Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a thrilling tale of exploring the African interior from the perspective of a European journalist. It details the savagery involved in wealth extraction at European trading posts on the African continent and the erroneous perception of the natives as savages that needed enlightenment. It is a controversial book whose summary will showcase the cringe-worthy nature of Marlow's world.
Let's look at the Heart of Darkness summary, motifs, themes, symbols, and characters to help you better understand what we are talking about!
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novella written about imperialism. A man named Charlie Marlow recounts how he traveled to Africa and met a man called Kurtz. Kurtz works for a European trading company. Kurtz went into the jungle to find ivory. However, he also wished to educate and civilize the locals, who the author refers to as savages of European civilization. But Kurtz’s ideas fail, and he becomes a savage himself.
The book begins with some men lazing about the deck of a yacht, waiting for the tide to go out on the Thames River. One of the men, Charlie Marlow, imagines what it was like when the first Romans explored the area, some 1900 years earlier, when it was all untamed marshland waiting for Europeans to civilize it. The thought leads him to recount his own story about his travels to an uncivilized place.
Marlow has already been a sailor for years at this point. His intention to go to Africa on this trip is due to his fascination with the continent as a young boy, as it was largely unexplored. Right away, Marlow finds work with a European trading company. He’s the captain of a steamboat headed to the heart of Africa, where the expedition is expected to export ivory.
Marlow boards a French steamer and heads down the river where he’s supposed to meet his boat. The trip takes more than 30 days, and along the way, he sees a French gunboat firing mindlessly into the dense jungle below. It is engaged in a war with the natives. He says there seems to be something insane about it.
Marlow arrives at the first company station. All around, he sees men that have been taken captive and put to work. The company refers to them as criminals, but they are enslaved. Marlow discovers he is stuck at the station for another ten days, and he learns about Mr. Kurtz, an agent for the company in the deepest part of the jungle. He hears Kurtz is remarkable and that the higher-ups in Europe have big plans for him.
It takes another fifteen days of hiking through the jungle before Marlow finally reaches the central station, where he’s supposed to pick up his steamboat. But when he gets there, Marlow discovers that his steamboat has sunk. The manager of the station estimates that it’ll take Marlow three months to fix it and urges Marlow to hurry; they need to relieve the upriver stations. There have already been so many delays that he can no longer tell who’s dead and still alive up there. The manager also mentions Kurtz, lauding him as their best agent. He sends them more ivory than all the other agents combined.
In the months it takes to fix the boat, Marlow meets the station’s brick maker, though Marlow never sees evidence of bricks being made down there during his time. The brickmaker mentions Kurtz, calling him a prodigy, an emissary of pity, progress, and science.
One evening, Marlow overhears a conversation between the station manager and another man. This man, who happens to be the station manager’s uncle, is the leader of the El Dorado Exploring Expedition, a greedy mining group searching for anything valuable in the region. Marlow only catches snippets of their talk, but he gathers that Kurtz wrote a letter to the manager more than a year ago asking to be left alone. Since then, Kurtz had sent a large quantity of ivory down the river in a fleet of canoes. Marlow also hears that a competitor has intruded on Kurtz’s district, and they think he should be hanged to make an example of him.
Eventually, Marlow begins the long journey upriver. The manager and several more people go with him, and they enlist 20 Africans who Marlow says are cannibals. The manager favors one of them, a young boy. During the trip, they pass tribal villages whose inhabitants shout and jump around when they see the boat. Marlow says it thrilled him to think of the humanity he shared with these prehistoric people. He implies, in an arguably racist way, that even though he’s civilized and European, he can feel a primitive part of himself responding to their shouts and that everyone has this vestigial prehistoric instinct.
They come to a hut made of reeds by the riverbed, so Marlow stops and gets out to explore. There’s a wood pile close to the hut with some writing on the top. It says, “Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously.” In the hut, he finds a book called “An Inquiry into some points on Seamanship,” so Marlow surmises that the residents must have been English. The manager thinks it’s the intruder he heard about.
A thick fog holds them up in the morning, a few days later. They can’t move because they can’t see anything, and then they hear a scream, but nothing happens, and eventually, the dense fog clears. They are attacked two hours later when they enter a narrow river channel. The attackers fire arrows at them. A spear hits one of the men close to Marlow, and the helmsman collapses and dies. His blood gets all over Marlow’s shoes.
