Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4167
The Director of Companies: captain and owner of the boat
“I”: unnamed narrator on the boat
The Lawyer, The Accountant: people on the boat in the Thames
Charlie Marlow: also on the boat; tells the story of his journey to see Kurtz deep in the jungle
Two Knitting Women: they sit outside the outer office
The Doctor: he examines Marlow before his journey
The Aunt: related to Marlow, she helps him get his appointment to the ship
The Swedish Captain: the man in charge of a little sea-going steamer
The Company’s Chief Accountant: his neat appearance contrasts with the chaos of the station
The Dying Agent: the man tormented by flies at the station
The Manager: leader of the station who survives because of his excellent health
The Pilgrims: workers who carry long staves; they want any chance to obtain ivory
The Brickmaker: does secretarial work for the manager, but does not seem to make bricks
The Boilermaker: a good worker who talks to Marlow about the rivets they need
The Manager’s Uncle: leader of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition; he speaks only to his nephew
A boat, the Nellie, is docked in the Thames. Its sails are still, and the water and sea calm. An unnamed narrator, who refers to himself only as “I,” introduces the people on board. Four people sit on deck besides himself: the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, and Marlow. The Director of Companies is their captain and host. An elderly man, the Lawyer, sits on the rug for comfort, while the Accountant plays with a box of dominoes. Finally, Marlow sits cross-legged, his arms dropped, his palms facing outward. The narrator says they “exchanged a few words lazily.”
The unnamed narrator thinks of the great history of the sea, its people, and ships. He mentions Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Franklin. He recalls the Golden Hind, the Erebus, and the Terror—ships from the past. He mentions all the greatness, dreams, and empires of history.
The sun sets. In the distance, the lights from the Chapman lighthouse, ships, and London shine at night. Still, a lurid glare glows between London and the sky.
Marlow speaks about London, saying how it’s been “one of the dark places of the earth.” No one responds. The narrator tells us that Marlow is the only one who still follows the sea. He considers him to be a wanderer. Their home is the ship, their country is the sea. He says Marlow is not typical. For Marlow, when he tells a tale, its meaning is not inside like a kernel, but outside.
Suddenly, Marlow begins talking about the Romans and ancient times. He pictures the cold, fog, disease, and battles with the savage natives they had to endure. He admires their courage to face the darkness. In the posture of a Buddha, he speaks about how they used only force and violence to get what they wanted. Conquests back then, he says, meant stealing from people who were different from you. He believes there is more needed to redeem mankind, something to “bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to….”
Marlow stops speaking. There is a long silence and no one speaks. When he starts talking again, he begins to tell a story of one of his journeys. He says it reveals something about himself.
Marlow tells of how he’d spent six years traveling on the Indian Ocean, Pacific, and China Seas before taking the journey he’s talking about. When he was young, he used to point to blank spaces on maps and say, “When I grow up I will go there.” He’s visited most of them, except one. He calls Africa a “place of darkness.” He compares the Congo river on the map to a snake: its head in the sea, its body curving over a country, and its tail in the deep of the land. As he had looked at a map in a shop window, he says he was as fascinated by this place as a bird is when it looks at a snake.
He cannot secure this job until his aunt helps him. She knows the wife of a person in the Administration. Marlow cannot believe he needs help from a woman.
Marlow tells how the company had recently discovered the death of one of their captains by a native. His name was Fresleven, and his murder stemmed from an argument over some black hens. Months later, when Marlow arrives, he uncovers Fresleven’s body, the grass growing over his remains.
In forty-eight hours Marlow crosses the Channel and presents himself to his employer. Knitting black wool, two women—one fat, the other thin—sit outside the office. A map on a wall pictures the world in many colors. Marlow mentions the yellow patch at dead center, his destination.
