A seaman sat upon a tugboat moored in the river Thames narrates the main section of the story. This man, named Marlow, tells his fellow passengers that he spent a good deal of time in Africa. In one instance, he was called upon to pilot a trip down the river Congo in search of an ivory agent, who was sent as part of the British colonial interest in an unnamed African country. This man, named Kurtz, disappeared without a trace--inspiring worry that he'd gone "native," been kidnapped, absconded with the company's money, or been killed by the insular tribes in the middle of the jungle.
As Marlow and his crewmates move closer to the place Kurtz was last seen, he starts to understand the attraction of the jungle. Away from civilization, the feelings of danger and possibility start to become attractive to him because of their incredible power. When they arrive at the inner station, they find that Kurtz has become a king, almost a God to the tribesmen and women who he has bent to his will. He has also taken a wife, despite the fact he has a European fiance at home.
Marlow also finds Kurtz ill. Although Kurtz doesn't wish it, Marlow takes him aboard the boat. Kurtz does not survive the journey back, and Marlow must return home to break the news to Kurtz's fiance. In the cold light of the modern world he is unable to tell the truth, and instead lies about the way Kurtz lived in the heart of the jungle and the way he died.
Many commentators have seen Conrad's representation of the "dark" continent and its people as very much as part of a racist tradition that has existed in Western literature for centuries. Most notably, Chinua Achebe accused Conrad of racism because of his refusal to see the black man as an individual in his own right, and because of his use of Africa as a setting--representative of darkness and evil.
Although it is true that evil--and the corrupting power of evil--is Conrad's subject, Africa is not merely representative of that theme. Contrasted with the "dark" continent of Africa is the "light" of the sepulchered cities of the West, a juxtaposition that does not necessarily suggest that Africa is bad or that the supposedly civilized West is good.
The darkness at the heart of the civilized white man (particularly the civilized Kurtz who entered the jungle as an emissary of pity and science of process and who becomes a tyrant) is contrasted and compared with the so-called barbarism of the continent. The process of civilization is where the true darkness lies.
Central to the story is the character of Kurtz, even though he is only introduced late in the story, and dies before he offers much insight into his existence or what he has become. Marlow's relationship with Kurtz and what he represents to Marlow is really at the crux of the novel.
The book seems to suggest that we are not able to understand the darkness that has affected Kurtz's soul--certainly not without understanding what he has been through in the jungle. Taking Marlow's point of view, we glimpse from the outside what has changed Kurtz so irrevocably from the European man of sophistication to something far more frightening. As if to demonstrate this, Conrad lets us view Kurtz on his deathbed. In the final moments of his life, Kurtz is in a fever. Even so, he seems to see something that we cannot. Staring within himself he can only mutter, "The horror! The horror!"
Oh, the Style: Heart of Darkness
As well as being an extraordinary story, Heart of Darkness contains some of the most fantastic language in English literature. Conrad had a strange history: he was born in Poland, traveled though France, became a seaman when he was 16, and spent a good deal of time in South America. These influences lent his style a wonderfully authentic colloquialism. But, in Heart of Darkness, we also see a style that is remarkably poetic for a prose work. More than a novel, the work is like an extended symbolic poem, affecting the reader with the breadths of its ideas as well as the beauty of its words.