[Marlow]: "Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina - and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay—cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death - death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here." (1.11)
When you head off to backpack around Southeast Asia after college, you end up leaving some of your comforts behind. Some places don't even have cell phone service! Imagine!
"I had plenty of time for meditation, and now and then I would give some thought to Kurtz. I wasn't very interested in him. No. Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all and how he would set about his work when there." (1.74)
Despite himself, Marlow becomes more and more curious about this faceless figure of Kurtz. From the brickmaker's description of him, Marlow assumes that Kurtz came out "equipped with moral ideas of some sort," probably the sort that try to justify imperialism. When compared to the godlessness of the crew surrounding Marlow, Kurtz seems like a good alternative.
"One day he [the accountant] remarked, without lifting his head, 'In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz.' On my asking who Mr. Kurtz was, he said he was a first-class agent; and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly, laying down his pen, 'He is a very remarkable person.' Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of a trading-post, a very important one, in the true ivory-country, at 'the very bottom of there. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together […].'" (1.46)
Marlow wasn't too interested in Kurtz at first, but he's starting to get curious. As the details pile up—he's a first-class agent, he's a remarkable person, he sends in quantities of ivory—our hero can't help wanting to, um, explore.
He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them—the ship; and so is their country—the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine. (1.9)
What's weird is that Conrad describes seamen as actually kind of sedentary, sitting aboard their ship wherever it takes them rather than actively going out to explore. Marlow, on the other hand, is an explorer in the truest sense of the word. He hasn't come to impose assumptions, but to find meaning and truth—even if he doesn't like what he finds.
"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.' […] But there was one yet—the biggest, the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after."(1.17)
There's just something about a blank space on a map that makes Marlow want to fill it up. Come on, we're not the only ones hearing something a little sexual here, right?.
[Marlow]: "Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga—perhaps too much dice, you know—coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. (1.11)
Exploration can be a way of escaping your gambling debts ("too much dice") and starting a new life, but don't expect to find a place to buy your gourmet salt in a savage new land.
It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled - the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her rotund flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen's Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests - and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith - the adventurers and the settlers; kings' ships and the ships of men on 'Change; captains, admirals, the dark 'interlopers' of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned 'generals' of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires. (1.6)
Marlow lists off a bunch of famous figures who explored the Thames River and the sea. The first half of his list catalogs royally commissioned explorers and plunderers, while the latter half are businessmen who developed trade with foreign countries. Marlow seems to view all of them as pioneers who struck out to bring civilization to dark unknown lands—but we're not so sure he really feels that way.
"[…] on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red - good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn't going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there—fascinating—deadly—like a snake." (1.23)
All the colors on the map means Africa isn't a blank space any more—it's been parceled up and handed out to Western countries. But even if there's no blank space left, that river is still there.
Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other's yarns—and even convictions. (1.4)
Well, when you're stuck on a ship together for months at a time, there's plenty of opportunity to explore each other's psyches. And plenty of time for really long stories.
"Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you - smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.'" (1.30)
Pro tip: when the coast starts talking to you, it's probably time for some shore leave.
"'And by the way, I suppose Mr. Kurtz is dead as well by this time.'
"For the moment that was the dominant thought. There was a sense of extreme disappointment, as though I had found out I had been striving after something altogether without a substance. I couldn't have been more disgusted if I had travelled all this way for the sole purpose of talking with Mr. Kurtz." (2.23-24)
Marlow just can't leave it alone: Kurtz is dead, but he's still obsessed with the man—so obsessed that he visits the Intended. We hope he got what he was looking for.
"Where the pilgrims imagined it crawled to I don't know. To some place where they expected to get something. I bet! For me it crawled towards Kurtz—exclusively […]." (2.7)
This has quickly stopped being curiosity and become obsession: Marlow doesn't see the wilderness as his destination anymore, but just Kurtz. (Or are they really that different?)