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On a boat anchored in the Thames River outside London, a sailor by the name of Marlow observes to several friends that this land was once a place of darkness, an uncivilized wilderness. This reflection leads him to remember an incident in his past, when he commanded a steamboat on the Congo River; his story forms the remainder of the novel.
In his tale Marlow is a young man eager to see the unexplored African jungles. An influential aunt in Brussels secures him an appointment as captain of a Congo steamer. But when he reaches the Company's Outer Station in Africa, he's confronted with a spectacle of black slavery and white greed. In a shady grove he discovers a crew of sickly African workers who have crawled away to die. He also meets the Company's very proper chief accountant, who mentions a certain Mr. Kurtz-a remarkable agent who has sent more ivory back from the jungle than the other agents combined. Marlow's interest in Kurtz will grow eventually into an obsession and become the focus of the story.
After a difficult overland trek, Marlow arrives at the Company's Central Station, where he learns that the steamer he was supposed to command has been wrecked. He meets the local manager, an unlikable and unfeeling man, who mentions that Mr. Kurtz is rumored to be ill at his station upriver and that it's essential to get to him as soon as possible.
One night as the others are fighting a blaze in one of the sheds, Marlow talks with one of the agents at the station, a brickmaker, who speaks of Kurtz with admiration but also resentment at the talents that make him such a likely candidate for promotion. Kurtz, he says, is one of those men who have come to Africa not merely for gain but with the noble idea of spreading enlightenment across the backward continent.
Dozing one evening on the deck of his steamer, Marlow overhears a conversation between the manager and his uncle, an explorer. It's obvious that the manager despises Kurtz-partly for his high ideals and partly because, like the brickmaker, he resents Kurtz's abilities.
After three months of repairs, Marlow, the manager, and a crew of three or four whites and some 30 Africans begin the tedious voyage upriver to Kurtz's station, through a jungle that strikes Marlow as weird, foreboding, and gigantic. Fifty miles below the station they come upon a reed hut with wood stacked for the steamboat and a message for them to approach cautiously.
A couple of mornings later they awaken surrounded by a thick fog through which they hear a tumult of threatening cries. Once the fog lifts they set sail again. Suddenly they're assailed by a shower of arrows. As the white men on board fire hysterically (and ineptly) into the brush, Marlow steers close to the shore to avoid a snag, and his African helmsman gets a spear between the ribs. Marlow jerks at the steam whistle, and as it screeches the attackers flee in terror at the noise. He casts the dead helmsman overboard in order to keep the hungry cannibal crew from being tempted by such a meal.
Soon they arrive at the Inner Station, where they're greeted enthusiastically by a young Russian sailor who has been nursing Kurtz through a grave illness; it was he who left the pile of wood and the message. The wilderness, we learn, preyed on Kurtz's nerves, and he began to go mad; he participated in "unspeakable rites" and scrawled at the end of a high-toned, idealistic report about improving the savages through benevolence, "Exterminate all the brutes!" Although the Russian is a fanatical admirer of Kurtz's brilliance, he admits that Kurtz seized his ivory from the Africans through violence, brutality, and intimidation. Even as he's chattering, Marlow notices that the posts in front of the station house are crowned with heads.
Mr. Kurtz finally appears, borne on a stretcher. Marlow, well aware that Kurtz doesn't really want to leave the jungle where he's treated as a god, knows that with a word to his African army Kurtz could have them all slaughtered. But Kurtz allows himself to be carried aboard the steamer, although a magnificent and ferocious African woman seems ready to lead another attack.
The manager tells Marlow he disapproves of Kurtz-not because of his brutality, but only because his methods have made further plundering of the district temporarily difficult. The young Russian visits Marlow and discloses that the earlier attack on the steamer was ordered by Kurtz; then he steals away into the jungle. He fears the manager who hates the Russian because his ivory trading gives the Company competition.
Late that night Kurtz escapes and crawls ashore, but Marlow discovers his absence and cuts him off before he reaches his followers' camp. They make a tense departure the next day, surrounded by warriors who seem ready to attack under the leadership of the barbaric woman. But Marlow sounds the whistle and frightens them off.
As they steam back downriver, Kurtz's life slowly ebbs away. On his deathbed he has what seems to be a moment of illumination, of complete knowledge, and he cries out, "The horror! The horror!" before he dies.
Then Marlow too is taken by the fever and very nearly dies. But he survives and returns to Brussels, where, more than a year after Kurtz's death, he pays a visit to Kurtz's Intended, the woman he was engaged to marry. She's still in mourning, heartbreakingly devoted to the memory of a man she thinks was noble and generous to the end. When she pleads that Marlow repeat Kurtz's last words to her, he can't bear to shatter her illusions: "The last word he pronounced was-your name," he lies. She cries out and collapses in tears.