Heart of Darkness Summary

Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

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Heart of Darkness Summary

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Heart of Darkness, a novella by Joseph Conrad published 1899, to this day, has evoked discussion on the use and abuse of the people of the Congo by the British Empire. Famed author Chinua Achebe criticized Conrad and, in particular, this novella for its condemnation of the “Other,” in this case, the people of the Congo. The book is a “frame narrative,” containing a story within a story, which lends itself to the idea of the sailor telling a yarn to his fellow shipmates. The narrator Marlow is unreliable, as evidenced by the fact that he says he doesn’t remember everything about the interior story clearly. He was so disturbed by it that his narration cannot be entirely relied upon.

Heart of Darkness opens with Marlow heading out of the Thames and telling his tale of a previous voyage he had been on to retrieve a man named Kurtz. Kurtz had been sent as a British agent into the Congo to retrieve ivory, but he had gone incommunicado. When the British received word that Kurtz was ill, they sent men to go and collect him. Kurtz’s outpost was located up the Congo River.

As Marlow journeyed up the Congo, he was revolted by the way the British treated the native people. He laments the pervasive disease in the area, and how there is little effort on the part of the British Company to help the natives deal with it. Marlow also comments on how there was a massive colonial spread all for what actually amounted to little ivory. Conrad, through Marlow, talks about the jungle and the darkness, referring not only to the thickness of the vegetation, but to the darkness within man. Amid this darkness, the stories about Kurtz’s character acted like a beacon of light for Marlow. Kurtz was supposed to be an elegant and moral man. However, when they reached Kurtz’s outpost, Marlow and his fellows found that Kurtz had gone quite mad, and had convinced the natives there that he was a deity, using violence to frighten them and garner more ivory.

Marlow and his fellow sailors took Kurtz onto their ship, and on the way back to England, he died. According to Marlow, Kurtz’s last words were, “The horror! The horror!” Marlow says this exclamation was Kurtz’s reaction to realizing what he’d done in the Congo, his reaction to the depths to which he sank to get what he wanted from the native people. Kurtz apparently gave Marlow his papers, which included an essay he’d written. The essay had originally outlined ways to bring British civilization to the Congo, but at the end, a maddened Kurtz had scrawled, “Exterminate all the brutes!” By the time he read this, Marlow did not think of the native people of the Congo as brutes, though his feeling that the Congo was itself a place of savagery and darkness placed Conrad as an author who perpetuated the fear of the Other in twentieth-century literature and society.

Conrad’s novella suggests that not only does man have a heart of darkness, that darkness is the heart of savagery. The dichotomy of savage versus civilized is one that has long been under debate, particularly as it fueled the expansion of the British Empire. During that expansion, the British thought they could rule other groups while improving their lives by civilizing them. While an exchange of information often benefits the cultures and societies on both sides of the exchange, the notion of civilized vs. savage inherently created a position of privilege for those with white skin, and a position of oppression for those with dark skin. This was caused by, and simultaneously contributed to, decades of unrest perpetuated through fear of the Other to this day, which is why Heart of Darkness remains on many reading lists.

Marlow was progressive enough to recognize that Kurtz had gone too far, and that overall, the British Company had mistreated those people native to the Congo and surrounding areas. However, for many writers and scholars, Marlow does not go far enough because he continues to assert that the wilderness drove Kurtz into the darkness of his own heart. This displaces responsibility for Kurtz’s actions—and in the larger picture, of the colonizing group, in this case the British. This is why many modern scholars and authors speak out against Heart of Darkness.

From a stylistic standpoint, the novella is an important example of frame narrative because of the unreliable narrator, described earlier as Marlow. Unreliable narrators have the capability to spark the reader’s own process of judgment. The reader must decide whether or not Marlow’s story is true, and whether or not they agree about where Kurtz’s darkness originated.