Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Heart of Darkness Study Guide." Course Hero. 28 July 2016. Web. 4 Oct. 2023. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Heart-of-Darkness/>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2016, July 28). Heart of Darkness Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved October 4, 2023, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Heart-of-Darkness/

In text

(Course Hero, 2016)



Course Hero. "Heart of Darkness Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Heart-of-Darkness/.


Course Hero, "Heart of Darkness Study Guide," July 28, 2016, accessed October 4, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Heart-of-Darkness/.

Plot Summary

Course Hero's video study guide provides an in-depth plot summary of Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness.

Heart of Darkness | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Heart of Darkness is set in the 1890s at the height of European colonization of the African continent. As the novella opens, five friends sit waiting for the tide to change on the Thames River so that they can head out to sea. They are used to telling one another stories, and, as they sit on the yacht, Marlow, the best storyteller of the group, begins a tale by saying, in reference to Britain, "And this also ... has been one of the dark places of the earth." His words set the dark, brooding tone of the novella.

Much of the rest of the book is told from Marlow's perspective, as he relates an experience he had the prior year. He tells his friends that once he signed on to pilot a paddle-wheeled steamboat upriver in central Africa. While the European city and the African river, river basin, and country all remain unnamed in the novella, Conrad likely envisioned the story in Brussels, Belgium, and in the Congo. Marlow explains that he undertook the trip while working for a European business operation known simply as "the Company," which was extracting ivory from the interior of Africa for profit. The Company hired Marlow in Europe and gave him the task of picking up one of its agents in Africa, a man named Kurtz, and relieve him of his duty. Apparently Kurtz employed questionable methods for consistently getting more ivory than any of the other Company stations.

With this goal in mind, Marlow travels to central Africa on a French steamer. As the ship heads toward the river, it hugs the African coast close enough that Marlow can see see the lush, dark-green jungle. Marlow disembarks at the coastal Outer Station and then walks 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the Company's Central Station, where the river is navigable and his steamer is supposed to be waiting for him. "Camp, cook, sleep, strike camp, march," is the journey Marlow describes.

Arriving at the Central Station, Marlow is surprised and disappointed to learn that his steamer is sunk at the bottom of the river three hours upstream. He meets the Central Station manager, who talks with him at length.

The manager tells Marlow that the situation is very grave at the Inner Station, where Kurtz is agent and to which Marlow is meant to pilot the steamer. Marlow is told it will take three months to repair the ship and head to the Inner Station. As these days pass, Marlow concludes that the delays are likely intentional; the manager knows that Kurtz is ill and hopes he will die before Marlow reaches him.

Although there is a brickmaker at the station, and some station agents (whom Marlow calls pilgrims because they carry long staffs) have been assigned to help him, he had not made any bricks for a year due to the lack of some crucial material, though Marlow doesn't know what it is. When the brickmaker begins pumping Marlow for information, Marlow decides that the brickmaker must be a spy for the manager. Marlow overhears a conversation between the station manager and his uncle, who is leading an expedition into the jungle in search of wealth. The two exchange dark hints about Kurtz's character and behavior.

Marlow, meanwhile, is unable to repair the ship without receiving the needed rivets. Eventually he does repair the steamer and, along with the manager and the pilgrims, heads upriver. Eight miles (20 kilometers) from the Inner Station, the steamer is attacked by native fighters. The attack does not stop the ship from progressing, but Marlow's helmsman, whom he respected, is killed. Marlow pitches the helmsman's body overboard to avoid having it eaten by the native crew members, whom Marlow says are cannibalistic; this crew is nearly emaciated because the Company has not bothered to provide food for the month-long journey.

Marlow pauses in the narrative to talk about Kurtz. When they eventually meet, Kurtz tells Marlow some of his ideas; he had been asked by the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to write a report with his recommendations for bringing white civilization to Africa. Marlow thinks he has gone mad, losing his self-control in the solitude and darkness.

Arriving at the Inner Station, Marlow is met by a Russian man dressed in colorfully patched clothes that make him look like a harlequin. Marlow gets his first indication that something strange is going on at the Inner Station. Kurtz is not there, and the Russian tells Marlow that Kurtz often spends time in the jungle visiting with the native people or gathering ivory. He suggests Kurtz uses extreme methods to secure the ivory and says the native people adore Kurtz. They do not want him taken from them and thus they attacked the steamer on its trip upriver. Marlow observes a fence of posts outside the station with severed human heads atop them.

When Kurtz arrives he is on a stretcher, and he is very ill. The manager pretends to be sorry, but Marlow knows he is being disingenuous as he also criticizes Kurtz. Marlow senses that the manager thinks Marlow is on Kurtz's side and does not trust him. As they begin the trip downriver to the coast, Kurtz is in the process of dying. Marlow's censure of Kurtz is moderated by Marlow's understanding of how Kurtz fell into his madness. Because of these mixed feelings toward Kurtz, Marlow agrees to protect Kurtz's papers and his reputation after Marlow returns to Europe. Kurtz dies on the trip downriver; the last thing Marlow hears him say is, "The horror! The horror!"

Back at Company headquarters, Marlow delivers Kurtz's report to a journalist for publication and his papers to the fiancée Kurtz left behind in Europe. In addition, Marlow lies to Kurtz's fiancée regarding Kurtz's final words as a matter of sympathy, telling her that Kurtz uttered her name.

This is the end of Marlow's tale, and the action returns to the five friends on the yacht. He ceases talking and sits apart quietly. The narrator notices that the Thames River is flowing under an overcast sky "into the heart of an immense darkness."

Heart of Darkness Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Resting on a yacht on the Thames, Marlow begins his tale.

Rising Action

2 Marlow gets a job with an ivory trading company.

3 Marlow travels to Africa, stopping at every port.

4 At the outer station, Marlow hears of Kurtz.

5 Marlow hikes 200 miles (320 km) to the Central Station.

6 Marlow learns why the manager wants to pick up Kurtz.

7 Marlow pilots the repaired steamer upriver.

8 The steamer is attacked on the river.

9 Marlow arrives at the Inner Station.

10 Marlow finds Kurtz in the jungle.


11 Kurtz dies on the steamer, crying, "The horror! The horror!"

Falling Action

12 Heading downriver, Marlow contemplates Kurtz's life.

13 Marlow gives Kurtz's report to a journalist.

14 With Kurtz's fiancée, Marlow protects Kurtz's memory.


15 Having told his tale, Marlow reflects quietly on the yacht.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Heart of Darkness? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!