The forty-two-year-old Marlow is the main character, as well as the principal narrator. He tells the story to a group of listeners who include a chief executive of business companies, a lawyer, an accountant, and an unnamed frame narrator— presumably Conrad himself. The five men are all established and successful in middle age, and, according to the frame narrator, they share one major bond: They all began their professional careers in the "merchant service," or the craft of moving cargo by sea. However, beyond this brief description, Marlow's auditors are not characterized and play only a marginal role in the story. Their chief function is to nod in agreement at the end of the tale when Marlow praises the strength and audacity of youth and laments its passing.
Both the youthful Marlow (of twenty) and the mature Marlow of twenty-two years later, who narrates the story, gain insights from the experience. The youthful Marlow discovers a sense of his own strength in the face of adversity and at the end of the tale is asserting his independence in his command of the longboat. Therefore Marlow's chief reward for his steadfast courage and resourcefulness on the voyage is the sense of elation he feels at arriving at last in the East. By contrast, the mature Marlow discovers, in the telling of the story, how vigorous and vibrant his youth had been. The mature Marlow continues to express amazement at his younger self's unthinking acceptance of hardships and hazards.
Being concerned primarily with Marlow's physical and psychological experiences on this early voyage, the story has only a few secondary characters. These are the dutiful if somewhat unlucky Captain Beard, his agreeable wife, and the first mate, Mahon, who is a sour and cynical man whom Marlow dislikes.
Captain Beard, who was based on an actual captain of that name in one of Conrad's early voyages, is a likable man of limited talents, unimpeachable rectitude, and an aged but innocent appearance, even at sixty. For Marlow, he is something of a benevolent father figure. Since the Judea is his first command after many years of labor as a second officer, Beard is determined to make the voyage a success, despite the fact that the Judea has been laid up in Shadwell basin for a long time. Grimed and rusty, the ship is scarcely seaworthy, as the trip to Newcastle and the return voyage down the North Sea and into the English Channel shows.
Despite having a mundane mission and a dubious vessel, Captain Beard preserves an optimistic attitude throughout the voyage, and Marlow, grateful for being taken on as second mate when he is only twenty, remains steadfastly loyal to the Captain. Captain Beard's attachment to the ship, despite its problems, is shown in many ways. It is illustrated, for instance, near the end in his reluctance to leave the vessel even when the fire makes lingering on board perilous.
A lesser role is played by Mrs. Beard, a pleasant woman who normally resides in Colchester, but who comes aboard and stays with the captain while the ship is at anchor at the mouth of the Tyne, waiting to be loaded with coal. Mrs. Beard takes a motherly interest in young Marlow, mending his shirts and giving him books to read. When she leaves, she asks him to look after her husband John on the voyage, somewhat as she might make a request of a son. Mrs. Beard's presence reinforces Marlow's tendency to look on the captain as a surrogate father.
Mahon, the first mate, is another...
(The entire section is 911 words.)