Marlow notes that with such hostility around, Kurtz must surely be dead, and he laments that he will never hear Kurtz speak. He thinks of Kurtz and all his ideas and a report he once wrote for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Kurtz notes that the white man, because he is so developed, must approach savages like a supernatural being. With that authority, the white man can exert power for good that is practically unbounded. In other words, the white man can civilize them. But Marlow says Kurtz wrote this before he became unstable and started participating in tribal rituals.
After that happened, Kurtz added a note in his report that said, “Exterminate all the brutes.”
On the river, they can see an opening, and in the distance, there is a decaying building. A man waves to them from the shore. They finally reach the inner station two months after leaving the second outer station.
While the manager and the others hike up the trail to the station, Marlow talks with the waving man. He is a Russian and works for a Dutch trading company, and for two years, he’d been on the river. That’s when he met Kurtz. He’s the intruder the manager was worried about and the one who left wood for them at the hut, which used to be his house.
He says the locals didn’t mean any harm by attacking. They were afraid Kurtz would be taken from them. He tells Marlow that Kurtz has enlarged his mind and that he speaks eloquently about things like love. Marlow learns that Kurtz has been raiding the nearby villages for ivory with the help of his tribe, which treats him like a god. While Marlow talks to the Russian, he looks at the station using binoculars and realizes that the fence posts' tops are actually human heads. Kurtz had lost any sense of restraint and had taken to mounting the heads of men he considered rebels outside his station.
Marlow laughs when the Russian says these men were rebels, and he recalls the enslaved people at the company station who the company called criminals. He thinks the wilderness has overtaken Kurtz and implies that Kurtz himself has become a savage. The manager and the other men return to the steamer carrying Kurtz, who is extremely sick. While Kurtz goes through his mail, the manager signals Marlow to leave so he can speak to Kurtz. Marlow hears Kurtz shouting about how they are interrupting his plans, and he swears he will return and carry out his ideas.
The manager comes out and tells Marlow that Kurtz has done the company more harm than good because Kurtz's method was so unsound. The Russian approaches Marlow and asks him not to talk about anything damaging Kurtz’s reputation when they return. Marlow tells the Russian they should leave and that the manager wants to hang him, and the Russian runs away that night.
Sometime after midnight, Marlow wakes and finds Kurtz gone. When he goes to the riverbank, he can see the trail where Kurtz crawled on all fours through the grass, heading towards a distant fire. He forms a circle around him and cuts him off before he reaches the fire.
Kurt tells Marlow to leave and hide, and Marlow realizes that he could be killed if he just shouts loud enough for someone to hear. Kurtz tells him he has great plans and is on the threshold of great things. But Marlow threatens to beat him if he does not return to the steamer.
At noon the next day, they leave Kurtz's camp, and the people of the tribe gather at the riverbank and shout mournfully at Kurtz’s departure.
Kurtz's health worsens as they head down the river toward the sea. Marlow enters his room one night, and Kurtz says he is ready to die. While Marlow watches him, a change comes over his face as if he were seeing something. His last words are “the horror, the horror.” Shortly after, the favored boy enters a chamber where the men are having dinner and announces Kurtz's death. Marlow returns to Europe after that. He says he couldn’t stand to be around ordinary people who did not know the things that he knew.
One day, an official from the company comes to visit Marlow. Before Kurtz died, he gave Marlow all his emails and correspondents, and the official says the company has the rights to the documents. Marlow only gives him the report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, with the last part about exterminating all the brutes torn off. But the official isn’t interested.
Two days later, a man who claims to be Kurtz’s cousin visits Marlow, and the two men talk awhile. Marlow learns that Kurtz used to be a musician in addition to being a painter and a journalist.
Lastly, a journalist shows up who claims he was a colleague of Kurtz. He says Kurtz was an incredible speaker and should have been in politics, leading some extremist party. Marlow gives him Kurtz’s papers.
Kurtz had mentioned his fiancée to Marlow, and he goes to see her and to give her the rest of Kurtz’s papers. She guesses that Marlow must have admired Kurtz, as everyone who knew him. Kurtz was an example of goodness who drew men toward him. Before Marlow leaves, Kurtz’s fiancée wants to know his last words. Marlow lies to Kurtz's fiancée and says the last thing Kurtz said was her name.
