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Heart of Darkness


The Author
In Europe
Belgian Congo Coast
To Central Station
At Central Station
To Inner Station
At Inner Station
Home to Europe



Downriver to the sea and home to Europe


The steamship leaves the Inner Station at the start of the next day. Three natives covered in bright red earth come out onto the riverbank and shout incantations at the boat.  They are wearing horned headdresses and they are joined a beautiful native woman who was Kurtz’s mistress.  More and more natives emerge from the jungle and the native woman leads the chanting and the natives, who number about one thousand, repeat her chants.

The pilgrims start to get nervous and they aim their rifles at the crowd on the shore. Hoping to avoid a massacre Marlow sounds the steam whistle and the bulk of the natives scatter leaving the woman standing on the shore in defiance.

The swift river current soon whisks the boat out of sight just as some of the pilgrim’s let of a few parting shots.

The Manager is pleased with the way things have gone in that he has managed to secure Kurtz on the steamer.  He is very ill and will soon die.

Marlow has made up his mind that he wishes to be free of the Company and plans to return to Europe as soon as possible. He has had enough of the greedy pilgrims and the insensitive conspiring Company Agents. He has a conversation with Kurtz who hopes to continue to make great profits in some other region of the world and to obtain great fame and notoriety.

Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers and a photograph of his Intended so that he can prevent these from falling into the hands of the Manager.

The steamer breaks down and they have to stop for repairs and Marlow is hampered from doing this work by a bout of sickness. Like the majority of white people in this part of Africa, he is succumbing to the local diseases and climate.

Kurtz is moved to the pilothouse as this is cooler, but this does little to avoid the inevitable and he is merely waiting for death.

Marlow succeeds in repairing the steamship and returns to talk with Kurtz. He now has a strange look on his face that is a mixture of pride and despair.  He then cries out in a whisper ‘The horror!  The horror!’ and then he dies.  Marlow goes to the mess room and soon afterwards a servant boy comes in to announce ‘Mistah Kurtz he dead’.  The pilgrims buried Kurtz in the jungle next day. 

Marlow’s narration resumes back in the sepulchered city of Brussels, but it is clear that he was extremely depressed at Kurtz’s death.  Still feeling the effects of the illness that started in Africa, Marlow’s aunt nurses him back to health.  A Company representative calls on Marlow requesting Kurtz’s papers. He refuses to comply, but eventually agrees to give him Kurtz’s report on ‘The Suppression of Savage Customs’ but with the postscript ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ ripped off.

Marlow then meets Kurtz’s cousin who tells him that his death is a great loss as he was such a great musician and a ‘universal genius’.  Marlow gives the cousin some unimportant family letters.

He then meets a journalist who is eager for information regarding Kurtz. He tells Marlow that Kurtz could have been a great politician as he had charisma and a voice suited to public oratory in that he could electrify large meetings.  He gives the reporter Kurtz’s report on Savage Customs and the journalist says he will print it.

Marlow looks at the photograph Kurtz gave him of his Intended and he decides to go and visit her. It is now a year since Kurtz died and he finds the Intended still dressed in black. She continually praises her Kurtz saying that she will mourn him forever. She says that she was the only one who really knew him and Marlow takes pity on her.  She asks Marlow what were Kurtz’s last words and he lies and tells her it was her name.

Marlow ends his story here and the narrator looks at the overcast sky and the dark clouds that are forming over the River Thames, which seems to him to lead to a Heart of Immense Darkness.



This last section of the novel deals with Kurtz’s final struggle with evil and Marlow’s dubious loyalty to him.

Marlow believes that the sole purpose for his journey was for him to be the Company’s representative in all dealings with Kurtz.

 Marlow digresses and thinks back to the events that have brought him to this situation.  He remembers the scene where the pilgrims shoot ineffectually into the jungle. He recalls the French gunboat doing the same.  All of these events had no effect on this Heart of Darkness, which beats relentlessly like the native drums. 

Kurtz is torn between love and hate, between the wonders that this wilderness has and his lust to exploit and harvest as much ivory as possible.  The Heart of Darkness is consuming him and the unseen spirit of this land is slowly extinguishing the life in Kurtz’s body. He is racked with disease.

The natives on the shore chanting in an unfamiliar tongue seem to Marlow to be performing a devilish ritual. This is the voice of primitive savagery and Kurtz knows its meaning, being the only character in the book who speaks the local dialect, but he refuses to translate its meaning to Marlow.

The pilgrims are suspicious of Marlow because he has formed this allegiance with Kurtz.  Despite all his evils, Marlow prefers to side with Kurtz rather than with the Manager and his pilgrims.

At the end, Kurtz comes to the inescapable truth that his own dark self has corrupted him in that he has given way to temptation and has pursued this evil side of his nature to excess. This is demonstrated in his last words.

Conrad describes Kurtz’s final moments with interesting symbolism. Kurtz was unable to see the candle towards the end, perhaps because his inner darkness had consumed him utterly.

Marlow goes for some dinner in the mess room and he describes the host of flies present. Perhaps these are symbolic of the triumph over the fat, greedy devil.  The entrance of the servant boy breaks the scene.

Conrad is deliberately obtuse here.  Life Africa Kurtz is an enigma and the workings of his heart at the end remain mysterious.

After consideration, Marlow decides that all one can hope for out of life is a knowledge of oneself.  He believes that at the end, Kurtz did establish the true knowledge about himself and that is why he exclaimed  ‘The horror!  The horror!’.

Since his return from Africa, Marlow too has been very ill and has brushed with death, but his aunt has nursed him back to full fitness.  He is perhaps getting a second chance. The inference throughout the book has been that if circumstances had been different, Marlow could quite easily have found himself in Kurtz’s shoes.

Kurtz’s last words are his judgment on his soul.

Marlow is thankful that he did not follow the road that Kurtz had taken. He was able to draw back from the temptations.  All those who he meets in Europe have complimentary things to say about Kurtz. Marlow wishes that he had known him before he had gone to Africa and been corrupted.  The Europeans describe Kurtz as being a universal genius, being a good musician, artist, public speaker and so on. 

Marlow only ever knew the corrupted Kurtz who had been consumed by the evil Heart of Darkness that he found in Africa, the primeval jungle that had reawakened the Heart of Darkness lurking within him and all men.

The intended seems to live outside of time.  She is still in mourning and dressed in black she seems out of place in sepulchered city. She knows so little about the Kurtz that Marlow knew in sharp contrast to Kurtz’s native mistress who presumably knew of his excesses.  This highlights Kurtz’s split personality.

Marlow is resentful of the people back in Europe because of their shallowness. They believe in the absolute rightness of their civilization, but he pours scorn over their beliefs. He realizes that all Empires are built on the suppression of people, just as the English were suppressed by the Roman conquerors, so are the Congo natives suppressed by the Company and their Agents.

Although Marlow does not wish to desert civilization in favor of the path chosen by Kurtz, he can no longer be as enthusiastic about it as he did before starting to work for the Company. Marlow is consumed with pity for Kurtz’s intended and cannot bring himself to tell her what his dying words were.  He cannot resist lying to her because it would have been far too dark to tell her the truth. As the Intended gratefully accepts Marlow’s lie, so does Europe accept the lie that building Empires is all about civilizing lands and their inhabitants.

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