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Joseph Conrad had a difficult childhood. Both his mother and father were imprisoned and sentenced to exile in Vologda, a town in northern Russia after Poland was invaded by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Both Joseph Conrad's father and mother including several uncles had been actively participating in demonstrations against the Russian takeover of not only their country but their properties as well (Wikipedia, Joseph Conrad).
Joseph Conrad's mother Eva died of tuberculosis in 1865 and four years later Joseph's father Apollo died of the same disease. Their martyrdom left many children, such as Joseph Conrad, without parents and no hope for their future (Ibid.). After his father's death, Joseph Conrad, only twelve years old, returned to Krakow, Poland where a maternal uncle took custody of Joseph, sent him to school in Krakow, and then to Geneva under the tutelage of a private tutor (Wikipedia, Joseph Conrad.).
Joseph Conrad turns out to be a poor student. Nonetheless, his early teenage years he liked to read and read translations of the works of Charles Dickens' novels and Captain Frederick Marryat. Captain Marryat was an English novelist who wrote adventure stories about life at sea (Ibid.). This is believed to have been what motivated Joseph Conrad to follow the sea himself.
He left school and began his career as a common sailor. Joseph boarded an English ship that took him to the eastern port-town of Lowestoft. At the town of Lowestoft, Joseph managed to join the crew of a ship that made many voyages between Lowestoft and Newcastle. During this time Joseph took the opportunity to learn English. Several years later he decided to become a British subject and changed his name from his birth name of Teodor Josef Konrad Nalecz Korzenikowski to simply, Joseph Conrad (Ibid.).
Joseph Conrad took his seafaring adventures and turned them into novels. His first novel, Almayer's Folly, was published in 1895. The Nigger of the Narcissus published in 1897 then followed by Lord Jim published in 1900, and in 1902, Conrad published Heart of Darkness (Ibid.).
Joseph Conrad never forgot the notion of the strong (Russia, Prussia and Austria) oppressing the weak, and the weak being powerless to revolt; that is one of the themes that stands out in Joseph Conrad's master novel Heart of Darkness.
A British ship, the Nellie, lies moored and anchored on the coast of the Thames River. On the main deck the anonymous narrator, the Director of Companies, the Accountant and Marlow sit in silence waiting for the tide to rise (Armstrong, p.3). Marlow begins the tale of the Heart of Darkness. He tells the three men about a time he journeyed in a steamboat up the Congo River. With only minor interruptions, Marlow tells his seafaring story.
Heart of Darkness is a 'frame tale.'  Many readers wonder why author Joseph Conrad applies the 'frame tale' technique to his story Heart of Darkness. The reason is that the authors' narrator, like the reader, learns that his ideology about European imperialism is founded on many lies that he, without any reservations, believed existed. However, by the end of the novel, Marlow's story significantly changes the narrator's idealistic beliefs toward the ships and men of the past. Thus, the 'frame tale' technique plays an important part in the construction of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Author Cahir states, "The novella is a frame-story, wonderfully entangled by a narrative within a narrative, a flashback within a flashback, a series of quotes within quotes. It is a bildungsroman  , an initiation into darkness and chaos, calmly framed by prologue and epilogue." (Heart of Darkness, A Casebook, Cahir C., Linda, p. 183)
The Heart of Darkness story begins to unravel aboard the main deck of a British ship christened with the name Nellie. The Nellie is anchored off the coast of the Thames River. There is a group of sailors waiting for the tide to rise in order for the Nellie to get underway. Among the group are the anonymous narrator, the Director of Companies, the Accountant, and Marlow. All of them sit in silence and Marlow begins telling the three shipmates about a time he took a journey in a steamboat going up the Congo River. For the rest of the novel, with only minor interruptions, Marlow narrates his tale.
During his younger years as a sailor, Marlow had a strong desire to visit the mysterious continent of Africa and to be the captain and pilot a steamboat on the Congo River. Soon Marlow comes across information that the Company, a large ivory-trading firm working out of the Congo needed a pilot for one of their steamboats. Marlow applies for the job and even though he is glad to get the job, he senses there is a 'darkness' feeling regarding the entire affair in getting the job as a steam pilot for the Company (Armstrong, p.10). Nonetheless, he leaves for Europe in a French steamer.
The Company had three stations in the Congo; the Outer Station, the Central Station and the Inner Station. At the Company's Outer Station, Marlow's 'darkness' feeling he had when he got the job to pilot the steamboat in the Congo starts to become a reality. Marlow witnesses scenes of brutality against the natives, chaos, and waste in the Company's Outer Station. Marlow meets an Accountant, spotlessly dressed in white, at the Company's Outer Station. He is amazed and fascinated not only at the Accountants spotless dress but at the Accountants upright demeanor as well (Ibid. 18). It is from this spotlessly dressed man that Marlow learns the first inklings concerning Kurtz. The Accountant says Kurtz is a "remarkable" agent of the Company working and managing the Inner Station. Marlow does not lose time in leaving on a 200-mile trek across Africa and soon reaches the Company's Central Station. Once there Marlow learns the steamboat he is to pilot up the Congo is not moored or anchored waiting for him, but is wrecked at the bottom of the river. Marlow is not happy having to wait at the Central Station until the steamboat is repaired.
Marlow meets the Company's Manager and learns more about the Inner Station's agent Kurt. According to the Manager Kurtz is ill. He further pretends to be on the side of Kurtz. He pretends to be worried and concerned over Kurtz health. However, Marlow later find out not only that the Manager has feigned his concern over Kurt's health and wellbeing, but Marlow suspects the Manager sabotaged the steamboat for the purpose of keeping Marlow from delivering needed supplies to Kurtz. At this time, Marlow meets the Brickmaker, a person whose title is useless since he has not made a single brick because he does not have the materials needed to make bricks. After three weeks, an exploration group named The Eldorado Exploring Expedition arrives at the Central Station. The Manager's uncle leads the Exploration group.
