Conrad's Heart of Darkness: Plot, Characters, and Style

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  • 0:05 Introduction
  • 2:17 Plot Synopsis
  • 11:06 Themes
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' is one of the most read and taught stories in the English language. It also inspired a hugely popular film. Watch our lesson to learn all about this horrifying classic.


Heart of Darkness by Conrad was published in full in 1902
Heart of Darkness published 1902

So, Conrad's Heart of Darkness - I'm sure that I say this a lot, but it's a really important book that you should know. (I even think I've given this little faux-disclaimer before, but it is important, so that's why I'm saying it.) It's finally published in full in 1902; it's published serially, or in segments, starting in 1899. To give you an idea of why it's important and how we know, if you study Shakespeare, you're probably familiar with the idea that people produce Shakespeare's plays in modern dress; they'll make Ten Things I Hate About You out of The Taming of the Shrew. You can do this because you can do Hamlet anywhere. Hamlet's about a young person who doesn't know what he's doing, and the world is full of young people who don't know what they're doing in every day and age. The central idea of it is something that's pretty adaptable.

These straight, modern-day adaptations of stuff aren't as common with newer material, other books, things that are more of a time. But Heart of Darkness gets one of these, and that's Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 epic film Apocalypse Now. What it does is just transpose the main characters in the plot of Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War. The reason Coppola can do this is because although Heart of Darkness is definitely a product of its time and a reflection of 19th-century colonial attitudes and things like that, it also taps into something that is pretty timeless. This 'darkness' in the title is something that - we don't exactly know what it refers to. It's many things in the novel, and some of those things are just as applicable to the Vietnam War as they are to the Belgian Congo in 1899. That's why, just like with Shakespeare - just like Hamlet can be done in any time - some of these things Conrad is getting at are so important and so cool that they can really be thought about under any circumstances. He just did the one he was familiar with, because he himself was a steamboat operator on the Congo.

Plot Synopsis

Before we can really talk about themes (and all these things I alluded to very mysteriously in the introduction), we should probably talk about the plot so that you know what is going on. Basically, it's about an English merchant who goes to Africa. He's working for a Belgian company, and his job is both to take some ivory out of a colony in the Congo and also to extract a trader who has probably gone rogue. The narrator, the guy who's doing this, is named Charles Marlow. When the book opens, he's actually hanging around on a ship that's anchored in London on the Thames, and he's telling sea stories with other mariners. There's a comment made about London's former 'darkness,' its barbaric ancient days. (The darkness is starting already.) It gets Marlow to recount a story of this time that he worked as a steamboat captain in Africa for the Belgian company trying to do all the things I just mentioned (get the ivory and get the rogue guy). It's important that we start out on a river that used to be 'savage' that sparks a story about a river that is currently 'savage' and this idea that darkness can exist everywhere. That's important. This device is called a frame narrative, where we've got Marlow doing stuff and then he tells the story, and that story is the real story. That's a frame narrative. Just lodge that away up there in your fun literary facts.

Once we're actually in the frame narrative, which is the meat of the story, we get Marlow's journey to Africa, through Africa and back. This takes place in several stages. In each of them, Marlow basically learns new and more and many awful things that the Company is doing in Africa with which he is basically complicit because he is getting money from them. First, he travels by sea from the Company's European base to its Outer Station in Africa. On this trip, he witnesses inefficient leadership, negligent stuff and really brutal treatment of the African natives they've conscripted to do work aboard the ship.

The next leg of the journey is on foot. He hikes from the Company's Outer Station to its Central Station. Here he gets stuck for three months because the ship he was supposed to take up the river has mysteriously sunk or something; they have to fix it. So he has to wait and hang around. While he's doing this, he gets a lot of intel about Mr. Kurtz, who's the guy he's meant to retrieve, the rogue trader who's hanging out in the 'heart of darkness' in the middle of the jungle. Marlow gets very conflicting information about this guy. On the one hand, he hears that Kurtz is super impressive, a really passionate individual who's really making waves in civilizing the people (which, again, we're going to talk about things that are problematic in the book; that is one of them, the idea that you need to civilize these people). He's also apparently a musician and a genius painter, so a good guy in some ways. On the other hand, the questionable general manager of the Central Station and his favorite hanger-on and lackey mention that they fear Kurtz and, more specifically, they fear his power. They're worried that he's going to challenge their prominence and their influence in this area. So we get a question as Marlow is moving on now finally to see Kurtz: Is Kurtz a hero, a civilizing influence, a really important dude? Or is he just a power-hungry trader who's out for himself? He might be both; we'll probably find out. Regardless of whether he is one or the other, the important thing is that this really interests Marlow. Marlow is enthralled with the mystery of the figure. That's what's most interesting to him. He doesn't know anything about him but he knows everything about him. Kurtz is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

After the ship is finally repaired, Marlow sets off, and he's going to Kurtz's Inner Station because that's the furthest up the river. He has a crew of both Company men (who he refers to as Pilgrims because they carry weird sticks), and he's also got natives who are crewing the ship as well. They come upon a hut, which is equipped with firewood and a note that indicates it's for them. The note also warns that they should approach Kurtz's outpost cautiously. The warning seems to be warranted, because as they go upriver further they're actually attacked by a bunch of natives. They kill Marlow's native helmsman (the guy who steers the ship), and then they're actually frightened off by the steam whistle. (I guess they've never heard one before? That doesn't really make sense, because theoretically there'd be boats going up the river a lot.) Anyway, after this encounter, they finally reach Kurtz's outpost. They meet this colorfully dressed, probably-not-totally-sane Russian trader who's hanging out there. He's kind of a disciple of Kurtz, and he mentions that he left the firewood and the note for Marlow's crew, and what he tells Marlow is that Kurtz has basically become a god for the African native people who live there. He enjoys this larger-than-life existence and can't be judged by mortal (European) laws. He's made his own little weird world out here in the jungle is the point.

After being taken by Marlow, Kurtz falls ill and shares his records with Marlow before passing away
Kurtz dies

That's good for him that he's beyond judgment, because he seems like he's certainly someone worth judging as we approach his compound. We can see really stark evidence of his brutality toward the native African people because he's got a bunch of heads on sticks outside of his hut. This seems to be a warning to Africans who would challenge his godliness. But it seems like maybe this reign of power is coming to an end, because Kurtz is apparently very ill. After a little bit of trouble (he tries to escape), Marlow and his men successfully collect Kurtz and get him on their boat. So, job done; now they've just gotta get him back. The local Africans, the people he was a god to, try to protect him because he hasn't been treating them that well but, again, he's kind of this god figure to them. Kurtz calms them down eventually and they retreat. On the way back, Marlow actually talks to Kurtz, and he gets a firsthand experience of Kurtz's enthralling nature. He's a compelling guy despite all of his unfortunate behaviors. Marlow basically feels that Kurtz has done some really nasty things, but he's an interesting guy. It becomes apparent that Kurtz is not going to survive the journey to England because he's really sick, so he entrusts Marlow with his records, which include a photo of his fiancée. Also, his records indicate that his eventual plan with the Africans was to 'exterminate all the brutes' (which is really not very nice). He passes away, and he gives the enigmatic, famous last words 'The horror! The horror!'

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