About the Book

About the Author

Also by Joseph Conrad

Title Page


Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III



About the Book

The silence of the jungle is broken only by the ominous sound of drumming. Life on the river is brutal and unknown threats lurk in the darkness. Marlow’s mission to captain a steamer upriver into the dense interior leads him into conflict with the others who haunt the forest. But his decision to hunt down the mysterious Mr Kurtz, an ivory trader who is the subject of sinister rumours, leads him into more than just physical peril.

About the Author

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born in the Ukraine on 3 December 1857. His parents were Polish and had both died in exile by the time Conrad was eleven years old. His uncle became his guardian and looked after him in Krakow until he was sixteen when he went to sea. He worked on both French and British ships before he became a British citizen in 1886 and changed his name to Joseph Conrad. In 1896 he married Jessie George and they later had two sons. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published in 1895 and he went on to write many more, as well as short stories, essays and a memoir. His most famous work, Heart of Darkness, was inspired by his experiences working on a steamboat in the Congo. After its publication in 1899 in Blackwood’s Magazine, Heart of Darkness was first published in book form in 1902 with the story Youth, which also features the character of Marlow. Joseph Conrad died on 3 August 1924.

Also by Joseph Conrad

Almayer’s Folly

An Outcast of the Islands

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’

Lord Jim



The Secret Agent

The Mirror of the Sea

Under Western Eyes



The Shadow-Line

The Rescue

The Rover




Seldom can an author have achieved his aim for a novel more completely than Joseph Conrad with Heart of Darkness. In an author’s note written in 1917, Conrad described his hope to instil enough power in the sombre theme of the book that it would ‘hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck’. Few could dispute that this is what he did. It was first published in 1899 as a three-part serial in the monthly Blackwood’s Magazine and in complete form three years later, alongside Youth in one volume, Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories, but, more than a hundred years on, Heart of Darkness still resonates. Modern film-makers and writers allude to it routinely and some of the book’s contents, like ‘the Inner Station’, ‘Mr Kurtz’, ‘The horror! The horror!’, have become key parts of literary iconography.

Where argument begins, however, is where it has always begun, ever since Conrad struck the ‘last note’ in Heart of Darkness: the debate over what the book’s sombre theme actually is. The debate is not just ongoing, it is yawning. Over a century after it was written, diametrically opposed conclusions are still being drawn about Heart of Darkness. Some critics view it as deeply racist, while others see it as an attack on the racism of colonialism; some critics view the book as largely psychological, while others believe it to be mostly historical; some believe it is a critique of the corrupting power of wilderness, while others believe it a parable of humanity’s weakness no matter what its setting.

In terms of narrative structure, Youth is very similar to Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s seafaring narrator, Charlie Marlow, appears first in Youth, telling an assembly of four unnamed characters – another narrator, a lawyer, an accountant and a director of companies – a story from his time away at sea, and a near identical frame is used in Heart of Darkness. But between the first book and the second, there is a quantum leap in scope, ambition and sophistication. In literary terms Youth is an adolescent while Heart of Darkness is a fully formed adult.

Both stories were based on Conrad’s own experiences as a merchant sailor and it is hard to overestimate the role and influence of his maritime career. He was no junior deckhand who spent a few months as crew on a clipper round Cape Horn for the thrill of it. Conrad spent twenty years at sea between the ages of 16 and 36, and saw much more of the world than was normal for people in the late nineteenth century. The sea was his alma mater and he worked hard not just as crew member but at his studies, learning English (his mother tongue was Polish and he spoke French, Russian and German before tackling English) to a sufficiently high level that he could qualify as a Master Mariner in the British merchant navy, a significant seafaring achievement. Conrad is remembered as an accomplished writer who was also a mariner. His old shipmates might remember him better as an accomplished mariner who was also a writer.

His two decades as a sailor provided the seam of experience from which he mined his early fiction. In Youth, a novel that deals with the young’s perception of their own invincibility, Marlow describes a journey that ended in disaster with his boat catching fire and sinking off the East Indies, forcing the 20-year-old to put to sea in an open boat. It is a dramatic story of bravery and determination but this exact same thing happened to Conrad early in his career at sea.

Today a survival story like that would be turned instantaneously into newspaper features and film scripts but Conrad lived in a more thoughtful age. It churned in his mind for years before finally emerging as a novel, not as a swashbuckling story but as an observation on the untrammelled optimism of the young. In his 1917 author’s note, he wrote: ‘Youth is a feat of memory. It is a record of experience; but that experience, in its facts, in its inwardness and in its outward colouring, begins and ends in myself.’

