Heart of Darkness is the tale of Charlie Marlow's journey into the
heart of the African Congo, where he encounters the extraordinary Mr.
Kurtz. It is an expedition that has a tremendous impact on Marlow.
This short novel is divided into three sections. The first section
recounts Marlow's appointment as a steamboat operator for a company that
procures ivory in the Congo, his journey to the company's Outer Station near
the coast, and his travel up the Congo River to the Central Station. The
second section describes Marlow's continued journey up river to Kurtz's Inner
Station and his initial encounter with Kurtz. In the final section Marlow
has a private conversation with Kurtz, Kurtz is forcibly removed from his
station and dies, and Marlow and the rest of the company men return to
civilization. With the exception of the opening pages and a few minor
passages throughout the novel, the story is told from Marlow's
Section one opens with the Nellie,
a small ship, dropping anchor in the Thames River, near Gravesend, England (east of London). It's a peaceful sunset, and the ship is waiting for the change of
tide in order to set off to sea.
Five men-including an
unnamed narrator, the company's director, a lawyer, an accountant, and Charlie Marlow-are
gathered on the Nellie's deck. The narrator remarks that the men
have already forged a strong bond from previous adventures at sea, and more
than once he mentions a sense of "brooding gloom" on the horizon. The
setting prompts the narrator to consider all of the great world travelers and
adventurers whose journeys issued forth from the Thames. As the group
relaxes and watches the sun set, Marlow draws them into a tale of his
adventures traveling up the Congo River.
Marlow opens his tale by asking
the men to reflect on what it must have been like for the Romans who traveled
to England so many years ago. They must have, he suggests, been stunned
by the near savagery of their surroundings. He notes that a primary
difference between themselves and the Romans was that they are colonists,
whereas the Romans were conquerors. And conquerors, he claims, have no
more objective than to take as much as they can get, by whatever means
necessary. Marlow remarks that conquest is, in general, a repulsive
thing, though there can be some redeeming qualities to it.
Marlow's adventure begins in
London, where he has recently returned from several years sailing in the
East. While recuperating in London, he becomes restless and longs to
travel somewhere he has never been. As he strolls about the city, he
happens upon a map in a shop window depicting a place he has longed to visit, a
region of the world that was still largely unknown to Europeans: the Congo. Though he is normally an ocean-going sailor, he longs to travel the Congo, a freshwater river, deep into the heart of this little-known land. When his
attempts to secure a position on a boat with a company that trades on in the Congo go unfulfilled, he enlists the help of his aunt. Through her influential
friends, Marlow secures a post as captain of a riverboat steamer, replacing a
captain who had recently been killed by natives.
Marlow remarks that the man
he is replacing, Captain Fresleven, had been killed during an argument with a
native chief involving two hens. Fresleven beat the elderly chief, and
the chief's son killed him with a spear. Following Fresleven's death, the
native people fled deeper into the jungle, and the remaining men aboard
Fresleven's vessel departed, out of fear. Marlow blames Fresleven's
action on the captain's extended stay in the wild. He also notes that he
later sought out Fresleven's body and found it nearly hidden in the tall
grasses near an abandoned village.
Marlow next tells of his
visit to the company office in France, where an ominous feeling overcomes
him. Several young men also come into the office, and Marlow reflects on
how many of them must leave the place, never to return again. He visits
the company doctor, who performs an abbreviated physical exam and asks to
measure his cranium, apparently for research purposes. When Marlow asks
if the doctor measures the men's heads again when they return, the doctor
comments that he never sees any of them again. And, he continues, even if
there were changes to be measured, those changes would be internal rather than
external. The doctor cautions Marlow that when he is in the Congo he must do all that he can to remain calm.
Before departing, Marlow
visits his aunt to thank her. He is somewhat shocked when she discusses
"weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways." He suggests to
her that the company's main goal is to make money, as opposed to some
Marlow departs France aboard a steamer, which calls at many ports along the way. As the ship travels
along the coast, Marlow observes a certain grimness in his surroundings.
Scattered along the shore are small trading settlements and custom houses,
which seem to be rudely constructed. Farther down the coast he spots a
boat manned by natives, and later he sees a French warship indiscriminately
shelling the jungle. Marlow notes that the French must be in some war
with the natives, but he is unaware of it and considers the shelling to be a
futile act. The steamer passes letters to the men aboard the warship, and
Marlow states that he has heard the men aboard the ship are dying of
fever. As they proceed further, Marlow depicts a general sense of death
and decay in the landscape.
