Heart of Darkness is the tale of Charlie Marlow's journey into the heart of the African Congo, where he encounters the extraordinary Mr. Kurtz. It is an expedition that has a tremendous impact on Marlow. This short novel is divided into three sections. The first section recounts Marlow's appointment as a steamboat operator for a company that procures ivory in the Congo, his journey to the company's Outer Station near the coast, and his travel up the Congo River to the Central Station. The second section describes Marlow's continued journey up river to Kurtz's Inner Station and his initial encounter with Kurtz. In the final section Marlow has a private conversation with Kurtz, Kurtz is forcibly removed from his station and dies, and Marlow and the rest of the company men return to civilization. With the exception of the opening pages and a few minor passages throughout the novel, the story is told from Marlow's perspective.
Section one opens with the Nellie, a small ship, dropping anchor in the Thames River, near Gravesend, England (east of London). It's a peaceful sunset, and the ship is waiting for the change of tide in order to set off to sea.
Five men-including an unnamed narrator, the company's director, a lawyer, an accountant, and Charlie Marlow-are gathered on the Nellie's deck. The narrator remarks that the men have already forged a strong bond from previous adventures at sea, and more than once he mentions a sense of "brooding gloom" on the horizon. The setting prompts the narrator to consider all of the great world travelers and adventurers whose journeys issued forth from the Thames. As the group relaxes and watches the sun set, Marlow draws them into a tale of his adventures traveling up the Congo River.
Marlow opens his tale by asking the men to reflect on what it must have been like for the Romans who traveled to England so many years ago. They must have, he suggests, been stunned by the near savagery of their surroundings. He notes that a primary difference between themselves and the Romans was that they are colonists, whereas the Romans were conquerors. And conquerors, he claims, have no more objective than to take as much as they can get, by whatever means necessary. Marlow remarks that conquest is, in general, a repulsive thing, though there can be some redeeming qualities to it.
Marlow's adventure begins in London, where he has recently returned from several years sailing in the East. While recuperating in London, he becomes restless and longs to travel somewhere he has never been. As he strolls about the city, he happens upon a map in a shop window depicting a place he has longed to visit, a region of the world that was still largely unknown to Europeans: the Congo. Though he is normally an ocean-going sailor, he longs to travel the Congo, a freshwater river, deep into the heart of this little-known land. When his attempts to secure a position on a boat with a company that trades on in the Congo go unfulfilled, he enlists the help of his aunt. Through her influential friends, Marlow secures a post as captain of a riverboat steamer, replacing a captain who had recently been killed by natives.
Marlow remarks that the man he is replacing, Captain Fresleven, had been killed during an argument with a native chief involving two hens. Fresleven beat the elderly chief, and the chief's son killed him with a spear. Following Fresleven's death, the native people fled deeper into the jungle, and the remaining men aboard Fresleven's vessel departed, out of fear. Marlow blames Fresleven's action on the captain's extended stay in the wild. He also notes that he later sought out Fresleven's body and found it nearly hidden in the tall grasses near an abandoned village.
Marlow next tells of his visit to the company office in France, where an ominous feeling overcomes him. Several young men also come into the office, and Marlow reflects on how many of them must leave the place, never to return again. He visits the company doctor, who performs an abbreviated physical exam and asks to measure his cranium, apparently for research purposes. When Marlow asks if the doctor measures the men's heads again when they return, the doctor comments that he never sees any of them again. And, he continues, even if there were changes to be measured, those changes would be internal rather than external. The doctor cautions Marlow that when he is in the Congo he must do all that he can to remain calm.
Before departing, Marlow visits his aunt to thank her. He is somewhat shocked when she discusses "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways." He suggests to her that the company's main goal is to make money, as opposed to some civilizing mission.
Marlow departs France aboard a steamer, which calls at many ports along the way. As the ship travels along the coast, Marlow observes a certain grimness in his surroundings. Scattered along the shore are small trading settlements and custom houses, which seem to be rudely constructed. Farther down the coast he spots a boat manned by natives, and later he sees a French warship indiscriminately shelling the jungle. Marlow notes that the French must be in some war with the natives, but he is unaware of it and considers the shelling to be a futile act. The steamer passes letters to the men aboard the warship, and Marlow states that he has heard the men aboard the ship are dying of fever. As they proceed further, Marlow depicts a general sense of death and decay in the landscape.
