Heart of Darkness at a Glance


Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness retells the story of Marlow's job as an ivory transporter down the Congo. Through his journey, Marlow develops an intense interest in investigating Kurtz, an ivory-procurement agent, and Marlow is shocked upon seeing what the European traders have done to the natives. Joseph Conrad's exploration of the darkness potentially inherent in all human hearts inspired the 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, although the setting was moved to Vietnam.

Written by: Joseph Conrad

Type of Work: novella

Genres: colonial literature; frame story

First Published: serially in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899; again 1902, as the third work in the anthology, Youth, by Joseph Conrad

Setting: on the deck of the Nellie; the Congo River

Main Characters: Marlow; Mr. Kurtz; The Manager; The Accountant; The Harlequin; The IntendedKurtz's Native Mistress

Major Thematic Topics: colonialism; racism; savagery versus civilization

Motifs: journey; darkness of civilization

Major Symbols: Kurtz; the Congo River; ivory; England

Movie Versions: Apocalypse Now (1979)

The three most important aspects of Heart of Darkness:

  • Conrad intentionally made Heart of Darkness hard to read. He wanted the language of his novella to make the reader feel like they were fighting through the jungle, just like Marlow fought through the jungle in search of Kurtz.
  • Apocalypse Now is director Francis Ford Coppola's film based on the Heart of Darkness, but set in the jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Most critics agree that the film is an important examination of America's military involvement in Vietnam and the potential darkness that lies in all human hearts. Apocalypse means the end of the world, and as the film's title suggests, Coppola explores the ways in which the metaphorical "darkness" of Vietnam caused an apocalypse in the hearts of those sent there to fight.
  • Heart of Darkness is structured as a frame tale, not a first-person narrative. Marlow's story is told by the anonymous narrator who listens to Marlow on the deck of the Nellie. Conrad's frame narrator, like the reader, learns that his ideas about European imperialism are founded on a number of lies that he wholeheartedly believed. By the end of the novella, Marlow's tale significantly changes the narrator's attitude toward the ships and men of the past. Only the narrator — and the reader — understand Marlow's initial point: "Civilized" Europe was once a "dark place," and it has only become more morally dark through the activities of institutions like the Company.