In the beginning of the story, the first unnamed narrator explains the surroundings and the people on the ship The Nellie. There is the lawyer, the accountant, and the Director of Companies, as well as Marlow. Marlow tells the story of his experience in the Congo through the first narrator. He starts speaking about the history of exploration and the conquest of the earth, and then begins to tell his story of the Journey towards Kurtz. In this section, the themes of the importance of work and the hollowness of civilization are prevalent.
Marlow begins his storytelling journey by describing his time in the “sepulchral city”. He explains that there is a river in Africa that lures him in like a coiled snake, and after his time at sea, he speaks with his aunt in order to obtain a position as a head of a steamboat. His aunt is under the impression that Marlow is going as a missionary to the Africans; however, he is actually going for selfish reasons and then mocks his aunt for her ignorance. He then goes to the Company’s headquarters. There he sees two women knitting with black wool, and he is shaken by the image. These women represent the Fates of the underworld. He then goes into a different part of the company where he meets the doctor. The doctor is incredibly interested in the way that the Congo affects the sanity of a person and asks to measure Marlow’s skull. He then departs for the Congo.
On the way to the Company’s outer station, Marlow sees a French ship firing into the dense forest of Africa. This act of violence seems futile and pointless, as no work is actually being performed by this large tool. There is nothing to be shot at and the entire situation seems mad. When Marlow enters into the Outer Station, there is a slew of rusty machinery around that performs no work at all. Also, there are african workers who continuously attempt to blow up mountainsides to no avail. This brings up both the themes of work and the hypocracy of Imperialism.
Continuing on, Marlow descends into the “Grove of Death” which he compares to a circle of hell. There the workers go to die, and it is a horrid place of the effects of the greed of the Company’s ivory trade.
Marlow then makes the 15 day trek to the Central station. There he learns that his steamship has been “accidentally sunk” and that Kurtz has fallen ill. He has the feeling that the General Manager wanted the steamship to sink so that no one would reach Kurtz so that he would die and the manager could take over the position. Marlow attemps to fix the ship but cannot require any rivets. This lack of progress supports the idea that there is no actual work being done by the company due to their hypocrisy and lack of idea.
Marlow then meets the Brickmaker, who attempts to obtain knowledge from Marlow about Kurtz. It is clear that the brickmaker despises Kurtz, but Marlow lets him believe what he wants. Soon the Eldorado Explorer Expedition enters the station and Marlow hates them.
In Part II, Marlow overhears the General Manager and his uncle discussing Kurtz. They dislike his success in the company and his vision of improving the natives; they hope that his sickness will kill him before Marlow can reach him. Marlow then attempts to fix the ship at a faster rate. However, it takes his three months until he can finally head up river.
Marlow is constantly worried about snags in the river; however it provides a distraction from the “inner truth” of the company. The jungle is also full of natives that are a constant threat to the ship. Fifty miles from the Inner Station, Marlow comes across a hut with firewood and a note. He enters into the hut and finds a book with illegible writing. He is excited however, and finds that the book is “unmistakably real” as opposed to the facade of the Company.
8 miles from the Inner Station, the native attack again. This time, the natives are obscured by a white fog. The pilgrims attempt to shoot the natives, but they cannot see and shoot too high. Their efforts are futile, yet they celebrate their success.
One mile to the inner station, the natives attack again. This time, Marlow’s helmsman, in an attempt to close the blinds, is killed by a spear. He falls onto Marlow’s feet and bleeds on his shoes. Marlow for reasons unknown even to him, takes his shoes and throws them over the side of the ship. The pilgrims once again celebrate their success and Marlow becomes aggravated with their undeserved self-praise.
When Marlow finally reaches the Inner Station, the first person he sees is the Russian trader who appears to be a Harlequin. The Russian tells Marlow that Kurtz is very ill, but still alive. He also makes Marlow realize that Kurtz is now a brutal and cruel leader who has made himself a god to the natives. The russian is naive to this however, and is fascinated by Kurtz. He says that he has “enlarged his mind” which ties back into the doctor at the Company’s headquarters. It is questionable whether or not the Russian is mad or not. Marlow also notices that their are heads on stakes outside of Kurtz’s hut. This represents Kurtz’s brutality and cruelty; however, it also represents the fact that he is merely a more straightforward version of the company. He does not hide his cruelty behind a facade of fake work. Soon the Pilgrims carry Kurtz out to the ship, but the natives seem to intend to attack. Kurtz speaks to them and deters the attack, and he is placed on the ship.
Marlow warns the Russian that the General Manager intends to kill him, so the Russian tells Marlow that Kurtz sent the attack on the steamboat. He then takes a pair of shoes from Marlow and escapes into the woods.
Later that night, Marlow awakes and finds that Kurtz has snuck into the woods to go to the natives’ camp. He follows him and persuades him to return however, lest he be “lost”. Lost in this context refers to him being completely engulfed by the darkness. He returns to the ship but is too ill to survive the journey and gives Marlow his important papers to keep before he dies. His last words are, “The horror! The horror!” which could refer to his own life or all of humanity. This ends the life of Kurtz, but his final words represent the paradox of his life; either he fully understood the darkness of humanity, or he understood nothing and was overcome by evil. Marlow then falls ill and nearly dies, but he survives and returns to the Sepulchral City.
After Marlow’s near death experience after falling ill, he returns to Brussels, the sepulchral city. He is aggravated by the ignorance and self-importance of the citizens of the city.
Finally, Marlow is left with only a few letters and a picture of Kurtz’s Intended. Marlow goes to see her without really knowing why. Kurtz’s memory comes flooding back to him as he stands on her doorstep. He finds the Intended still in mourning, though it has been over a year since Kurtz’s death. He gives her the packet, and she asks if he knew Kurtz well. He replies that he knew him as well as it is possible for one man to know another.
His presence fulfills her need for a sympathetic ear, and she continually praises Kurtz. Her sentimentality begins to anger Marlow, but he holds back his annoyance until it gives way to pity. She says she will mourn Kurtz forever, and asks Marlow to repeat his last words to give her something upon which to sustain herself. Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz’s last word was her name. She responds that she was certain that this was the case. Marlow ends his story here, and the narrator looks off into the dark sky, which makes the waterway seem “to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”