Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad written in 1899. The book talks about a voyage by Charles Marlow up the Congo river as a captain of a steamer. The inspiration of the story was taken from the author’s own life story. He worked on a boat steamer for a Belgian ivory trading company, just like the depiction of Charles Marlow.
The story begins with three men aboard a ship, Nellie that is drifting on the river Themes. One of the men is Charles Marlow. He begins to reminisce and tells the story of his journey to Africa, and in contrast calls London and Europe one of the darkest places on earth because of the atrocities that colonization had brought with it.
Charles Marlow is the main character of the story. He is an ambitious and knowledgeable young man portrayed as philosophical, sympathetic, and a kind human being. As a seaman, he is very passionate about traveling, discovering and meeting new people. His philosophical nature is mostly seen through his inner dialogue, with him disputing about whether the people he meets, commonly known as “calorizators”, can be seen as civilized, or have a name that is justified. Charles is also very skeptical and curious about the events and people he is surrounded by.
Charles gets hired at an ivory trading company in Brussels, which is simply known as “the Company”. They end up sending him to Congo as the captain of a steam river boat.
When he arrives to the first station, called Outer Station, he sees all of the horrors behind the ivory trade business. He witnesses Africans in thick chains, with exhausted faces, and tired bodies. He also sees that they are treated like objects and not humans. They are servants to the white people in charge, against their will. He is astonished by all the things he witnesses.
After getting acquainted with the state of things at the Outer Station, he moves up the Congo river to the Central Station where his team boat awaits him. At the Central Station he meets the General Manager, who is a cold and calculating man. The General Manager treats his servants even worse than they are being treated at the Outer Station. He is indifferent to their sufferings. He fails to feed them, works them to exhaustion and even death, and always keeps them chained up.
The General Manager tells Marlow that his boat is broken, and he cannot use it. Marlow is devastated. He is supposed to bring supplies to Kurtz — the manager of the Inner Station who is known for his intelligence and great business skills. He exports the most ivory out of all the Stations. Marlow hears some rumors about Kurtz’s insanity, due to living so close to the natives and for his methods of work being quite barbaric. Although he is skeptical about the natives, and does not pay much attention to them.
Marlow fixes his boat tirelessly because he realizes that Kurtz and his people have no means of survival without his help. Marlow overhears a very unpleasant conversation between the General Manager and his uncle, who comes to the Central Station with another expedition. The General Manager says that he wishes to hang Kurtz and his assistant to get rid of his biggest competitor in the ivory trade business. After that conversation, Marlow realizes that his ship was not simply broken, but was tampered with in an action of sabotage. Since the General Manager wants Kurtz dead, he wants to deprive him of necessary resources and leave him to die. Marlow realizes what a terrible human being the General Manager is.
While at the Central Station, Marlow meets the Brickmaker. He is the most loyal agent of the General Manager. He only cares about his own career, wealth and wishes to achieve his goals in any way possible. He also sees Kurtz as a threat and, same as the General Manager, wants him dead and out of his way. Marlow notices his rotten soul and says this about him:
“I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my fore-finger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.” (p.68)
In comparing the Brickmaker’s innards to some loose dirt, this very degrading perception of his character portrays him as a person of a very low character.
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Marlow finally repairs his ship. Marlow, along with a group of locals (who also happen to be cannibals), and the General Manager depart to bring supplies to Kurtz. Along the way they pass through a part of the river covered in thick fog. Suddenly, they realize they are under attack: many arrows are being shot at them from the riverbank by the natives. Marlow tries to scare them away with the boat whistle, but before the attackers retreat, they end up killing one of the Africans on the boat.
Finally, Marlow and his boat arrive to the Inner Station where they find the Russian trader. He is a traveler and enthusiast who is fascinated by Kurtz and things he has achieved here, in the jungle. He seems to be very energetic and talkative. He has been helping Kurtz with all of his duties at the station. He claims that he is truly enlightened by Kurtz’s wisdom and is influenced by his good character. He says that Kurtz is trying to make natives more civilized, and they treat him like a god. The Russian seems to be obsessed with Kurtz:
"I tell you," he cried, "this man has enlarged my mind." (p.85)
When Marlow and others ask about the rumors of Kurtz’s insanity and the barbarian methods of ivory collection, the Russian denies it all. When he and Marlow are alone, he begs him to believe that Kurtz is a great man, despite anything he might have heard. Marlow notices many severed heads atop spears around the Russian’s house. He starts to believe the story about Kurtz’s insanity.
They discover Kurtz is deathly ill inside the station. They carry him out on a stretcher, but he escapes and crawls back to the native’s camp. The Russian tells Marlow that Kurtz feels he has become one of the natives inside, and does not want to return to Europe. He also confesses that Kurtz was the one who ordered the natives to attack the steamboat, hoping they would turn around and think that Kurtz had died already. After witnessing all this, Marlow thinks:
“There was something wanting in him — some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last — only at the very last. But the wilderness found him out early, and had taken vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” (p. 113)
Even though Marlow knows that Kurtz is a great manager and brings a lot of money to the Company, he concedes that he has gone insane. It is hard to judge what exactly made Kurtz turn out this way, but it is definitely a part of his true identity now. Marlow’s words suggest that a man, who was once ambitious, kind, talented and smart, is now “hollow at the core”.
Finally, Marlow convinces Kurtz to return to Europe. During the journey back he grows weaker and weaker. One day, he hands Marlow all the paperwork he accumulated throughout the years in Africa. Marlow takes the matter very seriously and is honored to receive these documents. Unfortunately, a couple days later, Kurtz passes away. His last words are:
“The horror! The horror!” (p. 125)
The phrase still raises a lot of debates; it might refer to the horrors he witnessed in uncivilized Africa, or horrors he saw created by white colonizers who abused their power and mistreated locals.
When Marlow returns, he decides to give Kurtz’s writing to Kurtz’s fiancée. He considered giving them to a journalist, or a man who claims to be Kurtz’s brother, but he is scared that they would jeopardize Kurtz’s career and besmirch his name.
The story ends with the same three men on a boat. They float on a peaceful Themes river. One of the three men, who also is the Narrator, after listening to Kurtz’s story thinks to himself:
“The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky — seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” (p.144)
This quote suggests that the Narrator, most likely as Joseph Conrad himself, considers England a very dark place, “the heart of an immense darkness”. The atrocity of European colonization and barbarian imperialistic views show the other side of the coin—the heart of darkness is in England, not in the wild and uncivilized jungles.
Heart of Darkness is a unique novel that showcases European imperialist mentality at the end of the 19th century and through the beginning of the 20th. It gives the reader a window into a world that is cruel, corrupt, and inhumane. It exposes some of the dirtiest and darkest parts of people’s souls: their greed and desire to climb the career ladder whilst crushing anyone who gets in their way, like the General Manager and the Brickmaker. The story also introduces some inspired and bright people like Marlow and the Russian. And most interestingly, Kurtz’s character is the author’s way of showing what might happen if European and African mentality mix together to drive a person to insanity.
Joseph Conrad faced a lot of criticism in his time, as well as after his death. He was accused of being racist and of supporting imperialist views. Though, the novel should be treated solely as an excellent description of the author's contemporary society, and as a criticism of supposed civilized Europeans. As a matter of fact, the author draws the conclusion that white European colonizers, in the way they treat Africans, are as savage as what they believed the Africans themselves were — because of how inhumane and cruel they were.
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