Marlow meets the secretary, signs his contract, and is told he must have a medical exam. The women continue knitting as he passes through the outer office. They watch him strangely. A young clerk shows Marlow out of the office. It is early for his exam, so Marlow and the clerk have a drink. Speaking admiringly of Africa, the clerk surprises Marlow by not going there himself. “I am not such a fool as I look,” he says. At his exam, the doctor measures Marlow’s head with calipers. He asks if there was any madness in Marlow’s family. He also adds, “ … the changes take place inside, you know.”
Marlow visits his aunt to thank her and say good-bye. He finds that his aunt had recommended him as “an emissary of light, something like a lower apostle.” All woman are out of touch with the truth, he says. He feels hesitant about leaving Brussels for Africa, the “center of the earth.” He leaves on a slow French steamer. It stops at many ports to unload soldiers and officers. The monotonous journey lulls Marlow into a depression. Occasionally, a boat from shore paddled by blacks interrupts the boredom. The steamer passes a French man-of-war ship shelling the coastline. They deliver mail to this ship. They also learn that the sailors aboard her were dying of fever at three a day. The steamer moves on, never stopping for Marlow to get a clear impression, except for “hints of nightmares.” They reach the mouth of the river in thirty days. Marlow switches to a small sea-going steamer captained by a Swede to take him farther upstream. The captain tells him he had taken a fellow Swede recently up the river. The man had hanged himself. The captain cannot answer Marlow directly when he asks why. When they reach the Outer Station, Marlow gets his first glimpse of Africa, the ivory trade, and the general waste. Broken machinery and loose rails litter the ground. Commanded by an arrogant guard, a six-man chain gang walks by with the “deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.”
Shocked, Marlow turns away from them and heads for the trees. Marlow avoids an artificial hole and nearly falls into a narrow ravine before reaching the shade. Black shapes occupy the area. These diseased, starving men lean against trees. Marlow gives one young man a biscuit he had gotten from the Swede’s ship. He takes it, but does not eat it. Another man crawls to the river to drink.
Marlow walks away from the station. He meets a white man whose fanciful appearance contrasts with the surrounding darkness. He is the Company’s chief accountant. Everything about him is orderly, unlike the “muddle” around him.
Marlow spends ten days at the Outer Station. Flies buzz. A deathly sick agent is brought in. He groans continuously. A caravan also arrives. The ensuing uproar causes the accountant to say he hates the savages “to the death.” With sixty men, Marlow leaves the next day for the Central Station. He has a white companion, a man who faints and catches fever. Marlow meets a white man in an unbuttoned uniform. He says he repairs roads, but Marlow sees no roads or upkeep.
After fifteen days, Marlow reaches the Central Station. He finds that the boat he was to command was wrecked at the bottom of the river. The repair job, he knows, will take months. Marlow meets the manager in a curious interview. This man has attained his position because of his good health, not his ability and performance. The manager tells Marlow he had wanted to wait for him two days before, but he couldn’t because Kurtz, the Inner Station’s manager, was ill. He had visited him, and the skipper of Marlow’s boat tore the bottom out. Marlow says he has heard of Kurtz. The manager assures Marlow of Kurtz’s value. He also adds that it will take three months to repair the boat. Disgusted, Marlow leaves angered with the manager. He sees “pilgrims,” white men carrying staves. A bit later, a shed full of prints, beads, and other goods catches fire. Marlow investigates the scene. He hears two men talking. One mentions Kurtz. The other is the manager. A black man accused of starting the fire is beaten. The “brickmaker” invites Marlow to his room for a drink. Marlow does not see a “fragment of a brick anywhere.” He asks Marlow about Europe and his connections there. Marlow realizes the man intends to get information. Marlow notices a sketch in oils on the wall. It is of a “woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch.” The manager says Kurtz had painted it a year before at the Central Station.
Marlow asks about Kurtz. The manager calls Kurtz a “prodigy,” and an “emissary of pity and science and progress….” He says the same people who had sent Kurtz also had recommended Marlow. They go outside. A man with a black mustache approves of beating the black native blamed for the fire. The agent follows Marlow. He doesn’t want Marlow to speak badly of him to Kurtz. Marlow detests this man who, he thinks, has “nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.” Marlow adds how he hates a lie because it appalls him. He also says it is hard for one person to explain himself to another because “we live, as we dream—alone.”
