Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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In “Heart of Darkness,” Charles Marlow sets out on a journey to find an important trading post in the heart of Africa, which is led by a man named Kurtz. Along the way, Marlow learns about the growing legends surrounding Kurtz, who is seen as almost god-like by the natives, but also feared by them.

The book is a quest story, which is a common theme in all of Conrad’s novels. On the surface, it is about Marlow’s quest to reach the Inner Station, also known as Heart of Darkness, but on a deeper level, it is his search for truth and understanding of the human soul.

Marlow’s quest is difficult, just like finding the meaning of life. Conrad shows that life’s problems don’t have simple solutions. Even though Kurtz is a murderer and possibly a cannibal, Marlow concludes that he is better than the other pilgrims. This is unusual and may surprise readers.

If you’re unsure whether to read this book, this review will help you decide whether it’s worth your time. So let’s get started.

Plot Summary

An Englishman travels to the Belgian Congo and discovers a horrifying dark side of life.

Chapter 1 

One night, while waiting for the tide to change, a group of Englishmen, all former sailors, relax on board the Nellie, a cruising yawl anchored in an estuary of the Thames River in London. An unnamed narrator identifies the men as the Director of Companies (the host), the Lawyer, the Accountant, and Charlie Marlow, who will narrate most of the novel.

After some chat, Marlow reflects on the times long ago when England was “one of the dark places of the earth.” Savage Britain, as it appeared to its Roman invaders, must have been a dangerous yet fascinating terrain. 

For Marlow, conquest generally means “taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves” and is “not a pretty thing,” though the Romans redeemed themselves by their devotion to the idea of conquest. Marlow admires people who commit themselves to their beliefs, and this prompts him to tell a story that will form the basis of the novel.

Some years ago, Marlow felt an urge to explore Africa, which he considered a glamorous and exciting “place of darkness.” He looked into the idea of navigating a steamboat for a trading company, and was hired by a Belgian company that traded in the Belgian Congo. 

Marlow sailed out on a French steamer, and after a long voyage down the African coast, finally landed at his Company’s station. There he was disturbed to see a group of mistreated Africans, bound together by neck chains, and another group of black natives lying under a tree, dying of malnutrition and overwork. 

It was a grim picture of disorder, decay, and hopelessness. Everywhere he looked, Marlow saw the “deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.” In this wasteland, he met the Company’s chief accountant, a nameless man whose “vast cuffs” and “brushed hair” contrasted sharply with the “black shadows of disease and starvation” all around him.

Marlow spent 10 days at the station—an eternity. Then the accountant mentioned a man named Mr. Kurtz, the agent in charge of an extremely important trading post located deep in the interior, at “the very bottom of there.”

Kurtz had originally come to Africa years ago with a strong desire to educate the natives and teach them productivity. At the same time, he sent more ivory back to the Continent than all the other traders put together, but there were rumors that he was now ill. Marlow decided that he wanted to meet Kurtz. 

The next day he set off on a 200-mile trip inland to the Central Station, where he arrived 15 days later—only to discover that his steamer had sunk, a mishap that delayed by several months his journey to see Kurtz. 

During this time, he became familiar with the living conditions around him and discovered that the Station manager, as well as his companions (whom Marlow called pilgrims), were suspicious and envious of Kurtz. The manager and his people were out to make money by any means possible, and their ill-will toward Kurtz caused Marlow to feel sympathy for the man. The pilgrims were greedy, but Kurtz at least had ideals.

Chapter 2 

Before leaving the Central Station, Marlow overheard a conversation between the manager and his uncle that confirmed their hostility toward Kurtz and their contempt for his lofty ideals about educating the Africans. 

They had been hoping Kurtz would die before he could be relieved of his position. When Marlow left the Central Station to go upriver, he was accompanied by a few pilgrims and some 20 cannibals. The travelers saw natives who “howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrible faces,” but their “uproar” appealed to something primitive and emotional in Marlow. He didn’t give in to this appeal because he had work to do.

Some 50 miles before reaching the inner Station, the boat came to a hut, with wood stacked for them and a friendly note telling them to hurry up but to exercise caution. Approaching the station, Marlow’s boat ran into trouble. 

While paralyzed by fog, the pilgrims were surrounded by natives on the banks who began a terrible screeching. After the fog had lifted, the boat was suddenly attacked by natives firing arrows. They eventually killed Marlow’s native helmsman before Marlow sounded the ship’s whistle and frightened them away.

From his steamboat, Marlow first noticed the Inner Station, a long decaying building surrounded by posts with “round carved balls” on them. A raggedly dressed white man welcomed the passengers as they got off the boat. He was Kurtz’s Russian companion, and it was he who had left the wood and note for them. 

He said the natives had attacked the boat because they did not want anyone taking Kurtz away. But the truth, as Marlow would later learn, was that Kurtz had ordered the attack.

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Chapter 3 

Marlow was astonished by the Russian, who revealed that Kurtz had stayed in Africa to collect ivory long after his trading goods had run out.

Having nursed Kurtz through two illnesses, the Russian said his companion “could be very terrible.” Kurtz had raided the country, but the devoted natives regarded him as a god and worshipped him with “unspeakable rites.” 

When Marlow looked through his field glasses and saw the fence posts around Kurtz’s house, he realized they had human heads on them—another sign that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts.”

Soon a group of pilgrims returned to the boat carrying the ill Kurtz on a stretcher. Some natives burst into shrieks at the prospect of Kurtz’s departure.

Before the steamer left the next day, Marlow saw a magnificent native woman who walked on the shore, gazing at the boat that would bear Kurtz away, her face showing grief and pain. Marlow learned from Kurtz that he felt betrayed by being removed from his station before he could put his “ideas” into practice.

