header logo
Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness Summary


Here you will find a Heart of Darkness summary (Joseph Conrad's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

P.S.: As an Amazon Associate, we earn money from purchases made through links in this page. But the summaries are totally free!

Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Heart of Darkness Summary Overview

The tale revolves around a man named Marlow, an introspective mariner, who embarks on a voyage up the Congo River to connect with Kurtz, a man known for his lofty ideals and impressive capabilities. Marlow is employed as a riverboat captain for a Belgian company with business interests in Congo. Throughout his journey to Africa and up the river, Marlow experiences first-hand the haphazard operations and barbaric treatment meted out by the company's officials to the local inhabitants, who are enslaved and horribly mistreated. The savage reality of colonialism is heightened by the serene and vast jungle surrounding the European settlements, making them seem like tiny specks amidst a sea of darkness. Upon reaching the Central Station, managed by a scheming man, Marlow discovers his steamship has been sunk and spends months waiting for parts to repair it, during which his curiosity about Kurtz intensifies. The manager and his associate, the brickmaker, appear threatened by Kurtz. Rumours of Kurtz's ill-health add to the urgency of repairing the ship. Once the ship is repaired, Marlow, the manager, a few agents whom Marlow refers to as pilgrims due to their peculiar habit of carrying lengthy wooden staves, and a crew of cannibals embark on a strenuous journey up the river. The thick jungle and the deafening silence unsettle everyone on board, with occasional sights of native villages or the sound of drums inciting the pilgrims into a frenzy. Marlow and his crew discover a hut with firewood stacked high and a note warning them to proceed with caution. After collecting the firewood, their ship is engulfed by a dense fog, and once it dissipates, they are ambushed by an invisible group of natives from the safety of the forest. Despite losing their African helmsman, Marlow manages to scare the natives off using the ship's steam whistle. They reach Kurtz's Inner Station, expecting to find him dead, but instead, they are met by a slightly deranged Russian trader who assures them that all is well. The trader reveals that Kurtz has elevated his consciousness and thus, can't be judged by regular morals. Kurtz has established himself as a deity amongst the natives and frequently raids the nearby regions for ivory. His ruthless methods are evident from the severed heads decorating the fence posts around the station. Kurtz's deteriorating health forces them to bring him aboard the steamer, and Marlow learns from the Russian that Kurtz had planned the earlier attack on the ship to make them think he was dead and interrupt his plans. Marlow finds Kurtz crawling towards the native camp and persuades him to return. Kurtz entrusts Marlow with his personal documents, including a pamphlet on civilizing the savages, ironically ending with "Exterminate all the brutes!" Despite attempts to repair the ship, Kurtz dies en route, uttering "The horror! The horror!" Marlow falls ill but survives and returns to Europe to visit Kurtz's grieving fiancée, unable to share the harsh reality of Kurtz's life and death.

part 1 section 1

As the sun sets, a vessel named the Nellie is anchored at the estuary of the Thames, awaiting the ebbing tide. Five acquaintances, united by the "bond of the sea," lounge on the ship's deck; these include the ship's captain who is also the Director of Companies, a Lawyer, an Accountant, Marlow, and an unknown Narrator. They seem restless yet contemplative, as if anticipating some event. As twilight descends, making the surroundings "less brilliant but more profound," they reminisce about the illustrious men and ships that embarked from the Thames on daring expeditions, many of which did not return. Out of the blue, Marlow comments that their current location was once among "the dark places of the earth," referring to the time when Romans first arrived in England, viewing it as a vast, uncivilized wilderness. He ponders how disorienting it must've been for a young Roman soldier or captain to venture into such an unfamiliar, comfort-less land. Marlow's reflections take him back to his unique stint as a "fresh-water sailor," wherein he helmed a steamship up the Congo River as a young man. He narrates how the idea occurred to him when he stumbled upon a map of Africa in a London shop window after a six-year journey through Asia. This encounter reignited his childhood curiosities about the "blank spaces" on the map. Marlow details his journey of securing a job with a Belgian "Company" that operated on the Congo River, owing to his aunt's connections within the Company's management. The Congo was a Belgian colony at the time. Marlow's employment was facilitated by the Company's need for a new captain after the previous one's demise during a skirmish with the local populace.