Momentarily, the story returns to the Nellie. The narrator listens intently, though the others may have been sleeping. It is dark. Marlow is more voice than person.
Marlow resumes his story. The brickmaker continues speaking of Kurtz, calling him a “universal genius.” Marlow demands rivets to repair the boat. Every week, a caravan arrives with trade goods, but never any rivets. The man says Kurtz, too, needs rivets. Marlow suggests that, as secretary to the manager, he should find a way to obtain them. The man mentions a hippopotamus, then leaves.
Marlow needs rivets to continue. He says he does not like to work, but enjoys finding himself, his “own reality,” while working. He returns to the boat. He speaks with the foreman, a man Marlow admires because of his dedication to work. A widower with six young children, this man raves about pigeons. He tells the man that rivets will arrive in a few weeks. They dance with joy on the deck.
The rivets do not come for awhile. An exploring party, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, arrives. For the next six weeks, they appear in sections. A white man on a donkey leads each group, followed by a band of blacks. They are reckless, greedy, and cruel. They will “tear treasure out of the bowels of the land.”
The manager’s uncle leads them. Fat, with short legs, he resembles a butcher. He speaks only to his nephew. They stay together all day with their heads close to one another.
Conrad uses a “framed” narrative technique. One narrator, in this case “I,” sets up another narrator, Marlow, who will continue the story. At first, readers may suspect that “I” will narrate the story. He doesn’t. After introducing the passengers to us, Marlow talks. His story becomes Heart of Darkness. Conrad reveals some of “I’s” thoughts to us, then Marlow’s story takes over.
The reader should remember that Marlow’s journey has already happened. He is not actually experiencing the events as he speaks of them. Marlow also abandons chronological sequence. Sometimes he jumps ahead in his story, then retraces his narration.
Conrad establishes a calm gloominess at the beginning. The Nellie is “without a flutter of sails,” “the wind was nearly calm,” and the air “seemed condensed into a mournful gloom.” Later, when the sun sets, there is still a “brooding gloom in the sunshine.” These descriptions suggest an eerie setting, as if something evil is about to occur. The narrator says the passengers feel “the bond of the sea” between them. We see this shared feeling when the narrator thinks of the sea’s history on the Thames, and Marlow speaks of the Romans nineteen hundred years ago. The past interests them. Marlow’s idea of history, though, includes the savages in Ancient Rome and “aggravated murder on a great scale.” The dark side intrigues him. His first sentence contains the words “dark places.” Even the river on a map resembles a snake, a sinister reptile.
Conrad deepens Marlow’s uniqueness with his physical posture. He sits cross-legged in “the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes.” Very simply, Buddhist philosophy establishes suffering as inseparable from existence. It also contains “nirvana,” a state of illumination. If he imitates a Buddha, how has Marlow suffered and what does he know?
He refers to the company he will join when he calls them “conquerors,” people who “grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got.” He disapproves of them. Since they did not have “belief in the idea,” Marlow rejects their ambitions as a mere materialistic hunt.
As the traffic in London continues, the narrator mentions the green, red, and white flames gliding in the river during the “deepening night.” Again, images of light and dark play against each other.
In order for Marlow to convey meaning in his tale, he says he must tell us how he got there, what he saw, and how he went up the river to meet the “poor chap,” Kurtz. The journey was not “very clear,” but it seemed to “throw a kind of light.” In a symbolic way now, dark and light mix. Marlow relates his feelings as a child, when he used to stare at maps and dream of explorations. Since then, many of those places had been visited, named, and inhabited. One place remains, though—the river “resembling an immense snake uncoiled.” Traditionally, snakes symbolize evil. Marlow speaks of it with this meaning, saying the place “had become a place of darkness.” This refers to the Belgian Congo.
