Joseph Conrad "Heart of Darkness" Summary and Plot Overview

“Heart of Darkness” Summary

“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, published in 1899, explores the differences and surprising similarities between European and African societies through the lens of colonization and trade.
Marissa L.
min read
Jul 29, 2023

First published as a 3-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine, this story about a ship captain’s time and observations during the ivory trade in Africa is considered one of the greatest books of the 20th Century. It draws parallels between the darkness that existed in both Europe and Africa. This “Heart of Darkness” short summary covers the entire story. Enjoy!

Heart of Darkness Plot Overview

This “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad summary begins on a ship on the River Thames named the Nellie. Five men occupy the boat - the narrator, the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, and a man named Marlow. 

Part 1

The old friends sit in silence till the narrator starts speaking about the grand history of the river Thames, a place from where thousands of adventures to dark places had started their journeys. Marlow interrupts with the observation that England used to be a dark place as well before the Romans conquered it. He points out that the difference between the Romans and the present situation is that the Romans just wanted to conquer whereas modern-day Englishmen want to colonize, but also says that conquest is always ugly, whatever the form. He then starts telling the story of his time as a captain on a riverboat on the Congo river. 

Ever since he had been a young boy, Marlow had been fascinated by maps and the blank spaces on them. As he grew older, some of those blank spaces were filled. He traveled to many of them, but one region transformed into a dark space, the heart of Africa. After many trips to India and China, he tries to find a job on the Congo river but has no luck. His Aunt, who has contacts in a Continental Trading Company, easily gets him a job on the river though. Marlow takes a position left open because a Danish captain named Fresleven had recently been killed by natives in a disagreement about black hens. 

Marlow travels to the European city where the headquarters of the Company is located. He is greeted by two receptionists and a map of the world colored by which countries control which parts. The receptionists stare at him strangely as he briefly meets the Director of the company and signs papers before making his way for a medical checkup. The doctor measures the size of Marlow’s head and asks him if insanity ran in his family. 

Marlow then has a chat with his aunt who believes that he is doing something noble by educating the natives and Marlow reminds her that he is going for business and no other purpose.

As he finally sets sail, he feels uneasy about his upcoming journey. The coast of Africa seems like a mystery to Marlow, full of potential, but also full of unknowns. On the ship, Marlow occasionally sees boats full of locals, and once, a French warship that was shelling the forest. Upon delivering mail to the ship he found out that three sailors a day were dying from fever.

He transfers to another ship at the mouth of the river on which the Swedish captain tells Marlow a story about a man who hung himself. When asked why, his response was maybe the sun or the country was too much for him. 

After more than a month of sailing Marlow gets to the Company’s outer station.  He sees groups of emaciated black men walking around and working in squalid conditions. It’s also his first glimpse of the main commodity he would be in charge of - Ivory. 

He meets the Chief accountant of the Company, a man dressed in sharply contrasting white to all the dirt around him. Marlow spends the next ten days at the station, occasionally having talks with the accountant about a certain Mr.Kurtz. The accountant has a very high opinion of Mr. Kurtz and tells Marlow that he brings in the most Ivory of any of the agents. He asks Marlow to tell Kurtz that everything is going well when he meets him. 

The next day Marlow sets out on a 200-mile trek to the Central Station. It takes fifteen days to walk to the station during which his only other white companion falls sick and many of the locals desert. When he gets to the station he is told that the steamer he was supposed to command sank a few days ago when the general manager used a novice pilot to try and go upstream. The general manager explains that he rushed the departure because of rumors that their best agent, Mr.Kurtz, was sick. In any case, it would take three months for the boat to be fixed. 

Over the next three months Marlow witnesses the company employees do no work while dreaming of wealth. One night a building goes up in flames and as a black man is beaten for the fire, Marlow overhears the general manager saying that they should take advantage of the accident in some way related to Kurtz. 

Marlow has a conversation with the station’s brickmaker (who never actually made anything) and discovers that he is the general manager’s spy. The man describes Kurts as a visionary and a genius but also gives Kurtz the impression that he and the manager both view Kurtz as a threat to their advancement within the Company. Marlow lets him think that he is more powerful and well connected than he actually is so that repairs on the boat will go faster. The repairs still take a long time though, and Marlow spends many hours thinking about Kurtz. During this time, the general manager’s uncle arrives at the station leading an expedition group made up of locals. 

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Part 2

Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness summary part two starts with Marlow overhearing a conversation between the general manager and his uncle where the manager expresses his concern that Kurtz is influential with the company because he collects so much ivory. He tells his uncle to use the fact that a nearby trader is stealing company profits as a pretext for hanging Kurtz. Kurtz was supposed to come to the station with the last shipment of Ivory but didn’t arrive because of illness. The manager is upset that Kurtz wants the main focus to be on civilizing the locals, not just trade. 

