"Heart of Darkness" Plot Summary And Analysis

Lantern in the heart of darkness

“Heart of Darkness” is a novella written by Joseph Conrad, first published in 1899. The story revolves around the journey of the protagonist, Marlow, up the Congo River in Central Africa, and his encounters with the enigmatic Mr. Kurtz. The novella delves into themes of imperialism, colonization, and the darkness inherent in human nature.

Short Summary of The Novella

“Heart of Darkness” follows Marlow, a seaman and wanderer, as he embarks on a harrowing journey up the Congo River to meet Mr. Kurtz, a mysterious ivory trader. As Marlow ventures deeper into the African jungle, he confronts the brutality of European colonialism and its impact on the native inhabitants. Upon reaching Kurtz, Marlow finds a man who, isolated from civilization, has become a god-like figure to the locals but has also succumbed to the darkest depths of human nature. The novella serves as a profound critique of imperialism and a deep exploration of the darkness within the human soul.

Complete Plot Summary of “Heart of Darkness”

Journey’s Prelude on the Nellie

The novella begins aboard the ship Nellie, anchored on the Thames River outside London. As darkness begins to fall, the unnamed narrator and his companions listen as Marlow, an experienced seaman, reflects on the darkness of the wilderness and the human soul. He begins to recount his harrowing journey into the heart of the African continent.

The Quest for the Mysterious Kurtz

Marlow describes his childhood fascination with blank spaces on maps and his subsequent joy when he secures a job as a riverboat captain for a Belgian trading company operating in the Congo. Upon arriving in Africa, Marlow witnesses the brutalities of colonial exploitation, with European colonizers mistreating the African natives. As he travels further inland, Marlow hears repeated mentions of a man named Kurtz, an agent for the trading company. Kurtz is described as a brilliant man and the company’s top ivory collector, but there are also whispers about his questionable methods and deteriorating health.

The Descent into the Heart of Darkness

"Heart of Darkness" Plot Summary And Analysis

A steamship amidst the jungle

Marlow’s journey up the Congo River towards Kurtz’s inner station is fraught with challenges. The dense jungle, the broken-down steamship, and the eerie silence all contribute to an oppressive atmosphere. Along the way, Marlow learns more about Kurtz’s god-like influence over the natives and his descent into madness. When Marlow finally reaches the inner station, he discovers that Kurtz has established himself as a deity among the local tribes, who worship him and offer him human sacrifices. Marlow also finds a series of scrawled notes by Kurtz, culminating in the chilling postscript: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

The Revelation of Kurtz and Return

Marlow finally meets the ailing Kurtz and is both repulsed and fascinated by the man’s charisma and philosophical insights. As they begin their journey back down the river, Kurtz’s health deteriorates rapidly. On his deathbed, Kurtz’s final words, “The horror! The horror!” encapsulate the profound darkness he has witnessed and become a part of. Marlow returns to Europe profoundly changed by his experiences. He visits Kurtz’s “Intended” (fiancée) and struggles with whether to reveal the truth about Kurtz’s actions and final moments. Ultimately, Marlow chooses to preserve her idealized image of Kurtz.

Reflections on Civilization’s Illusions

Back on the Nellie, as Marlow concludes his tale, the Thames seems to lead into the heart of an immense darkness, suggesting that the same potential for brutality exists in Europe as in Africa. The novella closes with a critique of European imperialism and a contemplation of the darkness present in all human hearts.

Basic Info About The Novel

  • Title of the work: Heart of Darkness
  • Author: Joseph Conrad
  • Date of Publication: 1899
  • Original Language: English
  • Genre: Novella
  • Length: Approximately 38,000 words
  • Form and Structure: Prose narrative, framed as a story within a story.
  • Setting: Begins on the Nellie, a ship on the Thames River, London. The main narrative is set in the Congo Free State during European colonization.
  • Themes: The brutality of colonization, the thin veneer of civilization, the depths of human savagery, and the subjective nature of truth.
  • Publication Medium: Originally published as a three-part series in Blackwood’s Magazine.
  • Diction: Conrad’s language is descriptive and symbolic, with a mix of formal and colloquial terms. The narrative delves deep into psychological and philosophical territories, often using dense and introspective language to convey the complexities of the human psyche.

“Heart of Darkness” Main Characters Overview


Marlow is the protagonist and primary narrator of “Heart of Darkness.” A philosophical sailor, he is keenly observant and reflective. Throughout the novella, Marlow embarks on a journey up the Congo River to meet the infamous Kurtz, a journey that also becomes a quest for self-understanding. Marlow’s narrative is not just about the external world but also delves deep into the human psyche, confronting the darkness within. His experiences in Africa leave him deeply disillusioned about European imperialism and the depths of human cruelty.