The steamer travels thirty
days before reaching the mouth of the Congo, where Marlow transfers to a
smaller ship. The captain of this second ship, a Swede, invites Marlow
unto the bridge and the two converse. Marlow wonders aloud what becomes
of the men who travel up river, and the captain notes that a man he recently
took up country hanged himself. When Marlow asks why, the captain replies
that it must have either been the sun or the country itself.
When Marlow arrives at the
company's Outer Station, he notes a kind of decay and chaos in the
station. The settlement seems in disarray. A railroad is being
built and a line of native "criminals," chained together and wearing iron neck
collars, passes him. Another native, in uniform and carrying a gun,
guards the chain gang. In the men Marlow sees a kind of folly. He
stumbles upon a large group of native workers taking refuge under some trees;
they are spent men, nearly wasted from their brutal work and the harsh
conditions. The first European man Marlow encounters is the Station's
accountant. He is impeccably dressed, and Marlow marvels over this
fact. Marlow sees a stream of natives ferrying goods into the interior
and others returning to the station with loads of ivory.
Marlow lives in a hut at the
station for ten days before proceeding further into the interior. He
spends a good deal of time in the accountant's poorly constructed office where
he first learns of Mr. Kurtz, a man in charge of a trading post deep in the
interior of the jungle. The accountant characterizes Kurtz as a remarkable
man, noting that he brings in more ivory than all of the other agents
combined. The accountant asks Marlow to tell Kurtz that everything is
going well at the Outer Station, noting that he believes Kurtz is a man who is
marked for great things within the company.
The following day Marlow
joins a large caravan for a two-hundred-mile trek into the interior. They
pass a number of abandoned villages and several dead natives. Another
white man, overweight and out of shape, also travels with them. When
Marlow inquires why he is in the interior, he responds that he is there for the
only rational purpose: to make money. The man falls ill and must be
carried in a hammock by the natives. One day the porters abandoned their
duty, dropping and injuring the man.
On the fifteenth day of the
trek, they pass close to the river and arrive at the Central Station, which is
bordered by forest and brush and surrounded by a makeshift fence. Several
white men with wooden staffs come out to view the arriving party, but only one
takes particular interest in Marlow. When the man discovers that Marlow
is the new steamboat captain, he informs him that the boat has sunk in the
river and that Marlow must meet the station's manager as soon as
possible. Marlow is shocked by this revelation, and, as he tells the tale
to the men aboard the Nellie, reflects that he should have suspected something
unnatural about the wreck. The next day Marlow sets about reclaiming the
boat from the river.
When Marlow first meets
Central Station Manager, he sees the manager as a rather ordinary looking man,
though he has a rather unique expression, an expression that Marlow says
created a sort of "uneasiness." Marlow comments that the manager did not
appear to be particularly efficient or organized; however, he had been at the
post for nine years. This fact alone gave him a sort of power. The
Manager is very concerned that the boat be repaired so that he can reestablish
contact with his most productive agent upriver: Mr. Kurtz.
As Marlow works to repair
the boat, he struggles to makes sense of the station's activities. Inside
the station, the men seem to wander about aimlessly, while beyond the station
the wilderness stands, silently waiting for the men to withdraw.
One evening a hut catches
fire and the men watch it burn to the ground. A native is blamed for the
fire, beaten, and later retreats into the wilderness. Marlow overhears a
conversation between the station manager and a man others call the manager's
spy. In the conversation Marlow overhears Kurtz's name mentioned and
something about Kurtz taking "advantage" of the accident. When the
Manager leaves, Marlow strikes up a conversation with the spy and returns to
the man's quarters. Marlow notes that he possesses some rather ornate
furniture and actually has his own candle, an item normally reserved for the
station manager alone. Supposedly, the man is in charge of making bricks,
but Marlow notes that no bricks were to be found anywhere in the station, for
the area lacked a critical ingredient for making bricks. The brickmaker
tells Marlow that he is simply waiting for something to arrive, passing the
time as the station manager's secretary. Indeed, all of the men at the
station seemed to be waiting for something.
Marlow speaks of a certain
mistrust and scheming by the men of the station, though it never amounts to
much. The only true wish of the men seems to be getting appointed to a
station where ivory is coming in so that they might earn a profit. Marlow
isn't sure why the brickmaker invites him to his hut to talk, but he feels the
man is attempting to get some information from him. He repeatedly
questions Marlow and becomes angry when he can't get the information he is
seeking. As Marlow is about to leave the brickmaker's hut, he notices a
painting of a woman; she is blindfolded and carrying a torch. When Marlow
inquires, he is told that Kurtz made the painting over a year before, as he was
attending to some business at the station. Marlow then asks the man to
tell him about Kurtz.
