Heart of Darkness begins on the deck of the Nellie, a British ship anchored on the coast of the Thames. The anonymous narrator, the Director of Companies, the Accountant, and Marlow sit in silence. Marlow begins telling the three men about a time he journeyed in a steamboat up the Congo River. For the rest of the novel (with only minor interruptions), Marlow narrates his tale.
As a young man, Marlow desires to visit Africa and pilot a steamboat on the Congo River. After learning of the Company — a large ivory-trading firm working out of the Congo — Marlow applies for and receives a post. He leaves Europe in a French steamer.
At the Company's Outer Station in the Congo, Marlow witnesses scenes of brutality, chaos, and waste. Marlow speaks with an Accountant, whose spotless dress and uptight demeanor fascinate him. Marlow first learns from the Accountant of Kurtz — a "remarkable" agent working in the interior. Marlow leaves the Outer Station on a 200-mile trek across Africa, and eventually reaches the Company's Central Station, where he learns that the steamboat he is supposed to pilot up the Congo was wrecked at the bottom of the river. Frustrated, Marlow learns that he has to wait at the Central Station until his boat is repaired.
Marlow then meets the Company's Manager, who told him more about Kurtz. According to the Manager, Kurtz is supposedly ill, and the Manager feigns great concern over Kurtz's health — although Marlow later suspects that the Manager wrecked his steamboat on purpose to keep supplies from getting to Kurtz. Marlow also meets the Brickmaker, a man whose position seems unnecessary, because he doesn't have all the materials for making bricks. After three weeks, a band of traders called The Eldorado Exploring Expedition — led by the Manager's uncle — arrives.
One night, as Marlow is lying on the deck of his salvaged steamboat, he overhears the Manager and his uncle talk about Kurtz. Marlow concludes that the Manager fears that Kurtz is trying to steal his job. His uncle, however, told him to have faith in the power of the jungle to "do away" with Kurtz.
Marlow's boat is finally repaired, and he leaves the Central Station (accompanied by the Manager, some agents, and a crew of cannibals) to bring relief to Kurtz. Approximately fifty miles below Kurtz's Inner Station, they find a hut of reeds, a woodpile and an English book titled An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship.
As it crept toward Kurtz, Marlow's steamboat is attacked by a shower of arrows. The Whites fire rifles into the jungle while Marlow tries to navigate the boat. A native helmsman is killed by a large spear and thrown overboard. Assuming that the same natives who are attacking them have already attacked the Inner Station, Marlow feels disappointed now that he will never get the chance to speak to Kurtz.
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