part 1 section 2

Learning that he's received the position, Marlow crosses over the English Channel to a city akin to a “whited sepulchre” (likely Brussels) to confirm his job at the Company's headquarters. He takes a brief detour to recount the tale of his predecessor, Fresleven, who was killed in a fight about chickens. Fresleven, a mild-mannered man, was stabbed by a village chief's son after hitting the chief, and left alone to die in a now deserted tribe. Marlow was asked to retrieve his remains, and reveals that he never discovered what happened to the chickens. At the Company's office, Marlow encounters two eerie women knitting black wool. One of them ushers him into a waiting area where a map of Africa, color-coded by imperial powers, catches his eye. A clerk escorts him into the office for a meeting with the Company's director. After signing his contract, he is taken for a medical examination. The doctor measures his cranial dimensions, regretfully mentioning he seldom meets the men who return from Africa. What matters more, the doctor explains, is "the changes take place inside." The doctor's interest lies in gathering information that could give Belgians an edge in colonial contexts. Having completed all the formalities, Marlow visits his aunt to bid farewell. She earnestly wishes him success in his mission to civilize the natives during his service, "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways." Marlow, aware of the Company's profit-driven motives and put off by his aunt's lack of understanding, takes leave. On the brink of boarding the French boat taking him to Africa, Marlow experiences an odd premonition about his voyage: a sense that he is journeying to the heart of the earth.

part 1 section 3

Marlow travels the African coastline aboard a French steamer, dropping off soldiers and officials at different points. He grows restless during the journey, which feels increasingly dreamlike. Spotting a French warship firing at an empty forest unsettles him further. Finally, Marlow arrives at the Congo River and switches to a steamship destined for a location upriver. The ship's Swedish captain recognizes Marlow's maritime background and invites him on the bridge, where he criticizes the colonial authorities and shares a tragic story of another Swede. Marlow lands at the poorly-maintained Company’s station amidst decaying machinery and seemingly pointless excavation. He observes chained black prisoners being supervised by another black man in a distressed uniform. He notes that Africa introduced him to the "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly," a new form of evil. He stumbles upon a grove where dying native laborers are left to their fate, a sight that horrifies him. While offering aid to one, Marlow notices a piece of European yarn tied around the laborer's neck and wonders about its significance. During his stay, Marlow meets the Company's sharply dressed chief accountant, distinct from his accountant friend from the book's beginning. He waits ten days there for a caravan to the next station. The accountant eventually mentions a Mr. Kurtz, a highly productive agent, and asks Marlow to relay that all is well at the Outer Station should he meet Kurtz. The accountant fears his message would be intercepted by unsavory elements at the Central Station if put in writing.

part 1 section 4

Marlow journeys over land with a group of sixty men, covering two hundred miles. His only white companion falls sick and the native carriers start to abandon them due to the extra load. After a tough fifteen-day journey, they reach the run-down Central Station. Upon arrival, Marlow learns that the steamboat he was supposed to be in charge of has been wrecked. The station's general manager had taken the boat out a few days prior with a volunteer captain, and the boat had crashed on the rocks. Marlow, suspecting foul play, believes this was done intentionally to prevent him from reaching Kurtz. He meets the general manager, an utterly average man who seems to lead more through the discomfort he instills in others than any actual skill. The manager reveals that he had attempted a hurried mission to Kurtz's inner station because there were rumors of Kurtz's illness. Kurtz is frequently discussed and highly praised for his work in the trade. The word ‘ivory’ was constantly in the air, almost like a prayer. Marlow devotes three months to salvaging and repairing his boat. During this time, a shed containing goods catches fire and burns down. The native workers joyfully celebrate the fire. One worker is blamed and beaten, disappearing into the forest once he recovers. Marlow overhears the manager and a brickmaker talking about Kurtz by the ruins of the shed. He talks to the brickmaker after the manager leaves and accompanies him back to his quarters that are noticeably more lavish than others. The brickmaker tries to extract information regarding the Company's directors in Europe from Marlow. This is when Marlow notices a strange painting on the wall, which the brickmaker reveals to be Kurtz's work. The brickmaker describes Kurtz as a genius, appointed by the Company's directors to spread Western ideals and bound for rapid promotion. He also discloses that he has seen secret communications about Marlow's appointment and believes that Marlow is well-liked by management. They step outside and the brickmaker tries to get on Marlow's good side, assuming that Marlow is allied with Kurtz. Marlow discovers that the brickmaker had hoped to be the assistant manager, but Kurtz's arrival has dashed his hopes. Marlow plays along, letting the brickmaker think he has influence in Europe and could get the needed rivets for the ship repair. The brickmaker leaves Marlow, but not before issuing a thinly-veiled threat. Marlow finds his foreman on the ship deck and tells him that the rivets will arrive in three weeks, leading them both to celebrate. However, the rivets never arrive. Instead, the manager's uncle arrives leading the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, a group of white men keen to extract wealth from the land. As his hopes of getting the rivets fade, Marlow's thoughts turn to Kurtz and his principles.

