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The Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness 67th on their list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century.
Heart of Darkness (1899) is about a narrated voyage up the Congo River. Charles Marlow, the narrator, tells his story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the River Thames. This setting provides the frame for Marlow’s story of his obsession with the successful ivory trader Kurtz. Conrad offers parallels between London (“the greatest town on earth”) and Africa as places of darkness.
Central to Conrad’s work is the idea that there is little difference between “civilized people” and those described as “savages.”
It provided the inspiration for 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
Aboard a boat, Charles Marlow tells his fellow sailors how he became captain of a river steamboat for an ivory trading company. Marlow takes passage on a French steamer bound for the Africa. After more than thirty days the ship anchors off the seat of government near the mouth of the big river. Marlow, with two hundred miles to go yet, takes passage on a little sea-going steamer.
Marlow must wait for ten days in the company’s Outer Station. At this station, he meets the company’s chief accountant who tells him of a Mr. Kurtz, who “‘sends in as much ivory as all the others put together.
Marlow departs to travel on foot about 200 miles to the Central Station. He arrives at the station he is shocked to learn from a fellow European that his steamboat had been wrecked two days earlier. He fishes his boat out of the river and is occupied with its repair for some months. He learns that Kurtz is not admired but rather resented by the company manager.
Finally, his boat can depart. The journey pauses for the night about 8 miles below the Inner Station. From the riverbank they hear a very loud cry, followed by a discordant clamor. A few hours later, , the steamboat is attacked with a barrage of small arrows from the forest. Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly, frightening the attackers away. Marlow notes that the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had commissioned Kurtz to write a report, which he did eloquently. A handwritten postscript, apparently added later by Kurtz, reads “Exterminate all the brutes!”
From the steamboat, Marlow observes a row of posts topped with the severed heads of natives. The manager appears bearing a gaunt and ghost-like Kurtz on an improvised stretcher and takes him to the steamer.
Kurtz’s health worsens on the return trip. The steamboat breaks down and while it is stopped for repairs, Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers, including his commissioned report and a photograph. A short while later, the “manager’s boy” announces “Mistah Kurtz—he dead” .
Upon his return to Europe, Marlow is embittered and contemptuous of the “civilized” world. He then gives Kurtz’s report to a journalist, for publication if he sees fit. Marlow visits Kurtz’s fiancé and she presses Marlow for information, asking him to repeat Kurtz’s final words. Uncomfortably, Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz’s final word was her name.
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