The Heart of Darkness opens on board a pleasure ship called ‘Nellie’ which
is anchored on the River Thames, London.
The ship lies just east of the city and it is sunset.
Five men unwind on the deck, the Director of Companies who is the Captain,
the Lawyer, the Accountant, the narrator of our tale, and Marlow.
The novel tells the story of Marlow’s journey to Africa which is relayed to
us by the unnamed narrator, so what follows now is the narrator’s recollection of Marlow’s journey to Africa as told on this boat.
The novel is, therefore, a story within a story and this form is called a
As darkness begins to fall, the men indulge in small talk during which time
Marlow says that London was once a dark place on earth and that the Romans, when they came to Britain, regarded the invasion as a conquering of a wild wilderness, yet now London is the center of a great empire
itself and is often the setting-off point for journeys of exploration and discovery.
Marlow decides to tell them a story about how he once was a Captain of a
steamship going up the Congo River. Maps had always fascinated him, in particular those of Africa, which contained large areas marked ‘unexplored’.
Through his aunt, Marlow obtained a position as Captain of a steamship from
a Belgian Company as she wanted him to fulfill his dreams.
He traveled to Brussels, which he described as a ‘whited sepulchre’ in order to sign the Company’s Contract. At the office there are two women, one knitting using black wool, and the other stroking a cat.
He briefly meets with the head of the Company and then he goes to have a
medical with the company doctor.
The doctor measures his skull and warns him to avoid irritation in the wilderness, even more than exposure to the sun. He starts to feel daunted about his journey to the Congo, which he likens to a snake winding its way into the heart of Africa.
He makes his farewells to his aunt who hopes that he will be able to
civilize the natives in the service of the Company and bring them salvation.
It should be made clear at the start that the book’s main story is contained
within a framing story told by the unnamed narrator who was one of those listening to Marlow’s account of his experiences in Africa.
These men were on board a boat on the Thames estuary and are not named, but
identified by their occupations. This in a way gives them a symbolic position at the start of the book and gives no clue as to their character, but only their position in society.
One must also question the accuracy of the facts as the reader is obtaining
the information second-hand. There is also some doubt as to the impartiality of the unnamed narrator.
The main theme of the novel is the contest between civilized and primitive
cultures - white versus black and good versus evil.
Marlow hints that in its history London was regarded as a savage,
inhospitable place by the conquering and so-called civilized Romans.
Conrad uses symbolism to indicate the hypocrisy of the colonial countries
Britain and Belgium.
He describes how as the sun sets into the city horizon, it appears to be consumed and killed, and he describes Brussels as appearing like a white sepulchre which in the Bible is described in Matthew’s Gospel as a pure and white fa'ade hiding death and decay.
Conrad refers to the Congo River as a snake winding its way into the heart
of Darkest Africa, the serpent being a well-known symbol of evil, especially in the book of Genesis.
The general view is that civilization represents good while savagery is
normally linked with evil. The city of London comes across as a foreboding place, which extinguishes the light of the sun as it sets in the west.
Just as Britain was at the fringes of the Roman Empire, so does the River
Congo represent the borders of the known world.
The author describes imperialism, as the ‘flabby, pretending, weak-eyed
devil’ and Marlow’s description of the colonial officials are as greedy, inefficient men who are driven into a world of corruption.
Marlow is the main storyteller of the novel, but his story seems to have no
clear meaning, perhaps he tells the story to the others on the boat with a view to obtaining some understanding from them as to the purpose of his experiences.
The story is hard to follow, as Marlow tends to digress and give details, which are not in chronological order. There are also various references to death i.e. the description of Brussels as a white sepulchre; the woman knitting with black wool in the Company office and the vacancy that arose on the steamship was due to the death of Marlow’s predecessor.
When Marlow sees the woman knitting in black wool, it reminds him of the
mythical fates and he silently addresses her ‘moriture te salutant’ or ‘we who are about to die, salute you’. This gives Marlow some apprehension about his journey to the Congo.