Home » Heart of Darkness – Author Background and Plot Summary

Heart of Darkness – Author Background and Plot Summary

Joseph Conrad was an author whose life was as equally amazing as the stories he wrote. In many cases, he derived the situations he wrote about from his many experiences as a seaman and adventurer. Born Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, of a patriotic Polish couple living in the Polish Ukraine, he did not have the average childhood of the time (“Bibliography” 1). When Conrad was five years old, his father was arrested for alleged actions in revolutionary plots against Russia and was exiled to northern Russia with the young Conrad and his mother.

Due to her already weak health, his mother did not last the imprisonment and died at the age of thirty-four. His father sent the young Conrad back to his uncle for an education. Orphaned at twelve years old due to his father’s untimely death, Conrad entered a state of deep emotional stress (“Conrad, Joseph”). With the break of the strong bond shared by Conrad and his father, his writings as an adult would later convey a melancholic attitude. After receiving a good education in Cracow, Poland, and spending time traveling, Conrad decided to leave Poland.

At the age of sixteen, he left the grip of Russian-occupied Poland and set out for Marseilles, France to pursue the unlikely career choice of a life at sea. For the next four years he worked on French ships, smuggled guns to Spain, and was allegedly involved in a duel that wounded him. He continued to work at sea, which became an integral part of most of his works, and in 1878 at the age of twenty-one, Conrad left France for England (“Conrad, Joseph”). When he arrived in England, Conrad knew no English, but signed onto an English ship anyway.

On this ship, he began to learn English (his fourth language), and soon experienced many of the events that would later be integrated into his fiction. For instance, while serving as first mate on a ship that landed in Singapore, Conrad learned of an incident that later contributed to the plot of Lord Jim (“Conrad, Joseph”). In 1886, Conrad became a British subject, and at the same time wrote his first short story, “The Black Mate. ” He later entered the British merchant service and changed his name to sound more English.

Over the next three years, Conrad passed the long hours at sea writing his first novel, Almayer’s Folly. He was sent to pilot a Congo River steamer in Africa and recorded his experience in journals that he later used as a basis for one of his greatest works, Heart of Darkness (Guerard 12). At thirty-seven, he spent one last time at sea for the remainder of a year. When he returned, he married the considerably younger Jessie George (“Conrad, Joseph”). The final segment of his life was one of content for Conrad. He was financially stable for the first time in his life and was widely known.

He played success well and went about life with a bold character, even though he was a short, tiny man. In 1920, he was offered a knighthood by the British Government, which he declined. Over his career, Conrad produced 13 novels, two volumes of memoirs, and 28 short stories. In August 1924, Conrad suffered a heart attack and was buried at Canterbury, England (“Conrad, Joseph”). The following is a plot description of Heart of Darkness: Heart of Darkness opens on the deck of the yawl, Nellie, which is anchored along the Thames awaiting the return of the tide.

Five individuals are on her deck, each exchanging a few lazy words. There is the owner of the boat, a lawyer, an accountant, the narrator — who remains ambiguous in profession, and Marlow, the only one of the group who still works at sea. Looking to the river, Marlow describes what it must have been like for ancient travelers to Britain and how the area must have seemed like the end of the earth. He ponders how they tackled the “darkness” and overcame the “mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, [and] in the hearts of wild men” (Conrad 69).

He then tells the group about his time spent as a fresh-water sailor — his time in the “darkness. ” He explains how he had just returned to London after life on the sea in the Far East, and how he became tired of his long vacation and tried to find another ship. His aunt knew of an ivory trade company in Africa and suggested he inquire. His aunt’s influence paid off and he became employed as a steamboat captain on the Congo River. He departed from Europe on a French steamer down the coast of Africa. The ship he was on seemed to make an infinite amount of stops.

On these stops, Marlow became entranced by the endless coastline and the isolation created by the unfamiliar people. When the boat would stop and the black men would come out to trade with the ship, Marlow was fascinated by their presence and the reality they seemed to convey in contrast to the dreamlike features of his journey so far. Marlow realized his journey would be anything but normal. “For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long” (p. 78).

Marlow’s journey on the French steamer came to an end at the river’s mouth, where he transferred to a river boat commanded by a Swede. The captain told Marlow of the corrupted government and country he was entering, and he added that an earlier passenger of his hanged himself up river for no apparent reason. Nearly one hundred miles up river, the boat landed at the company’s Outer Station. The station was littered with abandoned equipment rusting away in the grass. Accompanying the valuable equipment were groups of black workers chained to each other and the dead bodies of others.

Marlow was troubled at the sight before him. Marlow moved up to the company buildings where he met the company’s chief accountant. His dress was immaculate as were his quarters — a complete contrast to the confusion that defined the rest of the station. Here, Marlow learned of a man named Kurtz for the first time. The man told Marlow that Kurtz was an amazing man who was in charge of the inner, and most important, station. He said that it wouldn’t be long before Kurtz made it into administration, as he had sent more ivory down river than any other agent.

After spending ten long days at the Outer Station, Marlow headed toward the Central Station over land with a caravan of sixty blacks and a white man. Fifteen days and two-hundred miles later, Marlow made it to the station exhausted from his journey. Adding insult to injury, he discovered his awaiting steamboat at the bottom of the river. The manager of the station made no acknowledgment of Marlow’s long journey and went on and on about the wreck and how it would take three months to get it running again. The manager began talking about Kurtz and how no one knew if he was dead or alive.

