Heart of Darkness Book Summary - Heart of Darkness Book explained in key points
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Heart of Darkness summary

Joseph Conrad

The Horrors of Western Colonialism Told Through the Ivory Trade

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16 mins
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    Heart of Darkness
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    Chapter 1: Marlow’s Sailor’s Yarn

    Heart of Darkness begins on the River Thames near London. The British steam ship Nellie is anchored there, with its five passengers waiting to embark on a journey to Africa. 

    The passengers include the captain of the ship, referred to as the “Director of Companies,” a lawyer, an accountant, our unnamed narrator, and sailor Charles Marlow – the protagonist of the story.

    The mood on board is somber. Everyone seems lost in their own thoughts. As the sun sets, Marlow begins to spin a sailor’s yarn for the others: the story of how he became captain of a river steamboat in Africa. 

    Marlow explains that his fascination with the unknown began from an early age. As a child, he loved looking at maps – especially at the uncharted territories of Africa. He became particularly fascinated with the Congo River, which looked like a winding snake to him. 

    As a young adult, Marlow seeks to quench his hunger for exploration by applying for a job with “the Company” – a Belgian ivory trade firm. He gets in with the help of his aunt’s influence.  One of the Company’s captains is killed by an African in a petty dispute, and Marlow is the only one willing to replace him. 

    Marlow is excited to finally see more of the world, but he feels apprehensive about the details of his new job. When he signs his contract in the Brussel offices, he’s beset by the ominous feeling that he’s made a mistake.

    But he boards the ship to Africa regardless. After thirty days, the ship finally reaches a Company station on the outer coast of Africa. Here, Marlow is supposed to get acquainted with the job before taking command of his own ship. Instead, he gets his first glimpse of the horrors of colonialism.


    The first chapter of Heart of Darkness sets the stage for the story to come. It introduces us to our protagonist Charles Marlow, a travel-hungry sailor who takes a job with a Belgian ivory trading company. Marlow is depicted as introspective and philosophical, with a deep desire to explore the unknown. As becomes clear throughout the book, he’s actually somewhat obsessed with exploring the “darkness” at the heart of humanity.

    Marlow recounts the story of what happened to him to other passengers on a ship. This gives him the power of hindsight – and allows him to interrupt the story with retrospective musings. For example, he ponders how many atrocities that have been committed in the name of progress actually just served the pursuit of profit. 

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    What is Heart of Darkness about?

    Heart of Darkness (1899) is a classic novella that explores themes of imperialism, power dynamics, and morality. It tells the story of sailor Charles Marlow, who becomes captain of a river steamboat for a Belgian ivory trade company Africa and witnesses the brutal reality of European colonialism. Marlow becomes fascinated with the mysterious ivory trader Kurtz – a mad genius who commands a trading post deep in the jungle. 

    Who should read Heart of Darkness?

    • Fans of classic literature 
    • Those interested in critical perspectives on imperialism and colonialism 
    • Anyone who loves a good sailor’s yarn

    About the Author

    Joseph Conrad (1857 - 1924) was a Polish-British writer who’s best known for his critically acclaimed novella Heart of Darkness (1899). Despite only learning the language in his twenties, he’s widely regarded as one of the most important English-speaking writers to date. His other books include Lord Jim (1900) and Nostromo (1904). 

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