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Short summary of Heart of Darkness

Short summary of Heart of Darkness

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Published by: Marselina Govedarica on May 01, 2011
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Short SummaryA group of men are aboard an English ship that is sitting on the Thames. The group includes a Lawyer, an Accountant, a Company Director/Captain, and a man without a specific profession who is named Marlow. The narrator appears to be anotherunnamed guest on the ship. While they are loitering about, waiting for the windto pick up so that they might resume their voyage, Marlow begins to speak aboutLondon and Europe as some of the darkest places on earth. The narrator and other guests do not seem to regard him with much respect. Marlow is a stationary man, very unusual for a seaman. The others do not understand him because he does not fit into a neat category in the same manner that the others do. He mentions colonization and says that carving the earth into prizes or pieces is not something to examine too closely because it is an atrocity. He then begins to narrate apersonal experience in Africa, which led him to become a freshwater sailor and gave him a terrible glimpse of colonization. With the exception of two or three small paragraphs, the perspective shifts to Marlow, who becomes the main narratorfor the rest of the novel.Marlow has always had a passion for travel and exploration. Maps are an obsession of his. Marlow decides he wants nothing more than to be the skipper of a steamship that travels up and down a river in Africa. His aunt has a connection in the Administration Department of a seafaring and exploration company that gathersivory, and she manages to get Marlow an appointment. He replaces a captain who was killed in a skirmish with the natives. When Marlow arrives at the company office, the atmosphere is extremely dim and foreboding. He feels as if everyone islooking at him pityingly. The doctor who performs his physical asks if there isa history of insanity in Marlow's family. He tells Marlow that nothing could persuade him to join the Company down in the Congo. This puzzles Marlow, but he does not think much of it. The next day he embarks on a one-month journey to the primary Company station. The African shores that he observes look anything but welcoming. They are dark and rather desolate, in spite of the flurry of human activity around them. When he arrives, Marlow learns that a company member recently committed suicide. There are multitudes of chain-gang types, who all look at himwith vacant expressions. A young boy approaches Marlow, looking very empty. Marlow can do nothing but offer him some ship biscuits. He is very relieved to leavethe boy behind as he comes across a very well-dressed man who is the picture ofrespectability and elegance. They introduce themselves: he is the Chief Accountant of the Company. Marlow befriends this man and frequently spends time in hishut while the Accountant goes over the accounts. After ten days of observing theChief Accountant's ill temper, Marlow departs for his 200-mile journey into theinterior of the Congo, where he will work for a station run by a man named Kurtz.The journey is arduous. Marlow crosses many paths, sees deserted dwellings, andencounters black men working. Marlow never describes them as humans. Throughoutthe novel, the white characters refer to them in animalistic terms. Marlow finally arrives at a secondary station, where he meets the Manager, who for now willoversee his work. It is a strange meeting. The Manager smiles in a manner that is very discomfiting. The ship on which Marlow is supposed to set sail is broken.While they await the delivery of the rivets needed to fix it, Marlow spends histime on more mundane tasks. He frequently hears the name "Kurtz" around the station. Clearly everyone knows his future boss. It is rumored that he is ill. Soonthe entire crew will depart for a trip to Kurtz's station.The Manager's uncle arrives with his own expedition. Marlow overhears them saying that they would like to see Kurtz and his assistant hanged so that their station could be eliminated as ivory competition. After a day of exploring, the expedition has lost all of their animals. Marlow sets out for Kurtz's station with the Pilgrims, the cannibal crew, and the Manager. About eight miles from their destination, they stop for the night. There is talk of an approaching attack. Rumorhas it that Kurtz may have been killed in a previous one. Some of the pilgrimsgo ashore to investigate. The whirring sound of arrows is heard; an attack is underway. The Pilgrims shoot back from the ship with rifles. The helmsman of the ship is killed, as is a native ashore. Marlow supposes that Kurtz has perished in
 
the inexplicable attack. This upsets him greatly. Over the course of his travels, he has greatly looked forward to meeting this man. Marlow shares Kurtz's background: an English education, a woman at home waiting for him. In spite of Marlow's disappointment, the ship presses onward. A little way down the river, the crew spot Kurtz's station, which they had supposed was lost. They meet a Russian man who resembles a harlequin. He says that Kurtz is alive but somewhat ill. Thenatives do not want Kurtz to leave because he has expanded their minds. Kurtz does not want to leave because he has essentially become part of the tribe.After talking for a while with the Russian, Marlow has a very clear picture of the man who has become his obsession. Finally, he has the chance to talk to Kurtz, who is ill and on his deathbed. The natives surround his hut until he tells them to leave. While on watch, Marlow dozes off and realizes that Kurtz is gone. He chases him and finds Kurtz in the forest. He does not want to leave the station because his plans have not been fully realized. Marlow manages to take him back to his bed. Kurtz entrusts Marlow with all of his old files and papers. Amongthese is a photograph of his sweetheart. The Russian escapes before the Managerand others can imprison him. The steamboat departs the next day. Kurtz dies onboard a few days later, Marlow having attended him until the end.Marlow returns to England, but the memory of his friend haunts him. He manages to find the woman from the picture, and he pays her a visit. She talks at lengthabout his wonderful personal qualities and about how guilty she feels that she was not with him at the last. Marlow lies and says that her name was the last word spoken by Kurtz—the truth would be too dark to tell her.A novella, Heart of Darkness is Joseph Conrad
’s most famous work and a foundational text on the subject of colonialism. Heart of Darkness is based in part on a trip that Conrad took through modern-day Congo during his years as a sailor. He captained a ship that sailed down the Congo River. Conrad gave up this mission because an illness forced him to return to England, where he worked on his novellaalmost a decade later.The presence of ill characters in the novella illustrates the fact that Heart of Darkness is, at least in part, autobiographical. Many speculations have been made about the identity of various characters, such as the Manager, or Kurtz,most recently and perhaps most accurately in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. But the geographical, as well as biographical, vagueness of the novel--which is one of its most artistic, haunting characteristics--make it almost impossibleto pin down these details for sure.Heart of Darkness first appeared in a three-part series in Blackwood Magazine in1899. It was published as a complete novella in 1904. It has since been referred to by many authors and poets. Its most famous lines are both from Kurtz: “exterminate the brutes,” and Kurtz
 