Even more profoundly dramatic were Conrad’s experiences in the Congo where his seafaring skills gave him personal exposure to one of the most dark and secretive projects of the nineteenth century: the staking of the Congo River basin as the private property of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. It is important to remember that when the Congo Free State was founded in 1885 it was not a colony in the traditional sense of the word, claimed by an entire European nation. Instead the million square miles of rainforest, savannah, swamp and waterway were staked by a single man, King Leopold, the largest private estate in history.

But it was not just an exercise in vanity on an unimaginable scale. It also involved unfathomable cruelty. Publicly, the founding of the Congo Free State was presented as an act of enlightenment, of taming wilderness and bringing civilisation, Christianity and commerce to a place of primitive savagery. In reality, much darker forces were at work, as the king’s colonial agents set tribe against tribe in pursuit of plunder; first ivory, later raw rubber.

Under King Leopold’s aegis the first genocide of the modern era was committed. Millions of Congolese were slaughtered to generate revenue for the king across the water. They died in the ethnic cleansing and battles of frontier wars fought between Leopold’s agents and Arab slavers who had been in the eastern Congo much longer than white outsiders and were not happy to be usurped. But once the Arab slavers had been defeated, Congolese tribes were persecuted brutally pour encourager les autres. Colonial agents invented a uniquely vile if apparently counter-intuitive way of making Congolese villagers increase their production of goods – the agents would have the hands of prisoners hacked off to show what happens to the disobedient. The best estimate is that between three and ten million Congolese were killed in just over two decades starting in 1885.

What made the project all the more sinister was the way it was hidden from the outside world. Private companies in Belgium acted as fronts for King Leopold, carefully selecting those who would be employed in the Congo Free State and ensuring its true nature stayed hidden. Any European explorer or adventurer who ventured into the Congo Free State without signing up as an employee of one of these companies was hounded out, persecuted, even murdered. And throughout, the illusion of a civilising act of philanthropy was maintained to the outside world.

For a short time Conrad became personally involved in this sinister project. He did not just witness what was going on in the Congo, he became part of the whole colonial exercise. This made him complicit with one of the greatest ever crimes against humanity and Conrad’s inevitable feelings of personal guilt must be considered when trying to understand how Heart of Darkness came to be written. Conrad’s involvement only lasted a few months but he became, essentially, a hired hand of King Leopold. It was in the early days of the Congo Free State when the king’s agents were crying out for people who knew about boats. The equatorial rainforest that covered much of the territory was almost impenetrable and it made good practical sense to make use of Africa’s mightiest waterway, the Congo River, and its web of tributaries that covered an area the size of the Indian subcontinent.

In 1890 Conrad passed an interview in Belgium with representatives of the Société Anonyme pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo and was then hired to go to the Congo to work on the river’s longest navigable reach, the thousand-mile section between what would later become Kinshasa, the city at the top of the rapids that guard the mouth of the Congo River, and Kisangani, the port city built as far up river as you can travel by boat before cataracts once again make the river impassable. Privately, Conrad wrote that childhood curiosity was one of his main reasons for going to the Congo. The western half of central Africa was one of the last parts of the continent to be penetrated by white outsiders and the region around the headwaters of the Congo River was, in his words, ‘the blankest of blank spaces on the earth’s figured surface’. But what he found when he got there was that the opening up process had cast the region not into light but into darkness.

The six months he spent in the Congo Free State left him scarred, both physically and mentally. To reach the bottom of the navigable stretch in 1890, there was no option other than to trek through two hundred miles of disease-ridden, parched mountain savannah to circumnavigate the cataracts on the lower river. In the diary he kept on his five-week-long yomp, he described how his group wandered listlessly along a trail marked by the bodies of dead natives, white officials routinely beat natives with staves and his European companion, Prosper Harou, was reduced within days to a pale, febrile wreck vomiting bile in a hammock borne by native bearers. When he reached the settlement built where Kinshasa stands today he found a tiny stockade, primitive, disorganised and staffed by colonial agents of dubious morals.

The river journey was even more wretched for Conrad. The skipper of his boat fell sick and Conrad had to take over, nursing the tiny steamboat each of the thousand miles upstream until finally reaching his company’s outpost at the foot of the falls. The company agent there, Antoine Klein, was ill and Conrad tried to save him by taking him back downriver, but the agent died en route. By the time Conrad got back to the lower settlement, he too was so ill he barely made it out of the Congo alive at the end of 1890, less than six months after he arrived. For the rest of his life his health suffered from the after-effects.

More profound than the physical ailments was the scarring on his soul from what he had seen. The secretive efforts of King Leopold’s collaborators had successfully concealed the true nature of the Congo Free State from the outside world, making the reality of its brutal oppression and wanton pillage all the more shocking to an outsider like Conrad.

