Section 1 - Part 1
The narrative begins in the Nellie, a merchant vessel anchored at the Thames River. The sun is setting and an atmosphere of gloomy idleness encircles the seamen located inside the ship. They are in a state of meditation, "fit for nothing but placid staring". This is the inactivity of waiting before initiating a voyage into their country, the only mysterious and magnetic element in a typical mariner's life, the sea. The Thames is described as a seed of past memories that have configured the pride of the English nation and empire, ranging from "hunters of gold" to "pursuers of fame". Our protagonist, Marlow, interrupts the silence to assert that "this also...has been one of the dark places of the earth". He is described by the witness narrator as an anomaly among the sailors, a wonderer with an ascetic aspect, a spinner of complex stories wrought out of his inconclusive experiences. Marlow recalls the times when the Romans spread their empire to England and entered into the disgusting mysteriousness of an unknown world full of utter savagery, fascinated by the abomination of the other. This is the conquest of the earth, the engagement with darkness "for the sake of what was to be got."
The anterior establishing shot prepares the reader for the main body of the story: Marlow's account of his journey through the deepest recesses of the Congo River. He starts telling about his passion for maps and unexplored, far away places. Ever since he was a young boy, he has always been charmed by the idea of traveling to the Congo, that "mighty big river.resembling an immense snake uncoiled." After returning to London from a six-year excursion through the East, Marlow decides to join a Continental Company that deals with trading in the aforementioned river. Thanks to the influence of his aunt, he is appointed as captain of a steamboat whose former commander had been killed in a scuffle with the natives. Not until months later while trying to recover the corpse, does Marlow discover that the murder originated from a disagreement over some hens, and that, probably in need of reasserting his self-respect, the captain stroke incessantly an old man and was slain in the process. Apparently, the community abandoned the village after the episode.
Subsequently, the story moves to the Company's offices in France, where Marlow meets his employers and signs his contract. He is lead to the waiting room by one of the two women who were sitting and knitting wool in the entrance hall. He goes through the official ceremonies with a secretarial head and what appears to be a high executive of the Company. In the process of leaving, Marlow senses something ominous in the atmosphere as if he was led into a conspiracy, into something that didn't feel quite right. The women are thought of as fateful guardians of the door of Darkness: one glances studiously yet indifferently to those who will possibly never return to look at her again while the other introduces them to the unknown. Shortly, Marlow visits the doctor for a formal checkup. Interested in the mental changes of individuals who travel deep into the African wilderness, the doctor examines Marlow's cranium, asks him about madness in the family and advises him to "Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun". Before leaving for the Congo, our protagonist meets with his aunt. She suggests that he is a sort of "emissary of light" and emphasizes his potential role in civilizing the "ignorant" African people. Yet he retorts by stating that he is in a mission run for profit. They hug and say good-bye. While in the street, a foreboding sensation of startled pause overcomes Marlow. He feels suddenly that instead of setting off for the center of a continent he was traveling to the center of the earth.
Thus, Marlow leaves for Africa in a French steamer. For thirty days they border the coast of the continent until they reach the mouth of the river. The borders of the jungle appear unfathomable yet inviting, projecting a "monotonous grimness". As the boat plods on and passes through various trading places with ridiculous names, the coast looks the same, as though they had never moved. Amidst his isolation in the steamer, the lethargic waters and the somber shoreline, Marlow is kept from an objective grasp of reality and fights against a looming "mournful and senseless delusion", an indescribable "vague and oppressive wonder". His only contact with the real and his source of comfort was through observing boats paddled by black fellows who had "faces like grotesque masks" but had "a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement". Yet this ephemeral sense of reality was always scared away, like when they approached a man-o-war insanely shooting at a supposed camp of natives inside the obscure density of the wilderness.
Browse all Studyworld Studynotes|
Section 1 - Part 1
Section 1 - Part 2