Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Chapter 1

By Joseph Conrad

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Chapter 1

  • During a flood on the River Thames in merry Old England, the British ship Nellie anchors near London and waits for the flood to recede. On board are five seamen—the unnamed narrator, a lawyer, an accountant, Marlow, and the Director. (Also, an iman, a priest, and a rabbi.)
  • Notice how only one guy is named. That's important.
  • Everything is peaceful and lovely, though there are constant references to an ominous gloom in the west. (Ominous gloom = darkness. Hmm…)
  • The narrator ponders the river and treats us to a little run-down of its illustrious history of playing host to countless British heroes who went forth to bring trade and civilization to less fortunate nations.
  • Hm. Is there a little sarcasm here? (Not all those less fortunate nations were super excited to see the British, after all.) We're not sure.
  • The sun sets and Marlow begins talking. He starts with a seemingly unrelated hypothetical situation about an ancient Roman seaman first coming to Britain, encountering horror upon horror in this unfamiliar and savage land, and then conquering the "natives."
  • We wonder how the natives remember it?
  • Then Marlow begins to recount his story as a "fresh-water sailor" and the three listeners settle in for a good yarn.
  • (Begin use of historical present now.)
  • Welcome to Marlow's story! Hope you brought your Paxil.
  • As a child, Marlow loves looking at maps.
  • He especially likes that they have all that fascinating blank space, especially Africa.
  • The Congo River particularly fascinates Marlow, much like a snake hypnotizing a bird.
  • That's a relevant image. Remember it.
  • He's 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 get his hot little hands on a steamboat.
  • When another commissioned captain, the Danish Fresleven, dies at the hands of the native Africans over an argument about two hens (really), Marlowe gets his chance.
  • See, both parties freak out. The Europeans freak out because one of their own just got killed. The native Africans freak out because they've just killed a god, which apparently is how they view white men, and last time they checked the rule book, killing a god resulted in getting smited.
  • Since no one in their right mind would take over Fresleven's rather dangerous job, the opportunity is open for Marlow.
  • Marlow trots off to the office in Brussels, a city that reminds him of burial vaults. Probably not a good sign.
  • There are also two women knitting at the door, and for some reason this really freaks Marlowe out. To be fair, they're knitting with black yarn.
  • In case you haven't picked up on it by now, dark = bad.
  • The actual signing goes surprisingly easily; the Company head 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 that heading into the African continent where the guy that used to have his job was just murdered is a Really Bad Idea.
  • Did we say inexplicable? We mean, "completely and utterly rational."
  • After some more ominous encounters, Marlowe hops aboard a French steamer that's going to take him all the way to Africa.
  • Along the way, he sees a group of black men rowing a boat and thinks they look good—natural, energetic, and little sexy. (Well, he doesn't say sexy, but we're getting that vibe.)
  • He also sees a warship anchored off shore firing at an empty coast. Like, totally empty. Someone on board assures him that there's a camp of "enemies" hidden out of sight, but we get the feeling that Marlowe doesn't buy it.
  • 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 trying to dynamite through a stubborn cliff to build a railroad.
  • And then it gets worse: many are sick, starving, and slowly dying in a grove of trees. Marlow tries to give one poor man a snack, but the guy dies right before his eyes.
  • The Company accountant is dressed in British finery. You know, starched collars, silk ties, ascots, spats, pocket square, all that jazz. It's quite a contrast to the sick and dying slaves, not to mention bafflingly impractical for the jungle.
  • During the ten days he's 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).
  • Obviously, everyone agrees he's 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, there's a delay: the steamboat intended for him has sunk.
  • Foul play? Maybe.
  • While repairs are underway, Marlow meets the manager.
  • The guy is creepy (a common theme around these parts), and he's also a fairly mediocre manager with no discernable talents.
  • Well, he has one talent: irritating Marlow with a constant stream of meaningless babble and a vacant smile.
  • He also has some information: Kurtz is sick, and 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."
  • Hmmmmm.
  • 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.
  • Maybe that's why he's shady.
  • This brickmaker pumps a clueless Marlow for information, and Marlow plays along simply to see what he wants.
  • 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).
  • Unfortunately for the brickmaker, the only way to know this would be from reading some confidential mail.
  • Looks like the brickmaker's been dipping into Company secrets.
  • After he's recovered from Marlow's accusations, the brickmaker comes back and sucks up to Marlow, explaining everything.
  • See, he wants to be assistant manager, but Kurtz is messing everything up. He wants Marlow and his connections to help him out.
  • Marlow let the brickmaker 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/us that he hates lies. Really, really hates lies. (You are definitely going to want to remember that.)
  • At this point, Marlow breaks the narrative flow to tell his listeners (the men aboard the Nellie) that everything seemed really unreal and dreamlike at the time.
  • 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're awake.
  • Also, we're getting the feeling that all this talk about seeing/ not seeing is, you know, meaningful in some way.
  • Resume historical present inside Marlow's story.
  • Marlow spaces out while the brickmaker is talking to him, thinking about how he needs to find some rivets to repair the steamboat and get on his way.
  • When Marlow finally tells this to the brickmaker, the guy changes the topic to 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.
  • Um, okay.
  • But it turns out, no rivets are coming after all.
  • Instead of rivets, a renegade raiding group called the Eldorado Exploring Expedition arrives.
  • They're led by the manager's uncle, who conspires with his nephew.
  • Marlow loathes them both, and, without knowing anything about the guy, he decides that Kurtz is better than both of them because at least he has morals.
  • Right?

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