Heart of Darkness begins on board the Nellie, a small ship moored on the Thames River in London. After describing the river and its slow-moving traffic, the unnamed narrator offers short descriptions of London's history to his companions who, with him, lazily lounge on the deck, waiting for the tide to turn. With him are the Director of Companies (their Captain), a lawyer, an accountant, and Marlow, the novel's protagonist. As the sun sets, the four men become contemplative and brooding; eventually, Marlow breaks the spell of silence by beginning his tale about his voyage to the Congo.
The other men remain silent while Marlow collects his ideas, after which he begins the story proper. The remainder of the novel becomes (with a few exceptions) the narrator's report of what Marlow tells him and the others on board the Nellie. Conrad's novel is thus a frame story, or story-within-a-story.
As a boy, Marlow was fascinated by maps and yearned to become a seaman or explorer who could visit the most remote parts of the earth. As a young man, Marlow spent approximately six years sailing in the Pacific before returning to London — where he then saw, in a shop window, a map of Africa and the Congo River. Recalling the news of a Continental trading Company operating in the Congo, Marlow became determined to pilot a steamboat to find adventure in Africa. He asked his aunt, who knew the wife of a Company official to assist him in getting a job as a pilot; she happily complied.
Marlow hurried across the English Channel to sign his contracts at the Company's headquarters in Brussels. Passing through an office with two women who are knitting, Marlow spoke with the Company's director for less than a minute; after being dismissed, he was asked to sign a number of papers in which he promised not to divulge any trade secrets. Marlow finally reached the mouth of the Congo. Finding passage on a little sea-bound steamer to take him where his steamboat awaited him, Marlow spoke with its Swedish captain about the Company and the effects of the jungle on Europeans. The Swede then told Marlow a short yet ominous story about a man he took upriver who hanged himself on the road. Shocked, Marlow asked why, only to be told that perhaps the "sun" or the "country" were too much for him. Eventually, they reached the Company's Outer Station, which amounted to three wooden buildings on the side of a rocky slope. Out of this station was shipped the Company's most important and lucrative commodity: ivory.
Marlow spent the next ten days waiting for the caravan to conduct him to the Central Station (and his steamboat), during which time he saw more of the Accountant. On some days, Marlow would sit in his office, trying to avoid the giant "stabbing" flies. When a stretcher with a sick European was put in the office temporarily, the Accountant became annoyed with his groans, complaining that they distracted him and increased the chances for clerical errors. Noting Marlow's ultimate destination in the interior region of the Congo, the Accountant hinted that Marlow would "no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz," a Company agent in charge of an incredibly lucrative ivory-post deep in the interior. The Accountant described Kurtz as a "first class agent" and "remarkable person" whose station brought in more ivory than all the other stations combined. He asked Marlow to tell Kurtz that everything at the Outer Station was satisfactory and then hinted that Kurtz was being groomed for a high position in the Company's Administration.
The day after this conversation, Marlow left the Outer Station with a caravan of sixty men for a two hundred-mile "tramp" to the Central Station. (The men were native porters who carried the equipment, food and water.) Marlow saw innumerable paths cut through the jungle and a number of abandoned villages along the way. He saw a drunken White man, who claimed to be looking after the "upkeep" of a road, and the body of a native who was shot in the head. Marlow's one White companion was an overweight man who kept fainting due to the heat. Eventually, he had to be carried in a hammock, and when the hammock skinned his nose and was dropped by the natives, he demanded that Marlow do something to punish them. Marlow did nothing except press onward until they reached the Central Station, where an "excitable chap" informed him that his steamboat was at the bottom of the river; two days earlier, the bottom of the boat had been torn off when some "volunteer skipper" piloted it upriver to have it ready for Marlow's arrival.
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