part 2 section 1

Marlow overhears the manager and his uncle discussing Kurtz while he's on his broken steamer. The manager isn't pleased with Kurtz's aims to civilize the stations and possibly take over his job. He remembers how Kurtz sent a sizeable shipment of premium ivory by canoe with his clerk but returned to his station midway. The clerk handed over the ivory and a letter from Kurtz, who had been sick. The letter criticized the manager for sending him unfit men. Their conversation shifts to a trader who annoys the manager. His uncle suggests hanging the trader since nobody will question his power. He also hints that the tropical climate might take care of his problems, pointing to Kurtz's potential death from disease. Marlow, disturbed by their conniving, reveals himself, startling them, but they ignore him. Shortly after, the manager's uncle leads the Eldorado Expedition into the wilderness. After some time, news arrives that all the expedition's donkeys have died. Marlow's steamer is almost ready, and he's set to embark on a two-month journey with the manager and a few "pilgrims" to visit Kurtz. The treacherous river journey requires the aid of a local crew, dubbed cannibals, who behave sensibly. Nighttime drums echo from the riverbanks and fleeting sightings of native settlements occur. However, the ship's crew can only speculate about deeper inland life. Marlow finds common ground with the riverside natives but staying busy with the ship prevents him from ruminating.

part 2 section 2

The steamship is 50 miles from Kurtz’s Inner Station when they spot a cabin with a pile of firewood and a note advising caution. The note isn’t signed by Kurtz. In the cabin, Marlow discovers an old book about navigation with coded annotations. The manager assumes it’s from the Russian trader he often complains about. The crew takes the firewood, their fuel, and continues upstream. Marlow continuously contemplates about Kurtz while they laboriously move closer. Two days post-discovery of the cabin, they are eight miles from Kurtz’s station. Marlow is eager to continue but the manager insists on waiting until morning due to the precarious waters. The night is eerily calm, succeeded by a heavy fog at dawn. The fog lifts and descends abruptly. Sounds of a mournful cry, followed by a cacophony of wild voices, then silence, causes the crew to brace themselves for an attack. The African crew members remain calm, while the whites become nervous. The cannibals’ leader informs Marlow they wish to consume the foggy voices’ owners. Marlow sympathizes with the cannibals' hunger having realized they’ve been restricted from trading for supplies and their only food, decaying hippo meat, was discarded by the pilgrims. Marlow is given permission by the manager to risk moving forward in the fog, but he rejects the idea, foreseeing potential grounding of the steamer. He reassures the crew the natives won't attack as their cries don't sound hostile. When the fog lifts, the natives attack near the station. The steamer is moving slowly next to a bank thick with bushes when arrows fill the air. Marlow retreats to the pilot-house. He sees the river bank teeming with natives and a snag in the river ahead. The pilgrims fire their guns, their smoke clouding Marlow's vision. The African helmsman leaves the wheel to shoot at the natives, but is speared in the side and collapses at Marlow’s feet. Marlow frightens off the attackers by blasting the steam whistle and takes over steering to avoid the snag. A pilgrim discovers the wounded helmsman and Marlow tasks him with steering while he changes out of his blood-soaked shoes. Marlow fears Kurtz might be dead, leaving him with a sense of profound disappointment. One of Marlow's listeners interrupts his story, pointing out the absurdity of his actions. Marlow laughs, remarking the man's sheltered life hasn't exposed him to anything like Africa. He admits his behavior might have been strange, mentioning throwing his new shoes overboard after the helmsman's death. But, he maintains his disappointment at potentially not meeting the legendary Kurtz is valid.

