Plot summary: Heart of Darkness begins on the Thames river and told by an unknown narrator. He and several other men are on the deck of a ship when Marlow, a captain, begins to speak. Marlow had always wanted to travel to Africa and up the snakelike Congo River. With the help of his aunt in Brussels, Marlow gets a job as a boat captain on the river with a Dutch trading company that deals in ivory. After getting his assignment at the office in Brussels, he travels to the mouth of the Congo River in a French steamer, which drops off soldiers and clerks at many stations along the African coast. The site of a French man-of-war firing at nothing puzzles Marlow. When Marlow arrives at the mouth of the Congo, a Swedish captain takes him to the company’s Inner Station on a smaller boat. Outside of the station he sees Africans chained and working hard at worthless projects, with others nearby dying slowly.
Marlow is impressed with the competence and dress of the accountant who works at this station. It is here that he firsts learns of Kurtz, an exceptional trader who is destined for great things. Marlow then travels to the company’s Central Station, walking two hundred miles inland with a sick, overweight white man who had to be carried by Africans, until they tired of it and abandoned him. Once at the station, Marlow meets the General Manager, a hollow man who got his job not by virtue of his merit but simply by remaining alive. His only talent is making people feel uneasy. The boat Marlow was supposed to captain had been torn up in an accident just before he arrived, so Marlow spends months at the station making repairs and waiting for rivets. During this time, Marlow watches many of the white men do no work and walk aimlessly. One day a building caught fire and they decided to punish an African for it. Marlow then meets another hollow man, the brick maker, who has no materials to build bricks.
The brick maker questions Marlow about his connections in Europe, and Marlow learns more about Kurtz, who is besides being an excellent trader, an artist and in Africa for the purpose of bringing light to the natives. Marlow determines that the brick maker is a spy for the manager and that neither likes Kurtz. The mysterious Kurtz increasingly intrigues Marlow. He overhears the manager and the manager’s corrupt uncle express their hatred and jealousy towards Kurtz, who is rumored to be ill. With the repairs complete, Marlow captained the boat upriver, manager on board, towards Kurtz’s station. He employed the help of a group of cannibals, whore frained from eating anyone in his presence. Just before arriving at Kurtz’s station, a tribe of Africans attacked the ship, and his African helmsman was killed, having lost his self-control.
At this point Marlow worries that he may never meet Kurtz, but they find Kurtz’s station upriver. Greeted by a young Russian, Marlow finds out that Kurtz is very ill. He also finds out that Kurtz convinced a tribe he was a deity to use them to get more ivory. Kurtz goes crazy and runs for the woods, devoid of all restraint. Marlow finds him and helps him back to his bed. Kurtz gives Marlow some papers to give to people in Europe. Kurtz eventually dies, saying “The horror, the horror.” Marlow returns to Europe, delivers the papers, and eventually talks to Kurtz’s fiancé. She is still very idealistic and he cannot tell her about Kurtz’s last words, saying instead Kurtz uttered her name before dying.