That night Marlow awoke to find that Kurtz had slipped away from the boat and had headed back to the native camp. Marlow followed his trail (Kurtz was crawling) and caught him. He persuaded Kurtz to return so that they could avoid alarming his followers and provoking a massacre. The next day at noon, there were cries from Kurtz’s followers when the party left.

The rest of the novel tells of the trip back, including Kurtz’s death, and the aftermath for Marlow. Marlow listened to Kurtz a great deal during the voyage, and learned, for instance, about a report that Kurtz had written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. 

It spoke glowingly of the opportunity for Europeans to bring Civilization and Enlightenment to the natives, but at the bottom Kurtz had later written “Exterminate all the brutes!”

On Kurtz’s deathbed, his last words were, “The horror! The horror!” as he contemplated his life. After Kurtz’s death, Marlow was left with the pilgrims, who believed, accurately, that Marlow had sided with Kurtz against them.

Marlow returned to Europe, where he found the people pretentious, ignorant, and completely unaware of humankind’s true nature.

In the novel’s final scene, Marlow describes his visit to the Intended, Kurtz’s fiancée. She was noble, gentle, and totally unaware of Kurtz’s “dark” side. Though Marlow had earlier declared his hatred of lies, he believed women should not be subjected to the evils of the world.

Since he admired Kurtz for having a defined system of values—even if they were corrupt—he hid the truth when Kurtz’s fiancée asked what his final words had been. He replied, “The last word he pronounced was—your name.”

As Marlow completes his story, the unnamed narrator notes that the Thames “flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”

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1. The Power of Writing and Imagery

One of the most remarkable aspects of Heart of Darkness is the beauty of Conrad’s writing. The novella is certainly wordy at times, but this is not a fault; rather, it is a testament to the author’s mastery of language.

Conrad’s prose transports the reader to the dense, dangerous jungle of colonial Africa, and one can easily imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of this unfamiliar world.

Although the book is relatively short, Conrad packs it with vivid descriptions that engage the reader’s senses and imagination. It is no wonder that the novella has inspired countless adaptations and interpretations in various media.

2. The Complex Characters

Heart of Darkness is also notable for its richly drawn characters. The narrator, Marlow, is a fascinating figure, caught between his sense of duty to his employer and his own moral compass.

Kurtz, the enigmatic figure at the center of the story, is a study in contradiction: a brilliant man driven mad by the darkness he has encountered. The minor characters are also intriguing, each with their own quirks and motivations. Conrad’s characters are not caricatures; they are fully realized human beings, flawed and multifaceted.

3. The Timeless Themes

Finally, Heart of Darkness speaks to universal themes that are just as relevant today as they were when Conrad wrote the novella over a century ago. The book addresses the perils of greed and imperialism, the dangers of unchecked power, and the potential for redemption even in the darkest of circumstances.

The book may be set in colonial Africa, but its themes have resonance in contemporary society. We can see echoes of the novella’s themes in everything from modern imperialism to the ongoing struggles for civil rights and social justice.

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1. A Lack of Clear Moral

One of my main issues with Heart of Darkness is that it doesn’t offer a clear moral or lesson. Yes, the book critiques colonialism and the destructive effects of imperialism, but this is hardly a revelation to modern readers.

The story focuses on the descent into madness of Kurtz, a once-great man who has been corrupted by the darkness of the Congo. However, his ultimate fate is ambiguous, and the reader is left to draw their own conclusions. This lack of a clear message or resolution left me feeling unsatisfied.

2. A Difficult Read

Another factor that detracted from my enjoyment of Heart of Darkness was the difficulty of reading it. While I appreciate Conrad’s mastery of language and his ability to create vivid imagery, I found the book’s style to be too dense and wordy. The edition I read was particularly challenging, with a small font that made it difficult to read for extended periods. This made it hard for me to engage with the story and made the book feel like a slog at times.

3. Lack of Characterization

Finally, I was disappointed by the lack of characterization in Heart of Darkness. While Conrad’s descriptions of the landscape and setting are richly detailed, his characters are not. Kurtz, in particular, is held up as a brilliant and enigmatic figure, but when we finally meet him, he feels disappointingly flat. This lack of depth made it hard for me to connect with the characters and left me feeling emotionally unengaged with the story.


Heart of Darkness is a complex and thought-provoking novella that has earned its place as a literary classic. Conrad’s vivid imagery and dialogue effectively convey the harsh reality of the times and make this story an interesting conversation starter for anyone interested in history or literature.

While the verbose descriptions can sometimes interrupt the plot and the portrayal of the native people may need filtering by today’s standards, the book still has great literary merit and offers a new dimension to the textbook pages of history. The characters are authentic and relatable, and their conflicting thoughts and actions are a reflection of human nature.

Despite being a heavy read, Heart of Darkness is a must-read for those who seek to better understand the human condition and the impact of colonialism. As for me, I will forever keep this novel peeking out from my satchel as a reminder of its enduring relevance and powerful message.

About The Author

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) was born in Ukraine, of Polish ancestry. He is a realistic, symbolic fiction writer. He learned English as a second language. 

Conrad sailed the sea for the first time at age 17; he followed the sea for years, including a trip to the Congo which had a tremendous impact on him: “Before the Congo, I was just a mere animal.” The Congo showed him the vulgarity of colonial conquests and influenced his writing of Heart of Darkness. 

His other important works include Almayer’s Folly (1895), Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897), Lord Jim (1900), and Nostromo (1904). Concerned with “the ideal value of things, events, people.” 

Buy The Book: Heart of Darkness

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