Marlow’s story is over, and with the tide out, they go upstream along the Thames towards London. The narrator says the Thames seems to lead into the heart of immense darkness, suggesting that this civilized place isn’t far removed from the uncivilized jungle.
Heart of Darkness is a story filled with themes. It perfectly demonstrates imperialism as it began its inculcation into Africa and what Marlow perceived as the heart of darkness. Let's look at some of the Heart of Darkness themes that Joseph Conrad has in store for us.
The number one theme in Heart of Darkness is imperialism. This is the exploitation of Africa in the Congo River basin for the growing demands of Europe. The practice will ultimately lead to more incursions into the continent under the guise of civilization, as with the Europeans in the novella.
Marlow describes the practice of slavery as wrong, and allegedly, Kurtz started acting as a civilized guerrilla leader in the Inner station up the Congo River. He trades ivory and allegedly engages in horrid rituals involving human sacrifice.
Greedy individuals in the novella are described as having a hollow sham. These include people like the greedy managers and Kurtz. Marlow describes Europeans as dark as they live as if they were in a historical era where they could abandon all moral and social rules.
Kurtz dies with an imperialist thought and idea that he has been enacting. Like the Mayans, he puts people's heads on pikes, indicating that he has turned savage. But it is essential to consider that his madness is based on the account of European colonization and their definition of what it meant to be savage.
The Central Station used enslaved people to work and called them criminals, another form of madness. Considering the book's ironic nature is essential, which helps draw the reader's sympathy. Kurtz calls Marlow mad, and while the company considers that he is the one that has turned savage, we get a clearer picture of what happened as Kurtz was able to relate with the people, earning the title savage.
The Belgian company aims to civilize indigenous people, but its main objective is to extract wealth. This is primarily seen in the behavior of the pilgrims as they move about, preying on opportunities to join the ivory trade.
The main themes, such as greed and imperialism, are predicated on the idea that Europeans like Marlow envision others behaving like the Romans and are on a civilizing mission. However, the truth is as false as the Roman narrative as they intend to convert the region's natural resources into corporate profits. This is evidenced by the enormous amount of ivory sent to the United States.
Joseph Conrad uses various symbols in his writing, using words to weave them. Heart of Darkness has many symbols that can be interpreted as literary and elicit different meanings. We will now delve into the Congo to discover what Marlow describes foggily to all that ask about what happened in Africa.
The term "Heart of Darkness" contains a symbol that translates to something sinister as the novella ends. This tale will intrigue the mind for its central theme of imperialism.
Fog is the dominant symbol in the novella and relates to life and death. The author uses various colors to elucidate meaning. People die whenever fog appears. It is a gloomy experience and adds to the somber mood of Marlow's experience. This is one of the major symbols that help as Marlow describes his experience.
Kurtz believes Africans are savage and should not know that the white man is human to get "civilized." But the civilization he speaks of involves raiding other villages for ivory and mounting decapitated heads on pikes. Europeans keep a wide berth from Africans and consider them cannibals and savages. They are not willing to share technology with the individuals, only preferring to extract precious materials from the area, as is the case with the Belgian company, the El Dorado Expedition organization, and the Russian.
In this way, the whole civilizing business is shrouded in fog as they use slave labor and fear to conduct their activities.
One of the issues that Chinua Achebe had with Joseph Conrad's book was that Marlow's experience was full of racism. Africans are described as savage and cannibals, while the Europeans are seen as a civilizing force.
However, looking back at the experience, one could tell that Kurtz used fear to steal ivory from other clans, which made them hostile to Europeans. This may have caused them to kill the helmsman as Marlow and his company left the central station. These hidden meanings point to a colonial mindset that determines protecting one's terrain from actual threats as being savage despite evidence to back this hostility.
Joseph Conrad describes Marlow's journey from European civilization to the Congo basin as a journey of color. This is apparently from light to dark. However, by the novel's end, Marlow describes being in London as being at the Heart of Darkness as he sails up the Thames River.