The brickmaker speaks of
Kurtz in a rather reverent manner, as a great but complex man, and he insists
that Kurtz is destined to go far in the company. The brickmaker asserts
that Marlow already knows how far Kurtz will go because the same people recommended
both of them for their positions. Marlow surmises that the
brickmaker must have access to the company's internal correspondence, and
realizes that the brickmaker must believe that Marlow has connections in high
places. Marlow laughs to himself, knowing that he has no real connections
within the company, but he decides to play along and teases the brickmaker that
when Kurtz becomes general manager the brickmaker will no longer be able to
read the company's private letters.
The pair head out into the
night, where the dark figures of the natives continue to pour water onto the
smoldering embers of the burned-down hut. Marlow hears the moans of the
beaten native, somewhere off in the darkness. Another station worker
appears in the dark and expresses no pity for the beaten man, asserting that
his suffering will serve as an example for the others. When the man
notices the brickmaker, he abruptly redirects his comments and excuses
himself. Marlow then walks to the river's edge, and the brickmaker tries
to reassure Marlow that he has nothing against Kurtz-since the brickmaker knows
that Marlow will encounter Kurtz before he does.
Marlow concludes that the
brickmaker had planned on being the station's assistant manager, but Kurtz's
arrival had disrupted these plans, as well as the plans of the current
manager. As the brickmaker jabbers on about himself, Marlow contemplates
man's place in an environment as vast and inhospitable as the Congo. He also reflects on how he felt uncomfortable knowing that the brickmaker
believed he was more influential than he really was. Yet he feels an odd
compulsion to maintain the falsehood on the chance that it might help Kurtz.
The brickmaker continues to
comment about the genius of Kurtz, and how it was difficult for anyone to work
under these conditions. Marlow notes how his work with the steamboat is
delayed by the lack of rivets to attach an iron patch. There were plenty
of rivets to be found at the station down river, but he couldn't manage to get
any sent to him at the Central Station. Marlow tries to convince the
brickmaker that getting rivets to fix the boat is something that Kurtz would
want. The brickmaker shifts the conversation's focus, asking Marlow, who
has been working night and day and even sleeping on the boat, if he is ever
bothered by the hippopotamus that frequents the area. The brickmaker
remarks that the men of the station have tried to shoot the animal many times,
but it seems to lead a charmed life. This, of course, is not true of men who
lived in the wild.
When Marlow returns to his
boat, the station foreman, a boilermaker, is aboard. Though the other
administrators at the station have ignored the foreman, because of his somewhat
crude manners, Marlow has struck up a relationship with him. Marlow
informs the foreman that they will be getting some rivets soon, and he is
ecstatic. However, instead of the rivets arriving, a caravan of Europeans
and natives arrives, calling themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition.
They are a group bent on extracting treasure from the wilderness and led by the
station manager's uncle. After a time, Marlow begins to forget about the
rivets, though he still thinks of Kurtz, wondering whether this man of lofty
ideals will actually rise within the company.
The men aboard the Nellie
when Marlow begins his tale might be thought of as members of England's "commercial" interests. Since Marlow elects to tell them his tale, it
stands to reason that they are the ones who most need to hear its message.
It is significant that Marlow begins his tale as darkness falls, for it is a
tale of physiological darkness.
Marlow's opening comment
about the Romans being conquerors, whereas the English were colonists,
foreshadows one of the main lessons Marlow learns as he travels into the heart
of the Congo. For Marlow sees, firsthand, how the English take as much as
they can by whatever means necessary. The death of Marlow's predecessor,
Captain Fresleven, who dies as the result of a squabble with a native chief
over two hens, hints at the odd mixture of savage action and senseless waste
Marlow encounters as he ventures into the Congo. It also suggests how
normally sane men can be driven to perform questionable actions.
The fact that Fresleven's
bones were almost completely reclaimed by the jungle suggests that the
wilderness has a tremendous power to obliterate the presence of man.
The company doctor never
again sees the young men he certifies as healthy enough to venture into the Congo; this speaks volumes about the way men who travel into the wilderness tend to be
consumed by the land. And the doctor's comment that any change the men
undergo would be internal suggests a transformation that takes place in men who
travel into the jungle.
The scene with the French
warship aimlessly shelling the jungle is a metaphor for the futility of
"civilized" action in the wilderness. European culture is foreign
to the Congo; it has no place there. The group of "wasted" natives
Marlow sees upon his arrival at the Outer Station represents the human toll
that must be extracted for civilized "progress." In other words, human
life is mere grist for the profit machine operated by the Europeans.
Finally, much could be made of Kurtz's painting of the blindfolded woman
carrying the torch, which Marlow sees in the brickmaker's hut. This woman
could be a symbol for the blindness of justice, or she could represent the
blind eye Europe must turn in order to extract profit from the region.