Marlow quickly determined that the manager “was a chattering idiot” (p. 89) and not worth his time, so he isolated himself from those who resided at the station. He decided to focus all of his time toward raising the steamboat. While he was there, however, he noticed the “pilgrims,” white men who carried staffs and constantly spoke of the ivory trade, and he couldn’t help overhear the constant talk of Kurtz. One evening, the brickmaker of the station invited Marlow to his room. The agent’s quarters were a marvel compared to the rest of the station, just as the accountant’s had been at the Outer Station.

It did not take long for Marlow to realize the agent’s motive. He was trying to extract information about Marlow’s influential friends and sources back in Belgium. The agent was convinced Marlow knew of the company’s plans for Kurtz, as Marlow and Kurtz shared recommending sources. Marlow revealed nothing and instead questioned the agent about Kurtz after discovering a painting by him. The agent expected a promotion for Kurtz soon, but said nothing more. Marlow soon realized the agent resented Kurtz, as he continued to pry information out of him. Later, Marlow told the agent that he needed rivets to repair the steamboat.

Weeks passed, but there were no rivets. Marlow knew that supply convoys came in from the Outer Station, and he knew there were rivets there as he had almost tripped on bags of them earlier. The only supplies that came, however, were cheap trade goods. Marlow, demanded rivets, but the agent acted indifferently towards his “forgetfulness. ” As Marlow continued to wait, a group known as the Eldorado Exploring Expedition came into the station. The group was headed by the manager’s uncle. One evening, as Marlow was lying in the shadows on the deck of the steamer, he overheard a conversation between the manager and his uncle.

He discovered the manager had purposefully neglected to send supplies to Kurtz’s Inner Station. A clerk of Kurtz’s, while delivering a shipment of ivory, informed the manager that Kurtz was ill, and from then on, no news was heard from him again. Finally, after months of waiting, rivets arrived. Marlow repaired the steamboat and began his journey upriver with a crew of about twenty natives, a few of the “pilgrims,” and the manager. They progressed slowly over two months and encountered many native villages along the way. Marlow was determined to get to Kurtz and discover for himself the true nature of the man.

The journey was difficult for “the snags were thick, the water was treacherous and shallow, [and] the boiler seemed indeed to have a sulky devil in it” (p. 107). A few miles from the Inner Station, after clearing through a snag, the steamer was showered with arrows. Chaos ensued as men from the boat “squirted lead into the bush” (p. 117). Marlow’s helmsman was killed in the attack, and a few of the crew were wounded. Speculation of whether Kurtz was still alive at this point was abundant. The manager, who became frightened by the attack, insisted they turn around.

Just as he said this, however, the Inner Station came into view. When they pulled to the bank, they were greeted by a rather peculiar looking Russian. He told Marlow that Kurtz’s health was failing, so the manager and the “pilgrims” headed out to find him and return him to the steamer. Marlow discovered from the Russian that Kurtz, without goods to trade with, had rounded up his recent supplies of ivory at gunpoint. He had become a god to the surrounding natives, and the Russian later informed Marlow that Kurtz was the one who ordered the attack on the steamer.

When Marlow asked why, the Russian responded, “They don’t want him to go” (p. 126). The Russian, who was obviously devoted to Kurtz, was nearly shot by Kurtz as he was aiding him to recovery. When the group found Kurtz, he was in horrible physical condition, but his speech was amazingly strong. They carried him to the steamer under the watchful eyes of the natives, who seemed to silently protest the move. An ominous looking woman in the tribe stood out from the woods and made her presence known to the group. Later that night, Marlow discovered Kurtz had escaped from the steamer.

After locating him, Marlow carefully approached him. Kurtz was watching the natives perform one of their ceremonies, and Marlow saw the apparent torment Kurtz experienced. Marlow carried him back to the steamer, and they set out down river the next day. As they traveled down river, Marlow watched Kurtz’s decline, and he developed a kind of partnership with him. Kurtz entrusted his private papers and a photograph of a woman to Marlow, because he knew anyone else would exploit his findings. Not long after, Kurtz died speaking his final words, “The horror! The horror! ” (p. 147), and was buried in the jungle.

After the event, Marlow returned to Europe to recover from an illness. A few men inquired information on Kurtz’s papers, but he denounced their value and told them they were for his mourning love. Marlow took the papers to the woman, who was in obvious pain and distress over her loss of Kurtz. She questioned Marlow intently, but he evaded her questions as he did not have truthful answers about the man he hardly knew. He could not get Kurtz out of his mind, though, and thought constantly of Kurtz’s situation and how he had separated himself from the world into an entirely different existence.

Marlow ended the woman’s sorrow by assuring her that her name was Kurtz’s last word. Marlow was incensed that he lied to the woman, but did nothing and left her. Finally, the scene returns to the present deck of the Nellie where silence ensues with the end of Marlow’s story. The men share no feelings of the emotional story they have just heard and are more or less indifferent. They just sit afloat on the Thames, which seems to flow into the endless “darkness” of the horizon.

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