This is one of the main symbols in Heart of Darkness. It appears when Marlow visits France, hoping to get the company's approval to join their ranks. He claims that visiting one of the most beautiful cities in Europe evokes memories of white-sleeted sepulchers. These are burial sites and tombs or places where holy relics are kept. They are beautiful structures but have a hollow center and sometimes represent death. Joseph Conrad uses sepulchral cities to symbolize European civilization. It has a gorgeous facade that hides a bleak and awful reality.
It is essential to consider that a white sepulcher also refers to a hypocrite.
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness summary demonstrates that several characters are the creme of the crop. These include the "savage" Kurtz and Marlow. However, other prominent people, like the unnamed manager and the Russian trader, also have significant roles in the book.
A storyteller uses different people to develop their own story or tell ideas through their personalities. Without characters, the story couldn't proceed. The characters in Heart of Darkness show the ravages of Imperialism. Joseph Conrad incorporated ironic elements into a depiction of character traits. We will now list some essential characters in Hearts of Darkness and describe them in detail.
The Heart of Darkness characters span many skin colors and countries, from Belgians to Congolese. All of these individuals have a part to play in Joseph Conrad's novella. Here is a list of all the characters we will cover today.
Marlow is the philosophical protagonist of Heart of Darkness. He is a skeptical, independent-minded thinker that doubles down as a master storyteller. Marlow hears and sees everything through a journalist's eye rather than as one of the European traders. He is further able to draw listeners to his story.
Marlow is the trading representative that is sent to Africa. Our protagonist got to join an office in Brussels with connections in Congo. While working as a seafarer, Marlow runs into zero job prospects but finds that companies are competing to explore the hinterland of Africa and extract valuable items. Despite his work ethic, Marlow sees local people exploited and sometimes murdered. Much of Marlow's story is shrouded in ironic commentary, with the irony coming to light in the end.
It is important to consider that while the main character shares many of the prejudices linked to the ivory trade, Marlow suspects that imperialism has a darkness about it as he's traveled the world.
He's shocked to learn about how civilization works. No wonder the natives hiding in the forest do not take kindly to white people traveling up the Congo River.
This chief agent propagates the Belgian company's shady business practices. He runs the Central Station and primarily owes his success to his hardy constitution. A frame that has allowed him to outlive all his competitors. The general manager looks average and has unremarkable abilities. However, he can instill unease around him, making those close to him feel sufficiently unsettled. This helps him conduct the company's activities with total control.
This is the chief of the inner station and the reason for Marlow's story. Kurtz is an intriguing character that, in addition to being a musician and a fine painter, also works as a journalist. He is charismatic and able to lead men.
Kurtz is a man keen on the power of words and uses his words to express himself eloquently, obscuring the horrifying message beneath his work. While he remains an enigma to the end, Kurtz has a powerful influence over the novel's activities and the people in his life. Kurtz's end may have come from malaria as he was in the Congo during Belgium's incursion into Congo before it became a colony.
Kurtz becomes ignorant of the hypocritical rules governing how Europeans conduct themselves in the colonies. He has “kicked himself loose of the earth” as he fraternizes excessively with native people and does not bother keeping up appearances. In this way, he has become ingrained in the region and derives more ivory than all the other ivory traders combined. However, he also incurs the wrath of his fellow white men aboard the steamboat and is considered a failure.
Mr. Kurtz leaves before achieving what he set to do in his notes. He manages to deitize himself in his tribe but succumbs to an unknown illness, likely malaria.
This fictional character guides us through Marlow's story and helps us relate to the characters.
The Russian traveler goes to Africa as an adventurer. While visiting, he dresses in colorful clothing that reminds Marlow of the Harlequins. The Russian trader believes in Kurtz mainly as a brilliant man. Despite Kurtz's words, he cannot fathom the dark implication of his words. He goes to Africa with a Dutch company as their representative and claims that Kurtz opened his mind.
This fiercely attractive woman is laden with jewels when she appears. She comes to the seafront when Marlow's steamship leaves the Inner station. The story goes that she influenced Kurtz and the native people. She is also labeled as fierce. Kurtz's native mistress is one of the enigmas of the tale as she never spoke to Marlow, and so is not part of Marlow's story.
This is an efficient worker that has a habit of dressing in spotless white clothes and maintaining high hygiene standards despite the dirt and heat of the Outer station. This is where he lives and works. The chief accountant is one of the few people accomplishing anything at camp and has trained an indigenous woman to care for his clothes.