One particular night while Marlow is relaxing on the deck of his salvaged steamboat, he overhears the Manager and his uncle talk about Kurtz. The gist of the conversation leads Marlow to conclude the Manager fears Kurtz is trying to steal the Manager's position. His uncle, however, tells him to have faith in the power of the jungle to "do away" with Kurtz (Ibid. 31).
The steamboat is finally repaired and Marlow leaves the Central Station accompanied by the Manager, some agents, and a crew of cannibals to bring relief to Kurtz. Fifty miles below Kurtz Inner Station, they come across a hut of reeds, a woodpile, and an English book titled An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship. The book was an extraordinarily find for Marlow since the author of the book was a man by the name of "Towser, Towson---some such name---Master in His Majesty's Navy." (Ibid. 37) The woodpile was and extraordinary find as well since "ââ‚¬Â¦on the neatly stacked wood-pile [Marlow] found a flat piece of board with some faded pencil-writing on it. When deciphered it said: 'Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously.'" (Ibid. 37)
As Marlow's steamboat continued on its trek toward Kurtz Inner Station, the steamboat is suddenly attacked by a shower of arrows. Marlow continues to navigate the steamboat as the Whites aboard the steamboat fire their rifles into the jungle. The unthinkable happens when a native helmsman is killed by a large spear. Marlow's shoes are spilled with the helmsman's blood and regrets he has to throw the dead helmsman overboard. Marlow's biggest disappointment, however, is the thought that the natives who attacked his steamboat have already attacked the Inner Station and he will never get the chance to speak to Kurtz.
Reaching the Inner Station, Marlow notices Kurtz building through his telescope. Marlow sees there is no fence, only a series of posts ornamented with "balls." Marlow later learns what appeared to be "balls" were actually natives' skulls. "The Harlequin," a disciple of Kurtz approaches the steamboat and tells Marlow Kurtz is still alive. Marlow also learns the hut he previously saw belongs to "The Harlequin." He speaks of Kurtz as being a man who "has enlarged his mind."
Marlow learns from the Harlequin character the steamboat had been attacked because the natives did not want anybody to take Kurtz away. Suddenly, Marlow sees a group of natives carrying Kurtz towards him. As the group of natives gets closer to Marlow, he notices Kurtz is carried on a stretcher and is being taken inside a hut. Marlow approaches Kurtz and hands him some letters. Marlow sees Kurtz is frail, sick and bald. After leaving Kurtz' hut, Marlow notices a "wild and gorgeous" woman approaching the steamboat. The Harlequin seeing Marlow's surprise and tells him the woman is Kurtz mistress. Marlow then hears Kurtz harshly rebuking the Manager from behind a curtain: "Save me! ----save the ivory, you mean" (Armstrong 61). Fearing what might happen to Kurtz once he's taken aboard the steamer, the Harlequin asks Marlow for some tobacco and rifle cartridges, and leaves in a canoe.
The sound of a big drum at midnight awakens Marlow. He decides to inspect Kurtz cabin only to discover he is not there. Marlow runs outside and notices a trail running through the grass. Marlow immediately thinks Kurtz is trying to escape. Marlow finds Kurtz crawling on all fours and tells Marlow to run, but he helps him to his feet and carries Kurtz back to the cabin.
The following day, Marlow his crew, and Kurtz leave the Inner Station. Kurtz health continues to deteriorate as they move away farther from the Inner Station. At one point, the steamboat falters and Kurtz decides to give Marlow a packet containing letters and a photograph for safekeeping. Kurtz all along feared the Manager would take the packet. He feels the packet would be safe in Marlow's hands and Marlow complies.
The night following the breakdown of the steamboat, Marlow goes to the pilothouse to check on Kurtz who has been lying down on his stretcher "waiting for death." After Marlow tries to assure Kurtz he is not going to die, Marlow hears Kurtz' gurgling whisper: "The horror! The horror"(Armstrong 69)! The following day, Kurtz is buried offshore in a muddy hole.
Marlow returns to Europe and visits Brussels. He finds himself unable to relate to the sheltered Europeans around him. Marlow meets a Company official and the official asks him for the packet of papers Kurtz had giving him for safekeeping. However, Marlow does not give the Company official everything contained in the packet with exception of the official copy of Kurtz report to The Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. The official document contains a chilling postscript, in part, torn off which says, "Exterminate all the brutes" ( )! Marlow learns Kurtz mother had died while in the care of Kurtz fiancÃÂ©e "Intended."
Marlow's final duty to Kurtz is to visit Intended, and deliver Kurtz's letters and photograph to her. Once Marlow is at Intendeds house, he notices she is dressed in mourning and deeply upset at Kurtz death. Marlow relates to her he was in the presence of Kurtz when he died. Kurtz Intended asks him to repeat the last words Kurtz uttered, if any. Marlow, in seeing her sadness and continued mourning feels sorry for her and tells her, "The last words he pronounced was ---your name" (Ibid. 77). The Intended then replied she "knew" Kurtz would have said such a thing. Marlow realizing the lie he had told her leaves the Intended house feeling disgusted at himself for lying.
Aboard the Nellie, the anonymous narrator resumes telling his story. The Director of Companies makes an innocent remark about the tide, and the narrator looks out at the overcast sky and the River Thames---all of it seems to him to lead "into the heart of an immense darkness" (Armstrong 77).