Marlow sits on the Nellie at the Thames River in the evening with several other people and begins telling the story about how he entered into the dark continent. No one seems particularly interested, but he continues anyway.
Marlow, who revels in exploring the uncharted areas of the world, expressed a desire to go to the center of Africa. His Aunt, who has connections with the Company, is able to secure a position for Marlow as captain of a steamboat. The previous captain, Freslaven, died in a scuffle with the natives and Marlow took his place. A few days later, Marlow travels to Africa and gets to the Outer Station, where he meets the chief accountant, who keeps track of the funds. The man is interesting to Marlow since he's been on the continent for three years, yet he keeps himself clean and well-dressed. Marlow learns from him that there exists a Mr. Kurtz, who is a first-class agent and the best ivory trader in the Company. Marlow finds the blacks being poorly treated and ordered to do meaningless work by the whites.
Eventually a caravan arrives and takes Marlow 200 miles north to the Central Station. The general manager, a man who invoked uneasiness, informs Marlow that his steamer had sunk to the bottom of the river. Upon hearing this, Marlow decides to devote himself to retrieving the steamer and fixing it up. At the station, Marlow meets the brickmaker, a character who seems intent on pumping Marlow for information about the Company's affairs in Europe. One day, a grass shed at the station goes up in flames, and a negro is beaten for allegedly starting the fire. When the negro recovers, he flees towards the woods and is never heard from again. Later, while Marlow is in the brickmaker's quarters, he notices a somber painting of a blindfolded woman holding a torch. The brickmaker reveals that the painting was done by Mr. Kurtz, currently the chief of the best station. Eventually Marlow is able to fix up his ship and continue his journey.
Marlow continues down the river on his steamboat with a crew of several whites, about 20 to 30 blacks, and a few cannibals. As he travels down the river, he comes across an abandoned shack where he picks up wood, and a note cautioning him to travel carefully. He continues down the river and becomes surrounded by savages in the fog. Marlow is frightened but the savages don't do anything... until the fog rises. The savages attack and Marlow's men fire back. The arrows of the savages have little effect on Marlow's men or his boat. And the guns of Marlow's men have little effect on the savages since they fire too high. Only Marlow's helmsman dies. Marlow blows the whistle and mysteriously, all the savages retreat in fear.
Marlow shortly reaches the Inner Station, where he is greeted by the Russian Trader, a man who seems to survive in the heart of the continent by not knowing what's going on around him. Kurtz is very ill and needs to be taken back to England, but he does not want to go. In fact, he is the one who ordered the attack on the steamboat so that they couldn't take him back to England. Kurtz is worshipped by the natives and completely exploits them. That night, Kurtz tries to escape to the natives but Marlow catches him and takes him back to the steamboat to head back for England. While still on the river, Kurtz dies saying, "The horror, the horror." Marlow returns to England. He visits Kurtz's Intended who is still in mourning a year after Kurtz's death. She still remembers Kurtz as the great man he was before he left, and Marlow doesn't tell her what he had become before he dies. He tells her that Kurtz's last words were her name. Marlow gives Kurtz her old letters and leaves.Style
Conrad's prose is very descriptive and informative. He portrays terrifying images and conveys horrifying truths in a mystic voice that contrasts effectively with the true horrors of his message. Foreshadowing and suspense is used to heighten this exciting novel.Dominant Philosophy
Conrad deals in this novel with the dark heart of mankind, a topic he seems to enjoy writing about. He tells us that man in inherently evil and his evils is only masked by civilization.Key Quotes
In the book, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, all the characters are pulled into a web of black despair, but none are saved by the flip of a light switch or shown the way out by an enlightened man. Conrad uses the darkness of the situation contrasted to the light of society to show man's dependence on western morals, and how when these morals are challenged by the darkness, the light crumbles under its newly weakened foundation. The contrast between light and dark is most stark in the themes of setting, the changes in Europeans as they drive farther into the Congo, and the white man's collapse under the ultimate darkness of the innermost Congo.
The setting of Heart of Darkness is a very critical part of the book, and Conrad goes to extreme lengths to highlight the evil radiating from the region in which he sets his book. First, the tale is told in a frame story pattern, in which Marlow is relating his experience to friends in a setting different from that of the primary tale. But the setting where Marlow tells his tale is a foreshadow of what is to come. Marlow presents his story on a boat in the dark of night, creating a sense of evil surrounding the story. The darkness is so deep where Marlow rests during the telling of his tale, that he cannot see his friends, and instead tells the story to the darkness itself. Once the narrative begins, Conrad quickly places his character in another situation which only foretells of the place to which he is going.
The uncivilized/civilized comparison and the descriptions of darkness heighten when Conrad increases the contrast by moving Marlow into an oasis of civilization, the Outer Station. The Outer Station is an outpost on the coast of Africa, owned and commanded by white Europeans, but kept alive by the slave work of black natives. Upon setting foot on shore, Marlow begins to see glimpses of the darkness that awaits him. The natives along the path are described in a manner closer to animal than human:
"Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner... others were scattered about in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of massacre or pestilence."
