Heart of Darkness (1899) is a novella by Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad, about a voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State, in the heart of Africa, by the story’s narrator Marlow. Marlow tells his story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the River Thames, London, England. This setting provides the frame for Marlow’s story of his obsession with the ivory trader Kurtz, which enables Conrad to create a parallel between London and Africa as places of darkness.
Central to Conrad’s work is the idea that there is little difference between so-called civilised people and those described as savages; Heart of Darkness raises important questions about imperialism and racism.
Originally published as a three-part serial story in Blackwood’s Magazine, the novella Heart of Darkness has been variously published and translated into many languages. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as the sixty-seventh of the hundred best novels in English of the twentieth century.
Aboard the Nellie, anchored in the River Thames near Gravesend, England, Charles Marlow tells his fellow sailors about the events that led to his appointment as captain of a river steamboat for an ivory trading company. He describes his passage on ships down the African coast and then into the interior to the Company’s Outer Station, which strikes Marlow as a scene of devastation. At this station, Marlow meets the Company’s chief accountant who tells him of a Mr. Kurtz, explaining that Kurtz is a widely respected, first-class agent who brings in more ivory for the Company than all the other agents combined.
Marlow departs with a caravan to travel on foot some two hundred miles into the wilderness to the Central Station, where the steamboat that he is to captain is based. When he arrives, he is shocked to learn that his steamboat had been wrecked two days earlier. After fishing his boat out of the river, Marlow is frustrated by the months it takes to perform the necessary repairs, made all the slower by the lack of proper tools and replacement parts at the station. During this time, he learns that Kurtz is far from admired, but more or less resented (mostly by the manager).
Once underway, the journey up-river to Kurtz’s station takes two months to the day. The steamboat stops briefly near an abandoned hut on the riverbank, where Marlow finds a pile of wood and a note indicating that the wood is for them and that they should proceed quickly but with caution as they near the Inner Station.
The journey pauses for the night about eight miles below the Inner Station. In the morning the crew awakens to find that the boat is enveloped by a thick white fog. From the riverbank they hear a very loud cry, followed by a discordant clamour. A few hours later, as safe navigation becomes increasingly difficult, the steamboat is attacked with a barrage of small arrows from the forest. The helmsman is impaled by a spear and falls at Marlow’s feet. Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly, frightening the attackers and causing the shower of arrows to cease. Marlow and a pilgrim watch the helmsman die. In a flash forward, Marlow notes that the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had commissioned Kurtz to write a report, which he did eloquently. A handwritten postscript, apparently added later by Kurtz, reads “Exterminate all the brutes!”
At Kurtz’s station Marlow sees a man on the riverbank waving his arm, urging them to land. The pilgrims, heavily armed, escort the manager on to the shore to retrieve Mr. Kurtz. The man from the bank boards the steamboat, and turns out to be a Russian wanderer who had happened to stray into Kurtz’s camp. He explains that he had left the wood and the note at the abandoned hut. Through conversation Marlow discovers just how wanton Kurtz can be; how the natives worship him; and how very ill he has been of late. The Russian admires Kurtz for his intellect and his insights into love, life, and justice, and suggests that he is a poet. He tells of how Kurtz opened his mind, and seems to admire him even for his power – and for his willingness to use it. Marlow, on the other hand, suggests that Kurtz has gone mad.
From the steamboat, Marlow observes the station in detail and is surprised to see near the station house a row of posts topped with the severed heads of natives. Around the corner of the house, the manager appears with the pilgrims, bearing a gaunt and ghost-like Kurtz on an improvised stretcher. The area fills with natives, apparently ready for battle, but Kurtz shouts something from the stretcher, and the natives retreat into the forest. The pilgrims carry Kurtz to the steamer and lay him in one of the cabins, where he and the manager have a private conversation. Marlow watches a beautiful native woman walk in measured steps along the shore and stop next to the steamer. When the manager exits the cabin he pulls Marlow aside and tells him that Kurtz has harmed the Company’s business in the region, that his methods are “unsound.” Later, the Russian reveals that Kurtz believes the Company wants to remove him from the station and kill him, and Marlow confirms that hangings had been discussed.
After midnight, Marlow discovers that Kurtz has left his cabin on the steamer and returned to shore. He goes ashore and finds a very weak Kurtz crawling his way back to the station house, though not too weak to call to the natives for help. Marlow threatens to harm Kurtz if he raises an alarm, but Kurtz only laments that he had not accomplished more in the region. The next day they prepare for their journey back down the river. The natives, including the ornately dressed woman, once again assemble on shore and begin to shout unintelligibly. Noticing the pilgrims readying their rifles, Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly to scatter the crowd of natives. Only the woman remains unmoved, with outstretched arms. The pilgrims open fire as the current carries them swiftly downstream.
Kurtz’s health worsens on the return trip, and Marlow himself becomes increasingly ill. The steamboat breaks down and, while it is stopped for repairs, Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers, including his commissioned report and a photograph, telling him to keep them away from the manager. When Marlow next speaks with him, Kurtz is near death; as he dies, Marlow hears him weakly whisper: “The horror! The horror!” A short while later, the “manager’s boy” announces to the rest of the crew, in a scathing tone, “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” The next day Marlow pays little attention to the pilgrims as they bury “something” in a muddy hole. He falls very ill, himself near death.
Upon his return to Europe, Marlow is embittered and contemptuous of the “civilised” world. Many callers come to retrieve the papers Kurtz had entrusted to him, but Marlow withholds them or offers papers he knows they have no interest in. He then gives Kurtz’s report to a journalist, for publication if he sees fit. Finally Marlow is left with some personal letters and a photograph of Kurtz’s fiancée, whom Kurtz referred to as “My Intended.” When Marlow visits her, she is dressed in black and still deep in mourning, although it has been more than a year since Kurtz’s death. She presses Marlow for information, asking him to repeat Kurtz’s final words, which in fact are “The horror! The horror!” Uncomfortable, Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz’s final word was her name.
Film and television
The most famous adaptation is Francis Ford Coppola‘s 1979 motion picture Apocalypse Now, which moves the story from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a U.S. Army Captain assigned to “terminate” the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Marlon Brando played Kurtz, in one of his most famous roles. A production documentary of the film, titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, exposed some of the major difficulties which director Coppola faced in seeing the movie through to completion. The difficulties that Coppola and his crew faced mirrored some of the themes of the book.