Marlow tells how he needed help from his aunt to secure his appointment. He says, “Then would you believe it?—I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work—to get a job. Heavens!” This information seems insignificant. It isn’t. Conrad foreshadows Marlow’s lie to Kurtz’s Intended at the end of the novel. He will sacrifice the truth for a woman.
Our first indication of wasteful suffering during Marlow’s journey comes when he mentions Fresleven’s death. Killed in a fight over two black hens, the captain’s murder suggests an abandonment of rational behavior. Since Marlow has been to the jungle, he says it “didn’t surprise me in the least to hear this.” No respect is even shown to Fresleven’s corpse, because Marlow discovers his body with grass growing over it.
The two knitting women present another sign of the macabre. Marlow thinks of them “guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall….” Everything about them gives him an “eerie feeling.”
Marlow’s visit to the doctor adds to the idea on the unknown. The doctor measures his head, then asks if there was any sign of madness in Marlow’s family. He also says the changes take place “inside.” These clues lead us to believe that Marlow’s journey is more than a physical one, it is a mental and psychological one.
Marlow knows what happens, but he has not told us yet. Conrad withholds information to create suspense. Though short, Marlow’s visit to his aunt contains an important passage. She had recommended him, Marlow believes, using the words “emissary of light.” This connects to a scene later in Section I, when the manager refers to Kurtz as an “emissary.” They share the description of being a messenger or agent. We cannot know their message, though, until Marlow concludes his story.
The beginning of Marlow’s journey on the French steamer initiates his descent into “darkness.” They travel on the “edge of a colossal jungle, so dark as to be almost black….” At this point, light still shows. The sun is “fierce,” the land “seemed to glisten,” and “grayish-whitish specks showed up clustered inside the white surf.” Conrad alternates images of light and darkness not only to convey mood but also to allude to ethical questions of good and bad, and right and wrong. As Marlow’s journey progresses though, light fades and darkness dominates.
The Swede’s story of a fellow Swede’s suicide advances the idea of irrational acts. Marlow is not told the reason why he had hanged himself. We can sense the feeling of chaos Marlow will find in Africa. Why is there killing and madness? Notice how Conrad hints at these strange events without actually revealing too much about them.
Marlow notices more decay. He sees an “undersized railway truck lying on its back,” the “carcass of some animal,” and “a stack of rusty nails.” These images define a general sense of squalor, a sign of neglect and waste. As Marlow tells of his travels, he never fails to include these descriptions. He has seen a world few of us have.
The next scene, when Marlow sees the black slaves chained together, shows us his disgust of man’s treatment toward his fellow man. Here, Conrad attacks imperialism—the use by one group or nation over another for their own gain. The whites in the jungle use the blacks, reducing them to machines. Marlow feels guilty of this attitude, saying he is “a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings.” He flees from them to disassociate himself from the treatment of the blacks. But Marlow cannot run away. Everywhere, starving and dying blacks lean for rest, crawl for water, and crouch for shade. Marlow is “horrorstruck.” The savage cruelty reflects the depravity in the jungle. And, he has only begun his journey.
The appearance of the Company’s chief accountant represents a sharp contrast. His “brushed hair,” “starched collars,” and “got-up shirt-fronts” show a sense of order amidst all disorder. Marlow acknowledges him. While all around the manager falls to waste and rots, he keeps himself and his books in “apple-pie order.” He cannot tolerate the groans of a dying agent in his office because it makes it “difficult to guard against clerical errors.”
Marlow hears of Kurtz for the first time. The manager praises him. Marlow knows nothing of him at this time. Remember, in reality, Marlow knows everything about Kurtz because he is recounting the events, not experiencing them now.