Kurtz is an ivory trader who has achieved god-like status among the natives of the Congo. Highly talented and eloquent, he is initially portrayed as a man of great ideals and potential. However, as the story progresses, it becomes evident that Kurtz has been consumed by the very darkness he sought to enlighten. His final words, “The horror! The horror!” encapsulate the profound impact of his experiences in the Congo and serve as a chilling testament to the depths of human depravity.

The Intended

The Intended is Kurtz’s European fiancée, whom Marlow visits after Kurtz’s death. She is depicted as a symbol of European naivety and the blindness of those who remain ignorant of the true horrors of imperialism. Her idealized view of Kurtz contrasts sharply with the reality Marlow has witnessed, highlighting the vast gulf between European perceptions of colonialism and its grim realities.

The Manager

The Manager of the Central Station in the Congo represents the faceless, bureaucratic evil of imperialism. He is envious of Kurtz’s success and is more concerned with maintaining his own position and the profitability of the ivory trade than with the well-being of the indigenous people or even his own staff. His character underscores the moral bankruptcy of the colonial enterprise.

The Russian Sailor

A young, impressionable sailor who becomes devoted to Kurtz, the Russian Sailor is a reflection of the allure Kurtz holds for those around him. His admiration for Kurtz is unwavering, even in the face of the trader’s evident madness and moral decay. The Russian’s naivety contrasts with Marlow’s growing disillusionment, offering a multifaceted view of Kurtz’s complex character.

Context of The Novel

“Heart of Darkness” was written during a time when European imperialism was at its peak. The Scramble for Africa, where European powers raced to claim their share of the continent, had reached its frenzied climax. Conrad himself had traveled to the Congo in 1890, a journey that deeply affected him and provided direct inspiration for the novella. The exploitation, violence, and sheer inhumanity he witnessed during his time in the Congo are vividly portrayed in the narrative.

Comparison with Other Conrad’s Works

Joseph Conrad’s works often delve into themes of personal conflict, the ambiguities of good and evil, and the darkness lurking in human souls. Like “Heart of Darkness”, novels such as “Lord Jim” and “Nostromo” also explore the complexities of morality and the human psyche. However, “Heart of Darkness” stands out for its incisive critique of European imperialism and its profound psychological insights.

Reception and Criticism

Upon its initial publication, “Heart of Darkness” was praised for its style and narrative technique but also criticized by some for its bleak outlook and dense prose. Over time, it has become one of the most analyzed texts in English literature, with scholars and critics examining its treatment of imperialism, race, and the nature of evil. While it has been lauded for its critique of European colonialism, it has also faced criticism, most notably from Chinua Achebe, who argued that the novella dehumanizes Africans.

Comparative Analysis

“Heart of Darkness” was written during the late Victorian era, a time when British literature was evolving rapidly. While it shares thematic elements with other works of the period, such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” which also deals with imperialism, Conrad’s novella is far more critical of the colonial enterprise. In comparison to other authors of his time, like H.G. Wells or E.M. Forster, Conrad’s work is darker, more introspective, and less optimistic about human nature and the promise of progress.

Adaptations of “Heart of Darkness”

While “Heart of Darkness” has influenced many works across various media, these are among the most direct and notable adaptations I can think of.

  • Film:Apocalypse Now” (1979) – Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this iconic film is a loose adaptation of “Heart of Darkness”, set during the Vietnam War.
  • Radio:Heart of Darkness” (1938) – Orson Welles adapted and performed the novella for CBS Radio’s “Mercury Theatre on the Air”.
  • Video Game:Spec Ops: The Line” (2012) – This third-person shooter game draws heavy inspiration from “Heart of Darkness”, exploring the descent into madness in a war-torn Dubai.
  • Theatre:Heart of Darkness” (2015) – An adaptation by Imitating the Dog theatre company, which combined live performance and digital technology to retell the story.

Interesting Facts

  • Personal Experience: Conrad based “Heart of Darkness” on his own experiences as a steamship captain in the Congo in the late 19th century. The novella is, in many ways, autobiographical.
  • Controversy: The novella has been both praised for its critique of colonialism and criticized for its portrayal of Africans. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe famously criticized the work for dehumanizing Africans.
  • Multiple Interpretations: The story is known for its ambiguity, leading to various interpretations. Some see it as a critique of colonialism, while others view it as a journey into the human psyche.
  • Influence on Literature: “Heart of Darkness” has had a significant influence on 20th-century literature and has inspired numerous adaptations, parodies, and other works.
  • Publication Medium: Initially, “Heart of Darkness” was published as a three-part series in “Blackwood’s Magazine” before being published as a novella.

My Short Review

“Heart of Darkness” is a haunting exploration of the depths of human nature and the horrors of colonialism. Conrad’s intricate prose and layered narrative invite readers to grapple with the complexities of morality, civilization, and the human psyche. While the novella’s portrayal of Africa and its inhabitants can be problematic from a modern perspective, its critique of European colonial ambitions remains powerful. The journey up the Congo River is as much an external adventure as it is an introspective voyage, making this work a timeless classic that continues to provoke thought and discussion.

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