Overview and Setting


In 1890 Conrad sailed to the Belgian Congo. More than a decade later, he reworked his memories of this trip into his novella Heart of Darkness, a highly symbolic work that explores social and psychological disorder through the central metaphor of a journey to the heart of the African continent. At the end of the journey and center of the mystery lies Mr. Kurtz, who has allegedly “civilized” the natives and brought them education. But Marlow-who is charged with finding Kurtz and learning the secret of his success in exporting ivory-recognizes the decay and corruption of colonial imperialists. When Marlow finally reaches the central station, he finds that the district manager has escaped from the Congo. The boat that Marlow intends to sail in search of Kurtz has sunk in the Congo River. Marlow repairs the steamer and continues his journey, only to find Kurtz ill and nearly consumed by evil. His ideals irrevocably corrupted, Kurtz’s soul-not Africa-is the true heart of darkness.


The story opens as a nameless narrator aboard the cruising yawl Nellie, anchored in the Thames River in England, begins to relate secondhand the story of Charlie Marlow’s river voyage in the Belgian Congo. Set in the late nineteenth century, most of the story takes place at outposts along the river, each of which brings Marlow closer to his quarry: the Belgian trader, Mr. Kurtz. At the end of the story, Marlow returns to Brussels to visit Kurtz’s fiancee. The Setting of Heart of Darkness is practically indistinguishable from the novella’s symbolic framework. The rich cultural details and natural symbols afforded by the African landscape surround Marlow, consume Kurtz, and shed light upon Conrad’s exploration of man’s inner darkness.

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