“Heart of Darkness” begins with the “frame” narrator’s description of a group of men relaxing on a private yacht one evening. One of the men, Charlie Marlow, a sailor, commences to tell his friends a tale of one of his adventures as the captain of a steamboat going down the Congo River. The rest of the narrative consists of Marlow’s tale, with only occasional interruptions by the ‘’frame” narrator to describe Marlow and his storytelling style.
Marlow’s tale is about his assignment to work for “the Company,” an ivory trading company in what was then the Free State of the Congo, a colony of the Belgian government. Marlow is assigned to retrieve a certain Kurtz, a company manager operating deep in the Congo to retrieve ivory whose “methods” were reported to be “unsound.” Marlow initially stops at one of the Company sites, where he is appalled by the brutal, inhumane, slavery-like conditions of the African people made to work for the Company. He comes upon a grove where those who have been worked nearly to starvation and death lie in wait for death. Marlow is equally appalled, although ironically impressed, with the callousness of the company management and bureaucracy toward the suffering Africans. Making several stops at company sites, Marlow hears intriguing reference to the enigmatic Kurtz, to the point that he himself becomes eager to meet and converse with the man.
As Marlow’s boat moves closer to Kurtz’s compound, the small steamboat crew are barraged with deadly arrows, even as they are blinded by a thick fog. Marlow watches in sympathy as one of the Africans on his boat dies from an arrow wound. He is struck by his sense of identification with the black man. Arriving at Kurtz’s compound, Marlow meets with a man he refers to as the Russian Harlequin soldier, who maniacally and obsessively worships Kurtz. Marlow observes decapitated human heads stuck on poles throughout the compound. He then finds Kurtz himself, a shriveled up man dying of malarial fever. As he takes the dying Kurtz aboard his boat, Marlow observes a woman who seems to have been Kurtz’s companion, mourning his departure. As they make their way back up the river, Kurtz soon dies, with the enigmatic and haunting words “The horror! The horror!” on his lips. Marlow is then taken up with fever and illness, which renders him delirious. Upon recovering, Marlow returns to England, where he goes to visit Kurtz’s “Intended,” the woman Kurtz was engaged to marry. Marlow has come to give her the packet of letters and writings Kurtz had entrusted with him. Although he abhors liars and lying, Marlow withholds from her Kurtz’s haunting final words, telling her instead that he had died with her own name on his lips.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2001.