Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad Summary & Analysis

Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness, novella by Conrad that was first published in 1899 in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine than in Conrad’s Youth: and Two Other Stories (1902). Heart of Darkness examines the horrors of Western colonialism, depicting it as a phenomenon that tarnishes not only the lands and peoples it exploits but also those within the West who advance it. Although garnering an initially lackluster reception, Conrad’s semiautobiographical tale has gone on to become one among the foremost widely analyzed works of English literature. Critics haven’t always treated Heart of Darkness favorably, rebuking its dehumanizing representation of colonized peoples and its dismissive treatment of girls. Nonetheless, Heart of Darkness has endured, and today it stands as a Modernist masterpiece directly engaged with postcolonial realities.


Heart of Darkness tells a story within a story. The novella begins with a gaggle of passengers aboard a ship floating on the Thames one among them, Charlie Marlow, relates to his fellow seafarers an experience of his that happened on another river altogether—the Congo in Africa. Marlow’s story begins in what he calls the “sepulchral city,” somewhere in Europe. There “the Company”—an unnamed organization running a colonial enterprise within the Belgian Congo—appoints him captain of a river steamer. He sets out for Africa optimistic of what he will find.

But his expectations are quickly soured. From the instant he arrives, he’s exposed to the evil of imperialism, witnessing the violence it inflicts upon the African people it exploits. As he proceeds, he begins to listen to tell of a person named Kurtz—a colonial agent who is supposedly unmatched in his ability to acquire ivory from the continent’s interior. consistent with rumor Kurtz has fallen ill (and perhaps mad as well), thereby jeopardizing the Company’s entire venture within the Congo.

Marlow is given command of his steamer and a crew of Europeans and Africans to man it, the latter of whom Conrad shamelessly stereotypes as “cannibals.” As he penetrates deeper into the jungle, it becomes clear that his surroundings are impacting him psychologically: his journey isn’t only into a geographical “heart of darkness” but his own psychic interior—and perhaps into the darkened psychic interior of Western culture also.

After encountering many obstacles along the way, Marlow’s steamer finally makes it to Kurtz. Kurtz has taken command over a tribe of natives who he now employs to conduct raids on the encompassing regions. the person is clearly ill, physically, and psychologically. Marlow has got to threaten him to travel alongside them, so the intent is Kurtz on executing his “immense plans.” because the steamer turns back the way it came, Marlow’s crew fires upon the group of indigenous people previously under Kurtz’s sway, which incorporates a queen-figure described by Conrad with much eroticism and as exoticism.

Kurtz dies on the journey copy the river but not before revealing to Marlow the terrifying glimpse of human evil he’d been exposed to. “The horror! The horror!” he tells Marlow before dying. Marlow almost dies also, but he makes it back to the sepulchral city to recuperate. he’s disdainful of the petty tribulations of Western culture that appear to occupy everyone around him. As he heals, he’s visited by various characters from Kurtz’s former life—the life he led before finding the dark interior of himself in Africa.

A year after his return to Europe, Marlow visits Kurtz’s partner. She is represented—as several of Heart of Darkness’s female characters are—as naively sheltered from the awfulness of the planet, a state that Marlow hopes to preserve. When she asks about Kurtz’s final words, Marlow lies: “your name,” he tells her. Marlow’s story ends there. Heart of Darkness itself ends because the narrator, one among Marlow’s audience, sees a mass of brooding clouds gathering on the horizon—what seems to him to be “heart of an immense darkness.”


Heart of Darkness was published in 1902 as a novella in Youth: And Two Other Stories, a set including two other stories by Conrad. But the text first appeared in 1899 in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a literary monthly on its thousandth issue, to which its editor invited Conrad to contribute. Conrad was hesitant to try to do so, perhaps permanently reason—although Heart of Darkness received acclaim among his own literary circle, the story did not secure any quite popular success. That remained the case even when it had been published in 1902; Heart of Darkness received the smallest amount of attention out of the three stories included, and therefore the collection was eponymously named after another one among the stories altogether. Conrad didn’t live long enough to ascertain it become a well-liked success.

Heart of Darkness first began garnering academic attention within the 1940 and ’50s, at a time when literary studies were dominated by a psychologically oriented approach to the interpretation of literature. Heart of Darkness was, accordingly, understood as a universalist exploration of human interiority—of its corruptibility, its inaccessibility, and therefore the darkness inherent thereto. Something was lacking in these critiques, of course: any quite an examination of the novella’s message about colonialism or its use of Africa and its people as an indistinct backdrop against which to explore the complexities of the white psyche.