s deathbed utterance, “the horror! The horror!”Francis Ford Coppola directed the film version, Apocalypse Now, in which the action occurs in Vietnam in 1979.Character ListMarlowThe protagonist and main narrator of the story, he stumbles into Africa lookingto sail a steamboat and finds much more. He possesses a strong interest in the past. He also has a good work ethic; he views working hard as a means of achieving sanity. In many respects, the worldview of Marlow is that of a typical European. Still, he is intended to be a versatile character, one of the few who does not belong to a distinct class, and he thus can relate to different kinds of people with more ease than his peers.KurtzHe is in charge of the most productive ivory station in the Congo. Hailed universally for his genius and eloquence, Kurtz becomes the focus of Marlow
 
s journeyinto Africa. He is the unique victim of colonization; the wilderness captures him and he turns his back on the people and customs that were once a part of him.ManagerMarlow
 
s direct supervisor, he is a hard, greedy man who values power and moneyabove all else. Yet he masks this crudeness behind a civilized demeanor. He seems to have an ability to outlive those around him. The Manager would like nothing
 
more than to surpass Kurtz in the ivory trade and see him dead, so that he would no longer interfere with the competitive trade. He makes people uneasy, and the only explanation Marlow offers is that he is "hollow."BrickmakerHe is the so-called first agent, who is the Manager
 
s pet and spy. He never actually makes bricks; supposedly he is waiting for the delivery of an essential ingredient. The Brickmaker is unlikable, cunning, and contemptible. His behavior flauts Marlow
 
s work ethic.RussianKurtz
 
s devoted companion, he is an idealistic explorer who has wandered to theCongo on a Dutch ship and has been caught in the web of Kurtz
 
s obsessive ivoryhunt. He is so young that it is uncertain whether or not he fully understands what he is doing in Africa. He is more or less attracted to the glamor of adventure. His unwavering support of Kurtz makes him humble and admirable.NativesThey are a collective presence throughout the story. They are never described asindividuals.Chief AccountantA top official in the main station, he befriends Marlow when he first arrives inAfrica. He is a cruel man but ironically also the picture of the "civilized European." Marlow admires his work habits, but this admiration is directed toward his flawless appearance rather than his personality.Marlow
 
s auntShe is the connection to the Company in which Marlow receives a position. She appears to be the only female contact Marlow has in his life, and she fully supports the vision of colonialism laid out in Rudyard Kipling
 
s "White Man
 
s Burden." Kurtz
 
s fianceeAn unnamed woman who only appears in the last few pages of the novel, she is thesymbol of a life that Kurtz leaves behind when he arrives in the Congo. She ispure and lives in a dream world built around who she believes Kurtz is. Her impressions of him are so disparate from what the reader observes that we marvel atthe change that evidently has come about in Kurtz.HelmsmanHe is responsible for steering Marlow
 
s ship. He is not very experienced and seems unable to make informed decisions under pressure.PilgrimsThe collective white presence in the story, they accompany Marlow and the Manager on the voyage to Kurtz
 
s station. They exist in opposition to the natives andthe cannibals, and their fear makes it apparent that they are unwilling to relinquish preconceived notions about the natives.CannibalsThey are a specific section of the native presence. They are the grunt crew of Marlow
 
s ship, and they are the only group of natives who ever voice any kind ofstatement or opinion to the whites. Marlow is surprised at their tranquil manner, and he seems to respect them.DirectorThe captain in charge aboard the Thames River ship, from which Marlow tells thetale. He is loved by all. He is a good sailor, but he now works on land.LawyerA passenger aboard the Thames ship. He is called a good, virtuous fellow.AccountantAlso, a passenger aboard the Thames ship, he does nothing but play dominoes. Along with the lawyer, he constitutes a crew of gentility, which contrasts with thecrew from Marlow
 
s Congo ship.NarratorAn unnamed passenger aboard the Thames ship, he provides a structure for Marlow
 
s story and is a stand-in for audience perspective and participation. He was once a sailor, and he seems affected by Kurtz
 
s tale due to his somewhat romantic nature.

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