Background article.
The main idea of The Heart of Darkness is that Imperialism is a force of evil that corrupts men, consuming them with greed. In the Congolese jungle, the moral character of colonisers is tested as there’s no authority to stop them from violence except their own self-restraint.
The Heart of Darkness (1899) is not a true story, but Conrad’s experiences in the Congo served as the basis for the novella. Conrad was made captain of a steamboat going up the Congo River to retrieve a company agent named Georges Antoine Klein, who died on the journey back down the river. The depiction of the mistreatment of natives - who were forced to work, tortured and even killed - is also based on the facts of King Leopold II’s brutal rule of the Congo from 1885 to 1908.
Despite its short length, The Heart of Darkness (1899) is generally considered a difficult read because it is open-ended. The characters and their motivations are complicated, which makes it difficult to come up with a single, straightforward interpretation. But what makes The Heart of Darkness a difficult read is also what makes it an exciting one. As an Early Modernist, Conrad wanted to give his readers an active role in creating the meaning of the novella. The difficulty of the story encourages readers to pick its elements apart to construct meaning for themselves.
The overall meaning of The Heart of Darkness is to find the meaning of the novella for yourself. In the novella, Conrad explores the dangers of blindly relying on others, rather than coming to your own conclusions. The overall meaning of the novella is to make your own moral judgements so that you cannot be easily corrupted by dark animalistic urges or by smooth-tongued individuals like Kurtz.
In The Heart of Darkness (1899) The Congo natives are treated inhumanly by the white characters, such as the Company employees and the pilgrims. The white men force the natives to work for little payment, going so far as to enchain, torture and kill them. For example, when the steamboat is leaving at the end, the pilgrims open fire at the natives. As characters, the natives are treated as background characters, mostly treated as one group and not as individuals. Conrad’s portrayal of the natives in the novella has led critics like Chinua Achebe to argue that the novella is racist.
What are the main two settings?
The two key settings are the Nellie boat on the River Thames and the Congo Free State, more specifically the Congo River.
What genre categories does Heart of Darkness fall into?
Satire of epic quest narrative
Satire of colonial adventure story
Who is the narrator in Heart of Darkness?
The sailor Charlie Marlow.
What makes Heart of Darkness a frame narrative?
A frame narrative is a story-within-a-story. It is a literary device that creates a layered narrative, with one story being framed by another story. Marlow’s narration of his story is framed by an unnamed frame narrator, who is with Marlow on the Nellie.
What is the structure of Heart of Darkness?
HOD has a 3 part structure.
How is Heart of Darkness structured?
The unnamed narrator’s narrative is linear, but Marlow’s story-within-a-story is structured around his stream-of-consciousness.
Who is Charlie Marlow?
Who is Kurtz?
Megalomaniac, power-crazed murderer
Successful ivory trader
Persuasive speaker and writer
Worshipped by the natives as a god
Wrote a report for the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs
‘The horror! The horror!’.
Who is the Accountant?
Trading Company employee
Well-dressed and well-groomed
Obsessed with his bureaucratic job
The first character to bring up Kurtz.
Who is the Manager?
Trading Company employee
Has an insincere smile
Feels threatened by Kurtz and likely sabotaged Marlow’s steamer to starve out Kurtz.
Who is the Russian?
A.k.a. The Harlequin
A freelance trader who practically worships Kurtz
Leaves out wood for Marlow at the hut and tells him to preserve Kurtz’s reputation
‘I am a simple man’. (Part III)
Who is the Intended?
She believes she knows Kurtz best of anyone
Marlow lies to her and says Kurtz’s final words were her name.
What are the two big themes explored in the novel?
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