The novel begins in London on board the British ship ‘Nellie’ which is
anchored in the River Thames.
An anonymous narrator listens to Marlow’s tale of his journey up the Congo
River together with the Director of Companies, the Accountant, and the Lawyer.
What we read is the narrator’s recollections of Marlow’s tale.
From a very young age Marlow was always fascinated with maps and in
particular Africa with its large areas of unexplored territory. Through his aunt who has contacts with a Belgian Company, he is able to secure a job as a Steamboat Captain to ferry supplies on the River Congo.
He eventually arrives at the Company’s Outer Station in the Congo.
He witnesses a scene of desolation, waste, brutality and chaos.
While the local natives suffer under the yoke of colonialism, the dominant
whites enjoy a comfortable existence apart from the rigors of disease and hot climate. At least they have plenty of food.
He has a discussion with the Accountant who is dressed immaculately and he
first learns about their best Agent, Kurtz who is in charge of the Company’s Inner Station. Kurtz obtains more quality ivory than all the other agents put together.
Marlow has to travel overland for some two hundred miles to reach the
Company’s Central Station where he will join his steamboat. On arrival he finds that it has been wrecked and has sunk.
He will have to wait some time at the Central Station until the boat is salvaged and repaired.
Unlike the other whites Marlow enjoys hard work and he is determined to have
his boat up and running as soon as possible. He was also encouraged to come here by his aunt to help civilize the natives and bring them salvation.
He is also not concerned with personal gain out of his visit to this Dark Continent.
There is a suspicion that his steamboat was deliberately grounded with a
view to putting pressure on Kurtz regarding the transportation of the ivory he has collected. However, Kurtz arranges for the ivory to be transported by canoe, but for reasons unknown he only accompanies the
ivory to the point where it is safe and then he returns up-river to his Station.
Marlow also meets the Brick maker whose position seems totally unnecessary,
as he does not have any materials for making bricks, another example of waste.
The local Manager’s uncle arrives leading the Eldorado Exploring Expedition,
which is another ruse for exploiting the land of its resources.
Marlow overhears the Manager and his uncle conspiring to bring about Kurtz’s
downfall. The Manager fears for his own position, seeing Kurtz as a rival, but the uncle calms him by saying that the jungle will solve all their problems.
Finally Marlow’s boat is repaired and they travel up to Kurtz’s Station.
On the way they discover a stock of wood left for them by a Russian Trader
who works with Kurtz, with a note telling them to be careful. Marlow also finds an English book and keeps this as a tenuous link with civilization.
Just below Kurtz’s camp the steamboat is attacked by natives and the
Helmsman is killed. It is only when Marlow sounds the boat’s whistle that the natives retreat into the jungle.
They reach the Inner Station, which is also in a run-down state, but the
natives have not attacked it. Around Kurtz’s house are stakes with the heads of rebels impaled on them.
Marlow meets the Russian Trader who is dressed in a multi-colored patched coat and looks like a harlequin. The Russian Trader has become a great admirer of Kurtz, who has broadened the Trader’s mind. He tells Marlow that Kurtz had arranged the attack on the steamboat hoping that this would deter the Company’s men from traveling further.
The Russian advises Marlow that Kurtz has been very ill and he has nursed
him through two severe illnesses already.
Kurtz suddenly appears, being borne on a stretcher, and at the same time a
large group of natives emerges from the jungle fearing that Kurtz will be taken away from them. However, Kurtz waves an emaciated arm towards them and they disband.
He is taken on board the steamboat and meets with the Manager and they have a heated debate.
Marlow is shocked at Kurtz’s appearance, but strangely sides with him, even
though he is clearly a tyrant. Kurtz, however, still has the power of life and death and he would rather be Kurtz’s ally than side with the Company’s men.
Kurtz reads his mail, which was brought up on the steamboat, and there is a
letter there concerning Marlow. He feels he can trust him and Kurtz gives Marlow some personal papers and reports to avoid them falling into the hands of the Manager.
Despite the protests from the natives, the boat leaves next day with Kurtz
on board who dies shortly afterwards with the words ‘The horror! The horror!’ on his lips, symbolizing his realization that he has degenerated from an upstanding European to a primitive despot.
Marlow returns to Europe relieved that he has not succumbed to the
temptations of the Dark Heart of Africa unlike Kurtz.
From the reports received from those who knew Kurtz in Europe he was a multi-talented genius.
Marlow does not have the heart to tell Kurtz’s fianc'e the truth about his degeneration and he tells her that Kurtz’s last words were her name.