On a boat anchored in the Thames River outside London, a sailor named Marlow remarks to his friends that the land they’re standing on was once a place of darkness and an uncivilized wilderness. This contemplation leads him to remember an incident in his past when he commanded a steamboat on the Congo River. When retelling his story, Marlow is a young man anxious to see the unexplored African jungles. An influential aunt in obtains an position as captain of a Congo steamer for Marlow. But when he arrives at the Company's Outer Station in Africa, he's faced with a horrible display of black slavery and white greed and hostility.
In a shady grove he discovers a crew of sickly African workers that have crawled away to die. He also meets the Company's chief accountant, who mentions a man named Kurtz who is a remarkable agent that has sent more ivory from the jungle than the other agents combined. Marlow's interest is perked in Kurtz and will eventually grow into an unhealthy obsession and become the focus of the story. After a difficult journey, Marlow
arrives at the Company's Central Station where he learns that the steamer he was supposed to command has been destroyed in a wreck. He meets the local manager, who mentions Kurtz and says that Kurtz is assumed to be ill at his station up the river and that it's necessary to get to him as quickly as humanly possible.
One night Marlow talks with one of the agents at the station, who speaks of Kurtz with great esteem and admiration but also with resentment at the talents that make him a likely candidate for a job promotion. He says that Kurtz is one of those types of men that have come to Africa not only to gain wealth, but with the notion of spreading enlightenment to the uneducated people. On another occasion, while na...
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...ach his minion’s camp. Marlow and Kurtz make an intense departure the next day, surrounded by warriors who seem ready to attack under the leadership of a barbaric looking woman. But Marlow, again, sounds the whistle and frightens them away. As they sail back down the river on the vessel, Kurtz's life slowly slips away and on his deathbed he has a moment of enlightenment or a vision, and he cries out, "The horror! The horror!" before he dies.
Marlow is also stricken by the fever that claimed Kurtz’ life and nearly dies. He survives the fever and returns to Brussels. Upon arriving in Brussels, he decides to visit Kurtz’s fiancée to inform her of her intended’s passing. In mourning, she is heartbreakingly devoted to the memory of Kurtz, whom she thinks was noble and generous until the end of his life. She pleads with Marlow to relay to her Kurtz’s last words and Marlow simply cannot bear to tell her of Kurtz’s true nature or what really happened. And so, sparing her emotions and not finding it within himself to shatter her illusions: "The last word he pronounced was- your name," he says to her and she shrieks and collapses in tears.
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