After repairs are completed, Marlow finally sets sail with the general manager, a few pilgrims, and twenty locals (referred to as cannibals even though they don’t eat human flesh). The journey is difficult and Marlow finds himself relating more and more with the locals. Close to the inner station they come across a hut with a stack of chopped firewood and a sign reading “Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously”. Inside the hut, he finds a book on sailing in a language he doesn’t understand. 

One foggy morning, 8 miles from the station, the ship hears natives roaring from the forest. The pilgrims are nervous, but the cannibals scream to attack and devour the invisible enemy. About a mile from the inner station the ship is attacked by arrows. The pilgrims open fire into the jungle, but the helmsman is killed by a spear. Marlow scares away the locals by pulling on the steam whistle. He fears that Kurtz is dead and everybody on board is sure that he is. 

The narration switches back to Marlow on the Nellie. He tells his companions that Kurtz had changed from an intelligent idealist to someone who embraced the savage customs of the land. He refers to a document written by Kurtz titled ”On the Suppression of Savage Customs” where he says that white men are like gods to the locals and they have the responsibility to enlighten them, but later scribbled “Exterminate all brutes” across it. 

They arrive at the inner station and are surprised to see it still standing. A white man dressed in patchwork clothes, reminding Marlow of a Harlequin, greets the ship and tells them that Kurtz is still alive. The man is a 25 year old Russian and he was the one who left the firewood. He tells Marlow that through a series of events he ended up alone in the Congo for 2 years. He tells Marlow that the natives had attacked the ship because they wanted Kurtz to stay with them. It is clear that the Russian has been influenced by Kurtz’s personality and thinks very highly of him. 

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Part 3

Part three begins with the Russain telling Marlow that the first time he met Kurtz he was spellbound by the man’s words. Since then, he has taken care of him through two illnesses and begs Marlow to take Kurtz back for proper treatment. Marlow finds out that Kurtz went on raids with the locals, who revere him as a god, and that the Ivory he sent was a spoil of war rather than earned through trading. Marlow trains his binoculars on Kurtz’s hut and is shocked to see the head of rebel natives on pikes turned to face the hut all around it.

A group of natives emerges from the hut carrying Kurtz on a stretcher. He looks close to death, pale, skinny, and gaunt. The ship braces for an attack, but at a gesture from Kurtz, the locals back away. Marlow spots a beautiful local woman, who the Russian says is Kurtz’s mistress. The manager and Kurtz have an argument during which Kurtz accuses the company of caring more about ivory than about Kurtz himself. 

The general manager tells Marlow that Kurtz is very ill and that he has ruined the company’s interests in the region with his unsound practices. Marlow is disgusted with the manager’s fake show of worry for Kurtz and says that Kurtz is still a remarkable man. 

The Russian, realizing that he is in danger from the manager, tells Marlow that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the ship to scare it away because he wanted to stay there. He asks Marlow to protect Kurtz’s reputation in Europe and then disappears into the forest. 

Around midnight, the chanting and drums of the locals wakes Marlow. He discovers that Kurtz is missing and finds him crawling towards the natives. Kurtz tells Marlow to run and hide himself, and that he has great plans that cannot be interrupted, but is eventually persuaded to make his way back with Marlow. 

The next day, as the ship leaves with Kurtz, the natives and his mistress come to the shore. They start chanting and cursing the ship, but Marlow pulls the steam whistle to try to scare them off and avoid a massacre. Everyone except the woman runs back, but as the ship leaves, the pilgrims open fire anyway. 

Marlow spends a lot of time with Kurtz on the journey back listening to his philosophies and ideas. The man is still impressive this close to death. Kurtz wants fame back in Europe but realizes he might not make it back and entrusts Marlow with his papers. A few days later Kurtz dies, his last words being “The horror, The horror!”. They bury him in the jungle, and Marlow gets depressed and falls sick himself. 

Back in Europe, Marlow’s aunt takes care of him as he recovers. A man from the company shows up and demands Kurtz’s papers, but Marlow only gives him “On the Suppression of Savage Customs” with “exterminate all the brutes” removed.  The man wants something profitable and leaves without it. Kurtz’s musician cousin comes to visit and tells Marlow that Kurtz was a great musician as well. Marlow gives him a few family letters from Kurtz’s papers. Later a journalist visits and tells Marlow that Kurtz would have been a great politician because of his eloquence and charisma. Marlow gives him “On the Suppression of Savage Customs” and the journalist promises to publish it. 

Marlow visits Kurtz’s fiance, and though it’s been a year since his death, she still wears black. She tells him that she knew Kurtz better than anyone and that he was the best of men. When asked what his last words were, Marlow lies and tells her that he said her name. She cries, and though Marlow feels bad, he can’t bring himself to tell her the truth of how much Kurtz had changed. 

Back on the Nellie Marlow falls silent. The narrator stares at the Thames and thinks of it as leading "into the heart of an immense darkness”. 

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