That changed within the 1970s when Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author of Things disintegrate, leveled an excoriating critique against Heart of Darkness for the way it dehumanized African people. Achebe’s critique opened the doors for further postcolonial analyses of the work, was followed by those from other academic perspectives: feminist readings, for instance, revealed an identical quiet effacement done unto its female subjects. Although Heart of Darkness has remained on many syllabi since the 1970s, it now occupies a way more controversial position within the Western canon: as a story that, while leveling critiques against colonialism that were novel for its time, and which was formative for the emergence of modernism in literature, remains deeply and inexcusably entrenched within the white male perspective.]


On the foremost superficial level, Heart of Darkness is often understood through its semiautobiographical relationship to Conrad’s real worldvery similar to his protagonist Marlow, Conrad’s career as a merchant marine also took him up the Congoand far like Marlow, Conrad was profoundly suffering from the human depravity he witnessed on his boat tour of European colonialism in Africa.

But it’s overly reductive to boil Heart of Darkness right down to the commonalities it shares with Conrad’s own experiences. it might be useful to look at its elements crucial to the emergence of modernism: for instance, Conrad’s use of multiple narrators; his couching of 1 narrative within another; the story’s achronological unfolding; and as would become increasingly clear because the 20th century progressed, his almost post-structuralist distrust within the stability of language. At an equivalent time, his story pays homage to the Victorian tales he grew abreast of, evident within the popular heroism so central to his story’s narrative. therein sense, Heart of Darkness straddles the boundary between a waning Victorian sensibility and a waxing Modernist one.

One of the foremost resoundingly Modernist elements of Conrad’s work lies during this quite early post-structuralist treatment of language—his insistence on the inherent inability of words to precise the importantaltogether of its horrific truth. Marlow’s journey is filled with encounters with things that are “unspeakable,” with uninterpretable words, and with a world that’s eminently “inscrutable.” during this way, language fails time and time again to try to what it’s meant to do—to communicate. It’s a phenomenon best summed up when Marlow tells his audience that “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence… We live, as we dream—alone.” Kurtz—as “eloquent” as he maybe—can’t even adequately communicate the terrifying darkness he observed around him.“The horror! The horror!” is all he can say. Some critics have surmised that a part of Heart of Darkness’s mass appeal comes from this ambiguity of language—from the play, it gives its readers to interpret. Others posit this as an excellent weakness of the text, viewing Conrad’s inability to call things as an unseemly quality during a writer who’s alleged to be one among the greats. Perhaps this is often itself a testament to the guts of Darkness’s breadth of interpretability.

Examining Heart of Darkness from a postcolonial perspective has given thanks to more derisive critiques. As Achebe put it, Conrad was a “thoroughgoing racist,” one who dehumanized Africans to use them as a backdrop against which to explore the white man’s interiority. Achebe is right: although Conrad rebukes the evils of colonialism, he does little to dismantle the racism that undergirds such a system, instead positing the indigenous people of Africa as little quite a part of the natural environment. This work has been delayed together of the West’s most insightful books on the evils of European imperialism in Africa, and yet it fails to assign any particularity to African people themselves.

Feminist discourse has offered similar critiques, that Conrad has flattened his female characters almost like the way he’s done so together with his African ones. Women are deployed not as multidimensional beings, but as signifiers undistinguished from the sector of other signifiers that structure the text. they’re shells emptied of all particularity and meaning, such Conrad can fill them with the importance he sees fit: the African queen becomes the embodiment of darkened nature and an eroticized symbol of its atavistic allure; Kurtz’s Intended, meanwhile, is simply a signifier for the illusory reality of the society that Marlow is trying to guard against the invading darkness of attribute. Neither woman is interiorized, and neither is named—a rhetorical strategy that seems less about Conrad illustrating the failures of language than it does about him privileging his masculine voice above any possible feminine ones.

Much contemporary analysis—the aforementioned postcolonial and feminist critiques included—is centered not on the text itself, but on other commentaries of the text, thereby elucidating the way that discussions in academia might unwittingly perpetuate a number of the work’s more problematic elements. Thus, Heart of Darkness is occupying an ever-changing position within the literary canon: not as an elucidatory text that reveals the depths of human depravity, but as an artifact that’s the merchandise of such depravity and which reproduces it in its title. The question then becomes: Does the guts of Darkness still belong within the West’s literary canon? And if so, will it always?

Heart of Darkness