part 2 section 3

Marlow shares his thoughts on Kurtz, revealing that Kurtz had a fiancée, referred to as his Intended, waiting in Europe. However, Marlow doesn't put much stock in her, as he sees women as part of a separate reality. What he finds remarkable about Kurtz's relationship with his Intended is his sense of ownership over her, the same way he claimed possession over everything - from ivory to the Inner Station. This dark dominance unsettles Marlow. He also brings up a report Kurtz penned for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. While it was eloquent and persuasive, it ended with a chilling note: “Exterminate all the brutes!” Marlow believes this disturbing statement was a result of Kurtz's immersion into native life, where he took part in horrifying rituals. He also feels burdened with preserving Kurtz's memory. Returning to his narrative, Marlow is uncertain if Kurtz's life was worth all the loss that happened. He blames his helmsman's death on the man's own recklessness, and disposes of his body by throwing it overboard. The pilgrims are upset about the lack of a proper burial while the cannibals mourn their missed feast. They believe Kurtz is dead and the Inner Station ruined, but they rejoice in the defeat they presume they delivered to their invisible enemies. Marlow, doubtful, mocks them for the smoke they've created. Soon after, the Inner Station comes into sight, somewhat worn but still intact. A white man, the Russian trader, signals to them from the shore. He's dressed in a flamboyant patchwork outfit and won't stop talking. He claims they're safe now and goes to chat with Marlow as the others go to retrieve Kurtz. The Russian confirms Marlow's belief that the ship's whistle works as a deterrent to the natives. He shares his story of being a merchant seaman, and how he ended up in Africa through a Dutch trading company. The Russian is delighted when Marlow returns his book on seamanship, revealing the 'secret codes' Marlow found were just Russian notes. He discloses that the natives attacked the steamer because they didn't want Kurtz to leave and ambiguously describes Kurtz as someone who speaks less but is listened to more. The trader credits Kurtz for broadening his horizons.

part 3 section 1

The Russian trader pleads with Marlow to remove Kurtz from the area as soon as possible. He shares details from his past interactions with Kurtz, reflecting on the times when Kurtz had shared insights and ideas that expanded his own understanding of life. He confesses that despite their relationship having its ups and downs, and even though Kurtz's unpredictable behavior and obsession with ivory sometimes frightened him, he still can't judge Kurtz like an ordinary man. He reveals to Marlow that Kurtz is gravely ill. Marlow, during their conversation, discovers that the decoration on the fence posts are actually severed heads, a sight that disgusts him but doesn't particularly shock him. The Russian trader attempts to justify these heads as rebels, causing Marlow to laugh. He admits his inability to medically assist Kurtz and accuses the Company of deserting Kurtz. Suddenly, Kurtz is carried out of the station-house on a makeshift stretcher by the pilgrims. The crowd of natives that had gathered retreats after Kurtz speaks to them. Kurtz is placed in a cabin on the ship and given his mail, which includes a note about Marlow. He welcomes Marlow, saying he's “glad” to see him. When the manager of the station enters the cabin to talk to Kurtz, Marlow steps out and observes a native woman adorned with jewelry, including numerous elephant tusks. She's identified as Kurtz's mistress by the Russian trader who regards her as a troublemaker due to her influence over Kurtz. He admits he would have shot her if she had attempted to board the ship. Their conversation is interrupted by Kurtz yelling at the manager from inside the cabin, accusing the men of being more interested in ivory than aiding him. Subsequently, the manager confides in Marlow, expressing his plans to report Kurtz's reckless conduct to the Company's directors. He blames Kurtz's tactics for negatively impacting the Company's operations in the region. Marlow, however, counters his comments by praising Kurtz as a “remarkable man,” thereby distancing himself from the manager and his cohorts. Afterward, the Russian discloses that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer to deter the manager. He also asks Marlow to safeguard Kurtz's reputation. Upon being warned by Marlow about the manager's threat to hang him, the trader departs in a canoe with native paddlers, after acquiring some supplies from Marlow.