The pilgrims are bumbling greedy European agents at the Central Station. They hate the locals and treat them like animals and wait by the station for a chance to promote themselves. These people carry long wooden staffs reminiscent of traditional religious travelers and wish to get positions to trade for ivory and get commissions. However, none of them actively try to make this dream a reality. They maintain a thin veneer of proper conduct and civilization, with their motivation being purely self-interest. Ironically, they treat the natives like animals, but their ridiculousness and greed make them appear less than human.
This is a young man from the coast that Marlow's predecessor trains to navigate the steamer. The helmsman is a serviceable pilot though Marlow never considers him as more than just part of the mechanical boat. He dies during a raid when the steamer is attacked by native Congolese hiding on the riverbanks.
This is Kurtz's naïve and long-suffering fiancee that Marlow visits once he goes back to London after Kurtz's death. She has an unshakeable certainty about Kurtz's love for her, which leads Marlow to reinforce his belief that women live in a dream world that is shielded from reality.
Marlow visits a doctor in Brussels to prepare for his visit to Africa. The jungle is wrought with diseases and pests, a factor that may have killed Kurtz.
This is Marlow's doting aunt, that gets him a job with the Belgian company. She believes imperialism is charitable and leads to civilization and religion among simple savages. She is another example of the illusions and naïveté of women to Marlow.
Heart of Darkness centers around a man named Marlow that sails up the Congo River to see Kurtz, a fellow journalist. He takes the job of a steamboat captain since he has experience navigating foreign waters for a Belgian company that specializes in the ivory trade from the Congo. Kurtz is an ivory trader that lives along the Congo River upstream. Marlow meets civilized people acting like monsters and ends up wondering whether the continent considered savage is so different from London, the civilizing force whose greed has turned people into enslaved people with their heads mounted on pikes for disobedience.
One point critics debate is whether Heart of Darkness is racist. The black people in the book are hardly even people. They are a metaphor for savage, primitive men. But the book also points out how flawed this idea of the European civilization of Africa was. The Europeans brutalized and enslaved the Africans. In the end, nobody looks good, except for maybe Marlow, who stands by commenting on what he sees.
Chinua Achebe refers to this book as atrocious and insulting African culture by perpetuating a long-standing flawed image of people from the continent as savages.
Power is a constant in this novel. It is associated with imperialism, colonial enterprise, and the realization that Europeans could extract wealth secretly from the African people without repercussions. Kurtz dies while trying to exercise what he calls European might on the Africans by pretending to be a deity when approaching the locals with a civilizing mission.
The main theme in Joseph Conrad's novella is the hypocrisy of imperialism. The Heart of Darkness does not consider Africans as human beings. They are cannibals, savages, and criminals only fit for slavery. Marlow witnesses these horrors from his journey from the central station to the inner station house, where they find Kurtz.
The title refers to the "dark continent," as Europeans referred to it in the colonial eras. Europeans used to classify Africans as dark and their homeland as the heart of darkness. Conrad wrote this title suitably to reflect his experience traveling and working in the Congo.
The main symbols in the heart of darkness are the fog, the white sepulchers represented by white men, darkness, and the river. We'll explore these as Heart of Darkness symbols in our next section.
According to the Russian and Marlow, Kurtz represents an enlightened man that would thrive among professional writers and has no flaws. None of them are willing to affirm the savagery that is involved in his deeds. Marlow observes darkness symbols around him shrouded in light. For instance, enslaved people are referred to as criminals serving justice. Kurtz is further memorialized as a great journalist despite his possible attempt to deitize himself among the local population of the Congolese people where his station was located.
Darkness in this effect reflects the evil and greed of the imperialism system. This is evident in the hunting for ivory and the brutal nature of this wealth-generation scheme. Marlow returns to England, seeing it as the heart of darkness.
This is one of the significant symbols in this novel and represents many things, much like the other symbols. The Congo River is the heart of the connection between civility and being primitive. It provides wealth but is a dangerous crossing that takes months to reach upriver. It is also the easiest way to transverse the dangerous lands where the Europeans are extracting ivory, allowing Marlow to reach Kurtz. In this way, the river both gives and takes people and riches.
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