It would be eight years until he began writing Heart of Darkness and all the key details of his own Congo experience were included in the story told by Marlow. Marlow does not name the place as the Congo, or even the continent as Africa, but he describes how he was hired by European agents of a colonial company and sent to a river with a long, navigable reach through wild rainforest, that was only accessible by route march from the coast and which culminated in a remote ‘Inner Station’ home to the most profitable of all the company’s ivory-collecting agents. In Conrad’s early drafts the agent had the same name as the dying man Conrad tried to rescue in 1890, Mr Klein. The name in the novel was only later changed to Mr Kurtz.

But while it was written around facts Conrad knew to be true from his own experience, the power of Heart of Darkness comes from what Conrad adds. In his 1917 author’s note, Conrad described how Heart of Darkness was more than the exercise of memory represented by Youth.

Heart of Darkness is experience, too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers. There it was no longer a matter of sincere colouring. It was like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

It is in the character of Mr Kurtz – the mysterious figure whose moral compass has apparently gone haywire upriver deep in the jungle – that Conrad’s art reaches its highest form. People have sought the individual on whom Conrad based Mr Kurtz but the character is not a portrait of a single person. Instead, Mr Kurtz is a composite that includes elements of the acquisitive Belgian King, Leopold, and Henry Morton Stanley, the chancer-turned-explorer, who was hired by the king to stake the Congo, and a number of other colonial pioneers. But the most powerful feature of Mr Kurtz is that he includes elements of us all, characteristics of weakness, venality and arrogance that we can identify in ourselves. As a work of art, he is a masterpiece.

Heart of Darkness was written at the dawn of the colonial era in Africa and part of its power clearly comes from its eloquent denunciation of the conceit behind colonialism. But the real power of the book comes from its harrowing and often ambiguous account of humanity’s moral decay. The lack of integrity of outsiders’ values, their guilt and complicity are all offered up by Marlow as he struggles to distinguish between memories of his time on the river and subsequent nightmares, and the reality that his struggle has no clear, unequivocal conclusion makes reading Heart of Darkness today as richly rewarding as it was in the Edwardian era. To continue Conrad’s musical metaphor, Heart of Darkness is more score than manuscript and just as no two performances of the same musical score are alike, no two readings of Heart of Darkness prompt exactly the same reaction.

Tim Butcher, Author of Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s
Broken Heart
(Chatto & Windus, 2007)



THE NELLIE, A cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.

Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns – and even convictions. The Lawyer – the best of old fellows – had, because of his many years and many virtues, the only cushion on deck, and was lying on the only rug. The Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones. Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol. The Director, satisfied the anchor had good hold, made his way aft and sat down amongst us. We exchanged a few words lazily. Afterwards there was silence on board the yacht. For some reason or other we did not begin that game of dominoes. We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.

And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.

Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, “followed the sea” with reverence and affection, than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled – the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests – and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith – the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on ’Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway – a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

He was the only man of us who still “followed the sea”. The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent his class. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them – the ship; and so is their country – the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow. It was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even; and presently he said, very slow –

“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago – the other day … Light came out of this river since – you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine – what d’ye call ’em? – trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries – a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too – used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here – the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina – and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, – precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay – cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death – death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes – he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheered by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna by-and-by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful climate. Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga – perhaps too much dice, you know – coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him, – all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination – you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”

He paused.

“Mind,” he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower – “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to …”

He broke off. Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames, white flames, pursuing, overtaking, joining, crossing each other – then separating slowly or hastily. The traffic of the great city went on in the deepening night upon the sleepless river. We looked on, waiting patiently – there was nothing else to do till the end of the flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he said, in a hesitating voice, “I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit”, that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences.

“I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,” he began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear; “yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the poor chap. It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me – and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, too – and pitiful – not extraordinary in any way – not very clear either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.

“I had then, as you remember, just returned to London after a lot of Indian Ocean, Pacific, China Seas – a regular dose of the East – six years or so, and I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you. It was very fine for a time, but after a bit I did get tired of resting. Then I began to look for a ship – I should think the hardest work on earth. But the ships wouldn’t even look at me. And I got tired of that game, too.

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there. The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the Equator, and in every sort of latitude all over the two hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and … well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet – the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had a hankering after.

“True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird – a silly little bird. Then I remembered there was a big concern, a Company for trade on that river. Dash it all! I thought to myself, they can’t trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh water – steamboats! Why shouldn’t I try to get charge of one? I went on along Fleet Street, but could not shake off the idea. The snake had charmed me.

“You understand it was a Continental concern, that Trading society; but I have a lot of relations living on the Continent, because it’s cheap and not so nasty as it looks, they say.