part 3 section 2

Taking the Russian trader's caution to heart, Marlow investigates the surroundings at night. From the steamer, he observes a pilgrim and cannibals guarding the ivory and the native campfires. The sound of a drum and chant sends him into a brief slumber. Abrupt yells break his sleep, which quickly turns into rhythmic chanting again. Finding Kurtz's cabin empty, he suppresses his unease and chooses not to alert others, deciding to locate Kurtz himself. Discovering a track, Marlow realizes Kurtz has been crawling. Pursuing the trail, Kurtz hears him and stands up. They're near the native campfires now, and Marlow understands the perilous situation, as Kurtz could alert the natives and get him killed. Kurtz tells him to hide, and he spots a native sorcerer by the fire. When Marlow questions Kurtz's actions, Kurtz reaffirms his understanding. Despite his physical superiority, Marlow feels powerless and threatens to strangle Kurtz if he alerts the natives. Kurtz laments his failed plans, and Marlow comforts him with a lie about his success in Europe. Sensing Kurtz's weak state, Marlow warns him of dire consequences if he continues. Seeing Kurtz wavering, Marlow assists him back to the ship. The steamer sets sail the next day at midday, with the natives observing from the shore. Three red-earth painted men with horned headdresses perform rituals at the departing ship. Marlow settles Kurtz in the pilot-house for some fresh air. Kurtz watches his mistress run to the shore and call out to him through the open window. Her cry incites a commotion from the crowd. Marlow blows the whistle on seeing the pilgrims equipping their rifles, causing the crowd to disperse, to the pilgrims' disappointment. Amidst the gunfire, only the woman remains on the shore, her image blurred by the smoke.

part 3 section 3

The journey back to civilization on the steamer quickens due to the swift current. The manager appears content, believing Kurtz's demise is near, and pays little attention to Marlow who he considers harmless yet unstable. Marlow and Kurtz are mostly left to themselves, and Kurtz seizes opportunities to discuss various topics. Marlow finds himself both fascinated and disenchanted by Kurtz’s grand plans and philosophical thoughts. Unexpectedly, the steamer malfunctions and needs repairs, which affects Marlow's health. Kurtz becomes uneasy, perhaps realizing he might not return to Europe alive. Fearful that his "legacy" might fall into the manager's hands, Kurtz entrusts Marlow with his documents. As his health deteriorates, Kurtz's speeches become increasingly puzzling and rhetorical. One night, Kurtz confesses to Marlow he is "waiting for death." Kurtz appears to be on the verge of a great revelation when he exclaims—“The horror! The horror!”—causing Marlow to withdraw. He finds the manager in the dining hall, now swarmed by flies, and is soon informed by a servant, "Mistah Kurtz—he dead." Kurtz is laid to rest the following day. Marlow is struck by illness and nearly perishes. His brush with death leaves him feeling empty, with "nothing to say." He admires Kurtz for having "something to say" and expressing it. Marlow can barely recall his time being sick. Once he recovers, he departs Africa for Brussels.

part 3 section 4

Following his encounter with sickness, Marlow ultimately finds his way back to Brussels, a city he now views with disdain due to its inhabitants' self-satisfied attitudes. His aunt helps him recover, with his ailment having affected him more emotionally than physically. He receives a visit from a Company representative who wishes to reclaim Kurtz's documents, but Marlow only hands over a pamphlet titled "Suppression of Savage Customs," sans the handwritten note "Exterminate all the brutes!" that was attached. When the representative threatens legal repercussions for the remaining documents, Marlow remains unfazed. Another man claiming to be Kurtz's cousin arrives to collect letters for the family. The cousin praises Kurtz's musical talent, leading to a conversation where they label Kurtz a "universal genius." A journalist and associate of Kurtz collects the pamphlet for publishing, believing Kurtz's true knack lay in populist or radical politics. In the end, Marlow keeps only a few letters and an image of Kurtz’s fiancée. He visits her without a clear reason, and seeing her rekindles memories of Kurtz. He finds her still grieving over a year after Kurtz’s death. Marlow hands over the remaining documents and confirms he was acquainted with Kurtz. The woman is eager to share her adoration for Kurtz, which initially irritates Marlow, but he soon feels pity for her. He lies when she asks him to share Kurtz's final words, telling her Kurtz uttered her name as his last. She accepts this as truth, believing it to be so. With this, Marlow concludes his narrative, with the narrator noting the dark sky above making the waterway appear as a gateway into a vast darkness.

Enjoying this summary?
Buy the book! (it's better)

People who recommended Heart of Darkness