The scene disturbs Marlow a great deal, and he hastens to reach the camp. There, he comes upon another man like himself, dressed in pure white, and is temporarily rescued from the setting Conrad has created. Conrad continues to create a setting that is described as dark and dreary, always colored as black, brown, or yellow. Marlow always interprets this to represent evil, which is upheld by the actions of the natives within the Congo.
Marlow has never traveled to an area that is populated by non-Europeans. He enters the Congo expecting all the actions and ideas of the natives to follow his pre-established ideals, but finds a truth very different than he predicted.
Marlow's revelation does not come to him immediately. His awareness of the truth of reality increases as the pushes further into the Congo. Upon leaving the Outer Station, Marlow sets forth with his team of sixty men, and quickly notices the solitude that accompanies the first leg of their journey. Marlow then makes the rational explanation that if natives came to England and forced all the white men to carry their stuff, the Europeans would move away quickly also. This statement is curious, because it highlights the brutality of the whites, a theme that Marlow does not believe in very strongly. The end of the march finds Marlow and his team in the Central Station, an outpost where the European culture is still present, but corroding under the influence of the native culture. Whereas the Outer Station was described as organized, orderly, and under strict control by the Europeans, the Central Station is described as "on black water surrounded by scrub and forest... white men with long staves in their hands appeared languidly amongst the buildings..." Here the stockade is broken, leaving gaps for entry, and the Whites within are fearful of attack, but still have a higher degree of safety and control over the natives than outside the Station. The closer Marlow moves to the center of the Congo, the more European culture is eroded by the natives around them.
Just before Marlow reaches the Inner Station, the natives attack his steamer and manage to kill a native who ran the wheelhouse with Marlow. Upon his death, he falls to the floor next to Marlow who then remarks, "...my feet felt so warm and wet that I had to look down. It was the shaft of a spear that, either thrown or lunged through the opening, had caught him in the side just below the ribs... my shoes were full; a pool of blood lay very still, gleaming dark-red under the wheel." The sudden blast of brutality from the natives shocks Marlow so much that he instinctively reaches for anything from his comforting culture. What he finds is the steamer's whistle. Pulling repeatedly on the whistle creates two reactions: it calms Marlow, and it scares the natives from their attack and into hiding. Just as the native civilization scares Europeans, the product of the European culture drives away the natives. The final stop is the Inner Station, where a station hardly exists. There is no stockade here, no barrier separating the Native from European culture, and no safety from the presence of a white race. The only safety in this innermost Station is spawned from Mr. Kurtz, who has become a god to the natives. The savageness and brutality that Marlow willingly undertakes is not rooted in some desire within himself to hold up under pain, or even to acquire the enlightenment that he eventually does. The objective to all of Marlow's journey is to find and rescue Mr. Kurtz, the manager of the Inner Station, and the best ivory man the company has.
Marlow develops a fascination with Kurtz even before they ever meet, which drives him to enter this mission and remain with it until the end. As it turns out, both are very similar characters. Each came from European society with morals and ideals that have been knocked out from beneath them as they move deeper into the heart of darkness. Marlow's morals have been destroyed as he moves to each station. Each stop cuts him off from his moral foundation. The final blow to Marlow comes during the attack on the river. When his helmsman dies, it severs his link to civilization.
Marlow's anxiousness roots from the unconscious understanding that he is alone, and nothing connects him to the civilization he knows. From this time until Marlow returns to civilization, his morals and ideals are actively altered by the native culture. Marlow falls into an enlightening depression as he begins to understand the natural cruelty of the world. Kurtz was identical to Marlow, but has remained cut off from civilization for so long that he has been radically changed by the natives. His morals have been ripped out from under him, leaving nothing to base reality and sanity on. The hut in which he resides is surrounded by stakes with human heads, all facing inwards towards the house. Kurtz's moral collapse has brought him enlightenment. This enlightenment, however, can only be seen in the civilized side of himself, a side that rarely resurfaced from the corrupt shell (but instantly emerged upon the arrival of Marlow). The culture had altered Kurtz enough to have him write a paper on preserving the native culture, but the enlightenment shot through, visible in a scrawled postscript: "exterminate all the brutes!" The arrival of Marlow is enough to save the now enlightened mind (Marlow and Kurtz can withstand the corruption by drawing off of each other's western morals), but not enough to save the body weakened from the inner conflict. All that remains for Kurtz is to pass the enlightenment on (to the unfortunate Marlow, who must now live with the understanding of the true nature of the world) and then to die, which he does in his enlightened state, his last words being "The horror! The horror!"
Conrad's tale is in itself a fable, which leaves us with a moral that is very difficult to accept. Heart of Darkness warns us that the world is itself an evil thing, and the civilized population has refused to accept that fact. They create morals to mask the truth that they don't want to see. This masking is what makes us human, but we must always understand that it is only a mask and not the truth, because one day everyone will be faced with the darkness of the true nature of our world. And just like the child who is alone in the dark, one day someone won't be there to turn the light on for us. Then we'll be forced to stare into the heart of the darkness, and it will break us, as it did to Kurtz, or enlighten us, as it did for Marlow.