During a flood on the river Thames (that’s in England, by the way), the Nellie, a British ship, anchors near London and waits for the flood to recede. On board are four seamen – the unnamed narrator, a lawyer, an accountant, and Marlow. Notice how only one is named. That's important.
The environment and mood are serene, though there are constant references to an ominous gloom in the west. (Ominous gloom = darkness. Hmm…)
The narrator, pondering the river, thinks of its illustrious history – playing host to countless British heroes who went forth to bring trade and civilization to less fortunate nations.
The sun sets and Marlow begins talking. He starts with a seemingly unrelated hypothetical situation about an ancient Roman seaman first coming to Britain. He imagines this Roman encountering horror upon horror in this unfamiliar and savage land. He speaks of them conquering the "natives."
Then Marlow begins to recount his story as a "fresh-water sailor" and the three listeners resign themselves to hearing his tale.
(Begin use of historical present now.)
Welcome to Marlow’s story.
As a child, Marlow loves looking at maps. He dreams about exploring the blank spaces on maps, especially Africa, which (on his map) big shape somewhere south of Europe. The Congo River particularly fascinates Marlow like a snake hypnotizing a bird, which is a rather relevant image.
He is so fascinated that he applies to "the Company" – a Belgian ivory trade firm whose real name is probably not just "the Company" – and tries to appropriate a steamboat.
Marlow finally gets his chance when another commissioned captain, the Danish Fresleven, dies at the hands of the native Africans over an argument about two hens. When a native African accidentally kills Fresleven, both parties freak out. The Europeans freak out because one of their own just got killed. The native Africans fear that they have killed a god – for that’s how they view white men – and last time they checked killing a god resulted in getting smote down and punished. Since no one in their right mind would take over for Fresleven, the opportunity is open for Marlow.
When Marlow goes to the office in Brussels, the city reminds him of white sepulchers (burial vaults).
There are also two women knitting at the door freaking him out a bit with their placidity. Not a good sign. Kind of ominous, actually, or possibly even dark, despite all the whiteness all over the place.
The actual signing goes surprisingly easily; the head of the Company speaks French (Marlow felt compelled to include this detail in his story) and simply has Marlow sign a document.
However, Marlow cannot shake off an inexplicable, ominous feeling about heading into the African continent where the guy that used to have his job was just murdered.
The two knitting women and the doctor who refuses to travel with the sailors only add to his queasy insides. Right before he leaves, Marlow gets the distinct feeling that he is an imposter on this dangerous journey.
A French steamer takes him to Africa. Marlow watches the passing shoreline in fascination. Along the way, he sees a group of black men rowing a boat and is struck by their naturalness and their intense energy. In other words, he likes them.
In an instant of foreshadowing, Marlow sees these guys running across this little boat that’s shooting little cannonballs onto the empty shore. The people shooting the cannonballs think they are attacking native Africans on the shore, but, as often is the case with empty shores, there’s nobody there. Bizarre.
It takes thirty days to reach the Outer (coastal) station in the continent. When Marlow arrives there, he gets his first glimpses of black slaves. The healthy ones are chained together and set to physical work, trying to dynamite through a stubborn cliff to build a railroad. Many, however, are sick, starving, and slowly dying in a grove of trees.
Marlow, moved by one famished man at his feet, attempts to give him a biscuit, but the man dies right before his eyes. Marlow feels sorry for them.
The Company accountant is dressed in British finery. You know, starched collars and silk ties and all that jazz. It is quite a contrast to the sick and dying slaves.
For the ten days he is forced to stay at this station, Marlow hears rumors about the mysterious Mr. Kurtz from the accountant. We learn that Kurtz is a top agent working right in the heart of the continent and that he obtains more ivory than all the other posts combined (which makes us wonder if he's operating a shady business). Everyone agrees he is destined for great things within the Company.
At last, Marlow leaves with a caravan of sixty men for a two-hundred mile journey.
When they arrive at the Central Station, Marlow encounters another delay. The steamboat intended for him has sunk. Marlow suspects foul play.
Marlow begins repairs immediately, but is still delayed for three months.
Marlow meets the manager. The man is creepy (a common theme around these parts). By all accounts, he does a mediocre job at being a manager, and seems to have no talents. He babbles constantly in a way Marlow finds irritating. He has this vacant smile which makes Marlow feel like there’s nothing inside him, as if the manager is a hollowed-out man.
Nonetheless, Marlow gets some information about Kurtz from the manager. Apparently, Kurtz is ill in the Interior. He has designs on becoming a manager within the Company. Cue the conspiracy theory plotline.
One night, a shed burns down. In the commotion, Marlow overhears some unknown agent talking about Kurtz. We also hear (out of context) the words "take advantage of this unfortunate accident." Suspicious much? The speaker turns out to be a brickmaker of a shady nature – one called the "manager’s spy" – who does not actually make any bricks.
This brickmaker pumps a clueless Marlow for information. Marlow plays along simply to see what he wants. And he needs to add fuel to his conspiracy theory fire. Eventually he learns that the brickmaker wants to get in with Marlow’s aunt’s connections, who recommended Marlow for the job (and apparently did the same for Kurtz). Marlow realizes the brickmaker cannot know this information without having read some supposedly confidential mail. When accused of this, the spineless brickmaker backs down.
After he’s recovered, the brickmaker comes back and sucks up to Marlow, explaining everything. He wants to be assistant manager and Kurtz’s presence has messed it up. He wants Marlow and his connections to help him out.
Marlow allows the brickmaker to think that he actually has influence in Europe just to get more information about Kurtz. Slick.
While the brickmaker chatters on, Marlow stops listening and becomes fascinated by the eerily silent forest before him. He feels small against its vastness.
Marlow makes a HUGE deal out of telling his audience that he hates lies. Really, really hates lies. (You are definitely going to want to remember that.)
At this point, Marlow stops the narrative to the men aboard the Nellie to remark on how unreal and dreamlike it all felt at the time. He says the listeners are lucky because they can "see" more of the story than he could when he was experiencing it all. They can see him (Marlow), which was more than Marlow could see. Confusing? Yes, and also heavily ironic, since it has now fallen dark aboard the Nellie and the listeners cannot actually see Marlow, each other, or themselves. Marlow even questions whether they are awake.
So, of course, he does what all storytellers do when they think they are losing their audience: he gets back to the story. Resume historical present inside Marlow’s story.
Marlow spaces out while the brickmaker is talking to him. His sole goal in life is to repair the steamboat, which requires rivets, and get on his way.
When Marlow finally tells this to the brickmaker, the guy stops sucking up and changes the topic – something about a troublesome hippo that terrorizes the men at night (!).
After this, Marlow runs into the foreman sitting on the deck. They dance madly because they think rivets are coming in three weeks.
But it turns out no rivets are coming after all.
Instead of rivets, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, a renegade raiding group, arrives. They are led by the manager’s uncle, who conspires with his nephew. Marlow loathes them both.
Marlow thinks Kurtz is better than both of them; at least Kurtz has some morals. Or does he?