The next part of Marlow’s journey, with a caravan of sixty men, leads him through “networks of paths.” No people are around, “nobody, not a hut.” He sees “abandoned villages” and “ruins of grass walls.” The jungle gets darker, the isolation more pronounced. The “white men with long staves” in their hands who appear momentarily represent the “pilgrims,” the ivory hunters. They seek money and profit. They ignore the degradation. Marlow’s meeting with the manager here serves three purposes: he finds out that the steamer he is to command is stuck, he hears more about Kurtz, and he comes to dislike this man because he is a “chattering idiot.” The manager’s superior health contrasts with the information about Kurtz’s illness. We should observe how Conrad’s conception of health includes the physical and mental. The jungle, its weather, and isolation affect everyone in many ways. The accountant and this manager seem to have survived the conditions. Others succumb. Which group will Marlow and Kurtz belong to? The manager is an interesting character. He seems to hate Kurtz. If Marlow and Kurtz are linked together, then he must hate Marlow. This explains why Marlow is uneasy around him.
Marlow feels that the manager can only “keep the routine going—that’s all.” The manager never offers food or rest to Marlow. “Being hungry,” he says, “and kept on my feet too, I was getting savage.” The key word is, of course, “savage.” Are the surroundings influencing Marlow? And if the manager praises Kurtz, but Marlow dislikes the manager, can he accept his assessment of Kurtz?
Marlow sees more “pilgrims,” who speak of ivory. The word “rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed.” He detests this greed for wealth. He considers it to be “philanthropic pretense.” Unconcerned with money, Marlow is the outsider, the intruder.
The brickmaker’s appearance poses an intriguing question. How can he be a brickmaker if there are no bricks around? He fits the man who repairs roads earlier in the section, when Marlow said he did not see roads or upkeep. A mysterious element surrounds many characters. It is difficult to get a sense of them. Conrad leaves us questioning both who these people are, and Marlow’s description of them. Are they the way Marlow describes them, or is he purposely omitting important information about them? If he is, then why? Conrad raises these questions through the use of the first-person flashback narrative.
Marlow’s description of Kurtz’s oil painting gives us the first solid detail about him. The picture of a woman draped and blindfolded carrying a lighted torch against a black background suggests a few ideas. First, we see the combination of light and dark again. The blindfold refers to the actual darkness, as well as a spiritual and philosophical one, since the person cannot “see.” The woman anticipates Kurtz’s mistress and Intended, two women who will appear later.
In the next sequence, Marlow reveals much about his philosophy. He says he hates and detests a lie. Again, Conrad foreshadows the ending, when Marlow lies to Kurtz’s Intended. Later, we have to compare that moment with this statement. Marlow then says it is difficult for him to convey Kurtz to his listeners, the people on the boat. This implies us, the reader, also. “Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream,” he says. This points to Marlow’s problem. He is trying to tell the untellable, explain the unexplainable. Marlow’s words reflect Conrad’s function as a writer—to make the reader understand the story. “We live, as we dream—alone.” Marlow adds. This statement comes close to illuminating Marlow’s tale. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for one person to understand another.
If this is true, then Marlow cannot understand Kurtz, Kurtz cannot understand Marlow, and we cannot understand either of them. We can try to make sense, nothing more. As Marlow’s tale becomes philosophical, Conrad takes us back to the Nellie and the “I” narrator. This breaks the dream-like trance of the story. We come back to reality, if only for a moment. Everyone but the narrator is asleep. If we are like him, then we are “on watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give … the clue” to this story. Together, we try to catch Marlow’s meaning.
Conrad returns to Marlow’s story and a most practical matter: the need for rivets. Without them, his journey ends. This leads to a humorous scene when Marlow meets the Boilermaker, one of the few men he admires in the jungle. They reassure themselves that the rivets will arrive in three weeks, then danced “like lunatics.”
The Eldorado Exploring Expedition arrives. Marlow abhors them. They want to “tear treasure out of the bowels of the land.” They represent the greedy white men, whose sole purpose revolves around destroying the land to obtain money and wealth. Since the manager’s uncle leads them, they further the idea of the pilgrims’ infiltration. They lack “moral purpose,” something Marlow appreciates.
Instead, Marlow thinks of Kurtz, a man “who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort.” His interest stimulated, Marlow begins the next step on his quest to the mysterious ivory agent and the heart of darkness, a mythical place of hell.
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