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OVERVIEW and PLOT:
Well into the twentieth century the modern African nation of Zaire was called the Congo. It was controlled by the Belgians, who exploited its mineral wealth through mining. The native inhabitants of the Congo were forced to work in these mines by brutal and callous methods. During a visit to an outpost on the Congo River in 1890, Conrad was shocked and repelled by what he saw.
This short novel, or novella, is based on Conrad's brief encounter with the agent of a European company that had pushed into the jungle, setting up outposts for the ivory trade.
The narrator of the story is Marlow, an experienced and thoughtful captain who serves as the storyteller in several of Conrad's novels, including Youth and Lord Jim. Marlow's narration creates a framework. As he tells his story to a quiet group of fellow seamen or, as in this case, a group of shipping company men, he seems to direct his observations to them as a perceptive audience. Sometimes he pauses for their reactions and responds with further attempts to explain what is, finally, unexplainable.
In Heart of Darkness, the four listeners sit on board a ship in the Thames below London, waiting for the tide to shift so that they can move downstream. As the evening turns to night, Marlow slowly begins his tale, starting with some general observations about how wild, dark, and savage the Thames must have seemed to the early Roman explorers who ventured along its banks. The listeners know, however, that they are about to hear one of Marlow's "inconclusive experiences.".
Having felt from boyhood that he would like to explore the heart of Africa, Marlow, with the help of an admiring aunt, obtains a job on the Congo River as captain of a steamboat, a boat that was to move cargo and personnel between various outposts. In Brussels he visits the company headquarters, where he meets two strange women who sit like the fates in an outer office. He signs a contract with the company director, a "great man" of five feet, six inches who controls immense and far-flung enterprises that bring in great wealth. Marlow has a brief medical examination, during which the doctor asks to measure his head for scientific purposes. The doctor hints that few men return from the Congo and asks Marlow if there is madness in his family. Finally, Marlow says farewell to his aunt, who believes that voyages like Marlow's bring the light of European culture to the unfortunate savages. Marlow remarks how women are "out of touch with truth," a comment that helps explain his behavior in the final scene of the novel.
Having traveled to Africa on a French steamer, Marlow then gets passage upriver on a smaller steamboat. Arriving at the company station, he witnesses scenes of chaos and pointless cruelty. He sees gangs of chained black men hauling dirt to build a railroad. He is appalled by the sight of a group of sick, broken, and starving men left to die in a dark grove of trees. Stepping out of this horrible grove, he encounters the company's chief accountant, a man neatly, and even elegantly, dressed in white, all starched and brushed and apparently oblivious of the confusion and suffering around him.
The accountant tells Marlow that the steamboat he has come to command is unfortunately wrecked some 200 miles upstream. Marlow makes the journey overland on foot. When he arrives at the trading station, the manager is not happy to see him. He says it should take about three months to repair the boat. The manager also speaks of their agent, Kurtz, a man of great skill and effectiveness who works at an ivory station farther up the river. More than any of the other European agents attached to this station, men Marlow calls "pilgrims," Kurtz clearly arouses admiration and envy. Realizing that this journey to the interior is being delayed on purpose, Marlow becomes curious to meet this phenomenon, who seems to be both a great idealist and a great profit maker. Everyone is jealous of Kurtz but afraid to criticize him. Meanwhile, Marlow has to use a combination of bullying and persuasion to get a supply of rivets to fix the boat. While he waits, a series of five new white men, with accompanying bearereers and donkeys, arrives to "tear treasure out of the bowels of the earth." Marlow ironically calls them the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. One of these new men is an uncle of the manager. Marlow overhears the uncle and nephew speaking of Kurtz with anger and jealousy. Marlow is now all the more eager to see and speak with Kurtz.
The rivets finally arrive, the boat is repaired, and Marlow, along with the manager and "three or four pilgrims," starts up-river toward Kurtz's station. The boat crew is made up of several members of a local cannibal tribe. The trip is slow and difficult; wood must be cut every night to feed the fires of the steamboat the next day. They pass many hostile villages. They stop at an abandoned hut that once belonged to an unknown European, where they find a supply of firewood, a book on seamanship, and a strange note warning them to approach Kurtz's station cautiously. As they near the station, the river divides into two channels, forcing them to steer close to the bank. They become surrounded by hostile natives. The "pilgrims" fire back ineffectually and the cannibals in the crew are eager to catch and eat some of the attackers.
