Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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What is the setting in chapter 1 in " Heart of Darkness " ?

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Margarete Abshire eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The setting of Heart of Darkness is on a ship (the Nellie) anchored on the Thames river at Gravesend, about twenty-five miles down river from London, at the point where the river joins the sea. Five men are on board: the Director of Companies, the captain of the Nellie; the Lawyer, the eldest; the Accountant; the unnamed narrator; and Marlow, the teller of the tale, who with “his arms dropped, the palms of his hands outwards, resembled an idol.” The men share “the bond of the sea,” as the narrator puts it, but the setting, where “sea and sky were welded together without a joint” suggests a kind of passive observation, rather than participation: the Director may look like a pilot, but the Nellie will be a scene of reflection rather than action. This is the “stage” on which Marlow tells his tale.

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The story begins on a boat (the Nellie, “a cruising yawl”) on the Thames estuary, in London. It is probably late afternoon, the air is dark and “seemed condensed into a mournful gloom.” There are five people on the boat, waiting for the tide to change; the narrator is one of them (“We four affectionately watched his back … “) and refers to the others using job titles (e.g., the “Lawyer”, the “Accountant”) except for Marlow, who is the only one endowed with a name. The narrator describes him as a sort of Buddha, an idol (“Marlow sat cross-legged … “), probably to herald his central position in the tale as a carrier of wisdom. At a certain point, Marlow starts speaking and, after a few lines, we understand that he will be in charge of narration (“… we knew we were fated …” says the narrator). The first three pages set forth the most important elements of the novel: the dichotomy between light and darkness, the sea voyage as self-discovery, the relationship between the Romans and the new European colonisers, Marlow’s view of efficiency and conquest, the nature of the narrative itself (“… a glow brings out a haze …”). There is also a very interesting hint as to what and where the heart of darkness really is: at the end of the story, we will be back in London as the narrator outlines the terrible darkness over London.

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