Author Joseph Conrad
Type of work Novella (between a novel and a short story in length and scope)
Genre Symbolism, colonial literature, adventure tale, frame story, almost a romance in its insistence on heroism and the supernatural and its preference for the symbolic over the realistic
Time and place written England, 1898–1899; inspired by Conrad’s journey to the Congo in 1890
Date of first publication Serialized in
Publisher J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.
Narrator There are two narrators: an anonymous passenger on a pleasure ship, who listens to Marlow’s story, and Marlow himself, a middle-aged ship’s captain.
Point of view The first narrator speaks in the first-person plural, on behalf of four other passengers who listen to Marlow’s tale. Marlow narrates his story in the first person, describing only what he witnessed and experienced, and providing his own commentary on the story.
Tone Ambivalent: Marlow is disgusted at the brutality of the Company and horrified by Kurtz’s degeneration, but he claims that any thinking man would be tempted into similar behavior.
Setting (time) Latter part of the nineteenth century, probably sometime between 1876 and 1892
Setting (place) Opens on the Thames River outside London, where Marlow is telling the story that makes up
Major conflict Both Marlow and Kurtz confront a conflict between their images of themselves as “civilized” Europeans and the temptation to abandon morality completely once they leave the context of European society.
Rising action The brutality Marlow witnesses in the Company’s employees, the rumors he hears that Kurtz is a remarkable and humane man, and the numerous examples of Europeans breaking down mentally or physically in the environment of Africa.
Climax Marlow’s discovery, upon reaching the Inner Station, that Kurtz has completely abandoned European morals and norms of behavior
Falling action Marlow’s acceptance of responsibility for Kurtz’s legacy, Marlow’s encounters with Company officials and Kurtz’s family and friends, Marlow’s visit to Kurtz’s Intended
Themes The hypocrisy of imperialism, madness as a result of imperialism, the absurdity of evil
Motifs Darkness (very seldom opposed by light), interiors vs. surfaces (kernel/shell, coast/inland, station/forest, etc.), ironic understatement, hyperbolic language, inability to find words to describe situation adequately, images of ridiculous waste, upriver versus downriver/toward and away from Kurtz/away from and back toward civilization (quest or journey structure)
Symbols Rivers, fog, women (Kurtz’s Intended, his African mistress), French warship shelling forested coast, grove of death, severed heads on fence posts, Kurtz’s “Report,” dead helmsman, maps, “whited sepulchre” of Brussels, knitting women in Company offices, man trying to fill bucket with hole in it
Foreshadowing Permeates every moment of the narrative—mostly operates on the level of imagery, which is consistently dark, gloomy, and threatening