The steamer travels thirty days before reaching the mouth of the Congo, where Marlow transfers to a smaller ship. The captain of this second ship, a Swede, invites Marlow unto the bridge and the two converse. Marlow wonders aloud what becomes of the men who travel up river, and the captain notes that a man he recently took up country hanged himself. When Marlow asks why, the captain replies that it must have either been the sun or the country itself.
When Marlow arrives at the company's Outer Station, he notes a kind of decay and chaos in the station. The settlement seems in disarray. A railroad is being built and a line of native "criminals," chained together and wearing iron neck collars, passes him. Another native, in uniform and carrying a gun, guards the chain gang. In the men Marlow sees a kind of folly. He stumbles upon a large group of native workers taking refuge under some trees; they are spent men, nearly wasted from their brutal work and the harsh conditions. The first European man Marlow encounters is the Station's accountant. He is impeccably dressed, and Marlow marvels over this fact. Marlow sees a stream of natives ferrying goods into the interior and others returning to the station with loads of ivory.
Marlow lives in a hut at the station for ten days before proceeding further into the interior. He spends a good deal of time in the accountant's poorly constructed office where he first learns of Mr. Kurtz, a man in charge of a trading post deep in the interior of the jungle. The accountant characterizes Kurtz as a remarkable man, noting that he brings in more ivory than all of the other agents combined. The accountant asks Marlow to tell Kurtz that everything is going well at the Outer Station, noting that he believes Kurtz is a man who is marked for great things within the company.
The following day Marlow joins a large caravan for a two-hundred-mile trek into the interior. They pass a number of abandoned villages and several dead natives. Another white man, overweight and out of shape, also travels with them. When Marlow inquires why he is in the interior, he responds that he is there for the only rational purpose: to make money. The man falls ill and must be carried in a hammock by the natives. One day the porters abandoned their duty, dropping and injuring the man.
On the fifteenth day of the trek, they pass close to the river and arrive at the Central Station, which is bordered by forest and brush and surrounded by a makeshift fence. Several white men with wooden staffs come out to view the arriving party, but only one takes particular interest in Marlow. When the man discovers that Marlow is the new steamboat captain, he informs him that the boat has sunk in the river and that Marlow must meet the station's manager as soon as possible. Marlow is shocked by this revelation, and, as he tells the tale to the men aboard the Nellie, reflects that he should have suspected something unnatural about the wreck. The next day Marlow sets about reclaiming the boat from the river.
When Marlow first meets Central Station Manager, he sees the manager as a rather ordinary looking man, though he has a rather unique expression, an expression that Marlow says created a sort of "uneasiness." Marlow comments that the manager did not appear to be particularly efficient or organized; however, he had been at the post for nine years. This fact alone gave him a sort of power. The Manager is very concerned that the boat be repaired so that he can reestablish contact with his most productive agent upriver: Mr. Kurtz.
As Marlow works to repair the boat, he struggles to makes sense of the station's activities. Inside the station, the men seem to wander about aimlessly, while beyond the station the wilderness stands, silently waiting for the men to withdraw.
One evening a hut catches fire and the men watch it burn to the ground. A native is blamed for the fire, beaten, and later retreats into the wilderness. Marlow overhears a conversation between the station manager and a man others call the manager's spy. In the conversation Marlow overhears Kurtz's name mentioned and something about Kurtz taking "advantage" of the accident. When the Manager leaves, Marlow strikes up a conversation with the spy and returns to the man's quarters. Marlow notes that he possesses some rather ornate furniture and actually has his own candle, an item normally reserved for the station manager alone. Supposedly, the man is in charge of making bricks, but Marlow notes that no bricks were to be found anywhere in the station, for the area lacked a critical ingredient for making bricks. The brickmaker tells Marlow that he is simply waiting for something to arrive, passing the time as the station manager's secretary. Indeed, all of the men at the station seemed to be waiting for something.
Marlow speaks of a certain mistrust and scheming by the men of the station, though it never amounts to much. The only true wish of the men seems to be getting appointed to a station where ivory is coming in so that they might earn a profit. Marlow isn't sure why the brickmaker invites him to his hut to talk, but he feels the man is attempting to get some information from him. He repeatedly questions Marlow and becomes angry when he can't get the information he is seeking. As Marlow is about to leave the brickmaker's hut, he notices a painting of a woman; she is blindfolded and carrying a torch. When Marlow inquires, he is told that Kurtz made the painting over a year before, as he was attending to some business at the station. Marlow then asks the man to tell him about Kurtz.