In the midst of this chaos, the helmsman is killed by a spear. Finally, it occurs to Marlow to blow the steam whistle. The sudden noise shocks the attackers and they fade into the forest. The white men speculate that perhaps Kutrz is dead, but Marlow hopes not. He realizes that he very much looks forward to talking to Kurtz, as if Kurtz alone might be able to explain the strange darkness of the inner continent.
Marlow interrupts his story to light a pipe. He admits the absurdity of his feelings. He moves ahead of himself in the narrative, mentioning Kurtz's fiancee, whom he refers to as Kurtz's "intended." Returning to the main story line, Marlow tells of loading the steamboat with ivory. He discovers that Kurtz is alive but sick. He has been attended by a young Russian sailor, the fellow at whose hut they had found the book and the message of warning.
Talking to the Russian, Marlow comes to understand that Kurtz has been able to ship so much ivory because he has subdued the natives of the surrounding tribes, making himself their god. Marlow sees the ghastly evidence of Kurtz's rule in a line of shrunken heads on the fence posts surrounding Kurtz's house. The attack on the steamboat was launched because the people do not want Kurtz to go away; they worship him. After overcoming them with the power of his guns Kurtz had established elaborate rituals of obedience, so that even the chiefs crawl in his presence. Finally, Kurtz has lost his own sense of civilization, and at times even believes in his own divinity. Kurtz is carried into the boat, but he escapes at night and attempts to rejoin his followers. Marlow find him on the path at night and carries him back to the boat. His people come to the riverbank, but Marlow once again scares them off with the steam whistle. Some of the whites fire at the attackers and at a magnificent dark woman, who is the only one not frightened away.
As the boat starts downsteam, Marlow finally gets to hear Kurtz talk. Kurtz trusts Marlow with his private papers and with a tract he has written called "The Suppression of Savage Customs." Marlow comes to understand the spellbinding power of Kurtz's voice, even as Kurtz begins to fall into incoherence. His final words are "The horror, the horror!"
Marlow leave Kurtz to go to the mess room. Shortly thereafter the servant of the manager comes in to say, sarcastically, "Mistah Kurtz--he dead." The manager and the other white men, the "pilgrims," are glad to be rid of him. They bury him hurriedly on the river bank.
Marlow, however, feels a strange and perverse loyalty to Kurtz. He feels that he understands Kurtz's final comment, "The horror the horror!" Marlow conceals his knowledge of Kurtz's madness, thus protecting his reputation. He takes the papers back to Brussels, giving some to relatives and some to the press. He takes the personal letters to Kurtz's "intended," a loyal and idealistic woman who mourns the death of Kurtz and worships his memory. She is sure he was a genius. Marlow, embarrassed by her expectation that he also admires Kurtz's genius, nevertheless does not disillusion her. He lies, telling her that Kurtz's last word was her name. To tell her the truth would have been "too dark."
At the end of the story, Marlow falls silent and his listeners also remain in meditative silence. Finally the director notices that they have lost the ebb tide that was to carry them down river. They look out into the overcast morning sky.
In telling the story about Kurtz, Conrad focuses on the conflicts and moral ambiguities of European exploration and of Europes's exploitation of its colonial empires. While claiming and perhaps intending to bring the light of European culture and civilization to the "dark continent," the traders and their agents in fact introduced a new level of savage brutality, aided by the superior technology that made Western culture so "advanced." The hungry cannibals in Marlow's boat crew seem benign compared with the callous, destructive manager and accountant.
Shortly after the publication of Heart of Darkness, international panels of inquiry investigated the outrageous treatment of Africans in the Belgian Congo.
With Marlow, Conrad presents his lingering wish to endorse the standard values of the Victorian ethic, and with Kurtz, Conrad expresses his foreboding that the accelerating changes in the scientific, political, and spiritual view of the world during the last decades of the old century were preparing for unsuspected terrors for the new.
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