Summary of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad
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 labored on a boat steamer for a Belgian ivory trading company, just as the depiction of Charles Marlow.
The story begins with three men aboard a ship, Nellie that's drifting on the river Themes. One of many men is Charles Marlow. That he begins to reminisce and tells the story of his journey to Africa, and on the other hand calls London and Europe one of the darkest places on the planet because of the atrocities that colonization had brought with it.
Charles Marlow could be the main character of the story. He's an ambitious and knowledgeable young man portrayed as philosophical, sympathetic, and a kind person. As a seaman, he's 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's justified. Charles is also very skeptical and curious about the events and individuals he is surrounded by.
Summary and Analysis: Outer Station
Charles gets hired at an ivory trading company in Brussels, that will be simply called “the Company”. They wind up sending him to Congo as the captain of a steam river boat.
When he arrives to the very first station, called Outer Station, he sees all of the horrors behind the ivory trade business. That he witnesses Africans in thick chains, with exhausted faces, and tired bodies. That 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 taken aback by all the stuff he witnesses.
Summary and Analysis: Central Station
After getting familiar with the state of things at the Outer Station, that he moves up the Congo river to the Central Station where his team boat awaits him. At the Central Station that he meets the General Manager, who's a cold and calculating man. The overall Manager treats his servants even worse than they are being treated at the Outer Station. He's indifferent for their sufferings. That he fails to feed them, works them to exhaustion as well as death, and always keeps them chained up.
The overall Manager tells Marlow that his boat is broken, and that he cannot utilize it. Marlow is devastated. He's supposed to bring supplies to Kurtz — the manager of the Inner Station who is known for his intelligence and great business skills. That he exports the absolute most ivory of all the Stations. Marlow hears some rumors about Kurtz’s insanity, due to living so near the natives and for his methods of work being quite barbaric. Even though he is skeptical about the natives, and doesn't pay much attention to them.
Marlow fixes his boat tirelessly because that he realizes that Kurtz and his folks have no method of survival without his help. Marlow overhears a very unpleasant conversation between your General Manager and his uncle, who comes to the Central Station with yet another expedition. The overall Manager says that he wishes to hang Kurtz and his assistant to eliminate his biggest competitor in the ivory trade business. After that conversation, Marlow realizes that his ship had not been simply broken, but was tampered with in an action of sabotage. Since the General Manager wants Kurtz dead, he really wants to deprive him of necessary resources and leave him to die. Marlow realizes what a terrible human being the overall Manager is.
While at the Central Station, Marlow meets the Brickmaker. He's the most loyal agent of the General Manager. He only cares about his own career, wealth and wishes to reach his goals in any way possible. He also sees Kurtz as a threat and, same as the typical Manager, wants him dead and out of his way. Marlow notices his rotten soul and has said this about him:
“I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it did actually me when 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 an individual of a really low character.
Summary and Analysis: Inner Station
Marlow finally repairs his ship. Marlow, a group of locals (who also happen to be cannibals), and the overall Manager depart to bring supplies to Kurtz. On the way they go through a part of the river covered in thick fog. Suddenly, they realize they are under attack: many arrows are increasingly 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's fascinated by Kurtz and things he has achieved here, in the jungle. He is apparently very energetic and talkative. He has been helping Kurtz with each of his duties at the station. That he claims he is truly enlightened by Kurtz’s wisdom and is influenced by his good character. He says that Kurtz is trying to produce natives more civilized, and so they treat him like a god. The Russian seems to be enthusiastic about Kurtz:
"I tell you, " he cried, "this man has enlarged my mind. " (p. 85)
When Marlow among others ask about the rumors of Kurtz’s insanity and the barbarian ways of ivory collection, the Russian denies everything. When that he and Marlow are alone, he begs him to trust that Kurtz is a great man, despite any such thing he might have heard. Marlow notices many severed heads atop spears around the Russian’s house. That he starts to trust the story about Kurtz’s insanity.
They discover Kurtz is deathly ill within 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's become one of many natives inside, and doesn't want to come back to Europe. That he also confesses that Kurtz was usually the one who ordered the natives to attack the steamboat, hoping they'd turn around and think that Kurtz had died already. After witnessing all of 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 cannot say. I believe the knowledge found him finally — only at the last. However 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 that he did not know, things which he had no conception till he took counsel with this particular great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core. ” (p. 113)
Although Marlow knows that Kurtz is a great manager and brings a lot of money to the Company, that he concedes he has gone insane. It is hard to judge what precisely made Kurtz turn out in this way, but it is surely a part of his true identity now. Marlow’s words declare that a man, who had been once ambitious, kind, talented and smart, is now “hollow at the core”.
Finally, Marlow convinces Kurtz to go back to Europe. During the journey back that he grows weaker and weaker. One day, that 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. Unfortuitously, a couple days later, Kurtz becomes deceased. His last words are:
“The horror! The horror!” (p. 125)
The phrase still raises lots of debates; it may refer to the horrors that 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's scared which they would jeopardize Kurtz’s career and besmirch his name.
The story ends with exactly 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 with a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of our planet flowed sombre under an overcast sky — did actually lead to the heart of an immense darkness. ” (p. 144)
This quote shows that the Narrator, most likely as Joseph Conrad himself, considers England an extremely 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, maybe 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 start of the 20th. It gives the reader a window in to a world that's 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 anybody 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 may possibly happen if European and African mentality mix together to drive an individual to insanity.
Joseph Conrad faced a lot of criticism in his time, in addition to after his death. That he was accused of being racist and of supporting imperialist views. Though, the novel should be treated solely being an excellent description of the author's contemporary society, so when a criticism of supposed civilized Europeans. As a matter of known fact, the author draws the conclusion that white European colonizers, in the manner they treat Africans, are as savage as what they believed the Africans themselves were — due to how inhumane and cruel they were.