The brickmaker speaks of Kurtz in a rather reverent manner, as a great but complex man, and he insists that Kurtz is destined to go far in the company. The brickmaker asserts that Marlow already knows how far Kurtz will go because the same people recommended both of them for their positions. Marlow surmises that the brickmaker must have access to the company's internal correspondence, and realizes that the brickmaker must believe that Marlow has connections in high places. Marlow laughs to himself, knowing that he has no real connections within the company, but he decides to play along and teases the brickmaker that when Kurtz becomes general manager the brickmaker will no longer be able to read the company's private letters.
The pair head out into the night, where the dark figures of the natives continue to pour water onto the smoldering embers of the burned-down hut. Marlow hears the moans of the beaten native, somewhere off in the darkness. Another station worker appears in the dark and expresses no pity for the beaten man, asserting that his suffering will serve as an example for the others. When the man notices the brickmaker, he abruptly redirects his comments and excuses himself. Marlow then walks to the river's edge, and the brickmaker tries to reassure Marlow that he has nothing against Kurtz-since the brickmaker knows that Marlow will encounter Kurtz before he does.
Marlow concludes that the brickmaker had planned on being the station's assistant manager, but Kurtz's arrival had disrupted these plans, as well as the plans of the current manager. As the brickmaker jabbers on about himself, Marlow contemplates man's place in an environment as vast and inhospitable as the Congo. He also reflects on how he felt uncomfortable knowing that the brickmaker believed he was more influential than he really was. Yet he feels an odd compulsion to maintain the falsehood on the chance that it might help Kurtz.
The brickmaker continues to comment about the genius of Kurtz, and how it was difficult for anyone to work under these conditions. Marlow notes how his work with the steamboat is delayed by the lack of rivets to attach an iron patch. There were plenty of rivets to be found at the station down river, but he couldn't manage to get any sent to him at the Central Station. Marlow tries to convince the brickmaker that getting rivets to fix the boat is something that Kurtz would want. The brickmaker shifts the conversation's focus, asking Marlow, who has been working night and day and even sleeping on the boat, if he is ever bothered by the hippopotamus that frequents the area. The brickmaker remarks that the men of the station have tried to shoot the animal many times, but it seems to lead a charmed life. This, of course, is not true of men who lived in the wild.
When Marlow returns to his boat, the station foreman, a boilermaker, is aboard. Though the other administrators at the station have ignored the foreman, because of his somewhat crude manners, Marlow has struck up a relationship with him. Marlow informs the foreman that they will be getting some rivets soon, and he is ecstatic. However, instead of the rivets arriving, a caravan of Europeans and natives arrives, calling themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. They are a group bent on extracting treasure from the wilderness and led by the station manager's uncle. After a time, Marlow begins to forget about the rivets, though he still thinks of Kurtz, wondering whether this man of lofty ideals will actually rise within the company.
The men aboard the Nellie when Marlow begins his tale might be thought of as members of England's "commercial" interests. Since Marlow elects to tell them his tale, it stands to reason that they are the ones who most need to hear its message. It is significant that Marlow begins his tale as darkness falls, for it is a tale of physiological darkness.
Marlow's opening comment about the Romans being conquerors, whereas the English were colonists, foreshadows one of the main lessons Marlow learns as he travels into the heart of the Congo. For Marlow sees, firsthand, how the English take as much as they can by whatever means necessary. The death of Marlow's predecessor, Captain Fresleven, who dies as the result of a squabble with a native chief over two hens, hints at the odd mixture of savage action and senseless waste Marlow encounters as he ventures into the Congo. It also suggests how normally sane men can be driven to perform questionable actions.
The fact that Fresleven's bones were almost completely reclaimed by the jungle suggests that the wilderness has a tremendous power to obliterate the presence of man.
The company doctor never again sees the young men he certifies as healthy enough to venture into the Congo; this speaks volumes about the way men who travel into the wilderness tend to be consumed by the land. And the doctor's comment that any change the men undergo would be internal suggests a transformation that takes place in men who travel into the jungle.
The scene with the French warship aimlessly shelling the jungle is a metaphor for the futility of "civilized" action in the wilderness. European culture is foreign to the Congo; it has no place there. The group of "wasted" natives Marlow sees upon his arrival at the Outer Station represents the human toll that must be extracted for civilized "progress." In other words, human life is mere grist for the profit machine operated by the Europeans. Finally, much could be made of Kurtz's painting of the blindfolded woman carrying the torch, which Marlow sees in the brickmaker's hut. This woman could be a symbol for the blindness of justice, or she could represent the blind eye Europe must turn in order to extract profit from the region.