Literature Study GuidesHeart Of DarknessPart 1 At The Central Station Summary

Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Part 1: At The Central Station

Kristen Over, Associate Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Part 1: At The Central Station of Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness.

Heart of Darkness | Part 1 (At the Central Station) | Summary



Marlow makes a 200-mile (500-kilometer) trek to the Central Station with one white man and almost 60 African men. He is lonely and bored on a journey that takes 15 days. When the crew hobbles into the Central Station, Marlow learns that the paddle-wheeled steamboat he is meant to pilot to the Inner Station is lying at the bottom of the river. The station manager tells Marlow that two days earlier he had left to go to the stations upriver with a volunteer skipper in command of the boat but they had run over stones in the riverbed that tore holes in the boat's hull.

Marlow meets with the general manager of the Central Station—a man who inspires uneasiness. The manager is agitated about the situation at the Inner Station, although he echoes the accountant's assessment of Kurtz, calling him "an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the Company."

A fire burns up a grass shed. Marlow sees one of the pilgrims, or Company agents, taking a small bucket to bring water to put out the fire. He only adds a quart of water, though, and Marlow notices that the bucket has a hole in it. An African man is accused of setting the fire and is beaten severely. Marlow hears his moans during the night.

Over his months at the Central Station awaiting the repair of the steamer, Marlow comes to view the Company employees as foolish and life there as absurd. One man is supposedly in charge of a small group of pilgrims whose job is to make bricks, but there are no brickmaking materials, so no work is done. The Company employees show no interest in work but only jealousy. There is backbiting and bickering.

Marlow has a long conversation with the brickmaker, whom he dislikes. In that man's quarters, Marlow sees a curious painting the brickmaker said Kurtz did. Marlow is at first annoyed when the brickmaker prods him for information, but he eventually realizes the brickmaker thinks that Marlow has connections to top officers of the Company. The brickmaker thinks that Kurtz and Marlow represent "the gang of virtue"—people who believe the Company propaganda. Because the brickmaker believes that Kurtz will rise higher in the organization if Kurtz is left in charge of the Inner Station, he tries to ingratiate himself to Marlow. When Marlow asks the brickmaker about Kurtz, the brickmaker gives a glowing report: "He is a prodigy," the brickmaker explains, "an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil know what else."

Marlow waits for rivets he can use to attach new steel plates to the hull of the steamer to repair it. One night he climbs onboard the steamer and meets one of the Africans, the foreman of a work crew. Marlow tells the man that they will have the rivets soon, and the two of them dance on the boat's deck. As time passes white men in fresh clothes arrive, followed by a team of black men carrying tents, camp stools, and other supplies for a journey. The group is called the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, and the station manager's uncle heads up the team. They say they have come "to tear treasure out of the bowels of the land."


This section reveals the themes of hypocrisy and indifference in the details Marlow relates:

  • The brickmakers have no materials they need to build bricks.
  • One of the pilgrims fills a pail that has a hole in the bottom with only a quart of water to douse the flames.
  • Though Marlow makes many requests for rivets from the Outer Station, which has plenty of them, and many deliveries of trade goods are received from the Outer Station, the rivets are never delivered.

The term pilgrim is another example of verbal irony. Marlow uses the term to refer to the Company agents because they carry staffs, as Christian pilgrims did in the Middle Ages. While the name and the staffs suggest holiness, they actually underscore the hypocrisy of these men, who claim to have come as noble travelers but actually want to pillage the land. Their presence is "as unreal as everything else," Marlow says, as unreal as "the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern." The themes of hypocrisy and indifference also come out in Marlow's conversations with the brickmaker, after which he tells his listeners on the Thames how much he hates lies: "There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies," he concludes. This is a text in which language itself is corrupted, paralleling the corrupt practices recounted in the narrative.

The brutality of imperialism is underscored by the treatment of the African man accused of burning the hut. There is no semblance of a trial or any attempt to determine if he really was responsible. He is believed to be responsible, and that is enough to warrant punishment. That punishment is harsh and continues for some time. The words of one of the Company agents captures the imperialist mentality: "Transgression—punishment—bang!" They must be "pitiless," he says, making an example of the man to prevent any such rebellion in the future. The reputed forces of civilization, it seems, have no use for seeking truth or dispensing real justice. They only wish to maintain order and command obedience.

The theme of civilization versus barbarism appears in this chapter in Kurtz's painting, hanging in the brickmaker's quarters. The painting shows a woman "draped and blindfolded" carrying a bright torch. Its background is "sombre—almost black." The painting seems to visually represent the civilizing mission. The woman, blindfolded (as the figure of justice is often depicted), carries a torch; light is usually associated with knowledge, learning, and civilization. The dark background represents the barbarism this civilizing mission is meant to combat. The painting has an unsettling detail though. The torchlight makes the woman's face look "sinister," or evil and malevolent. Near the end of the book, Marlow says he had thought Kurtz might be "a painter who wrote for the papers, or ... a journalist who could paint." This assessment suggests the painting was skillfully done, and the sinister expression was not due to inability to execute an intention. Perhaps it reflects Kurtz's ambivalence about the civilizing mission.

Corruption and greed are rampant as well. The pilgrims have no interest in doing any work, only in being sent to a trading post "so that they could earn percentages." The brickmaker tries to befriend Marlow in hopes of advancing; at the same time, he is the station manager's spy and all the other Company agents avoid him. Marlow concludes that the steamer might have been intentionally damaged and repairs intentionally delayed to postpone his trip to the Inner Station. While the station manager speaks at first about Kurtz and other station agents being ill and the need to get the steamer repaired so that Marlow can reach them and assist them, he does nothing to obtain the needed rivets or hurry those repairs. He seems to hope that in the delay Kurtz will either die or become incapacitated and therefore no longer be a threat to the manager's position with the Company.

Marlow becomes so disgusted with them all that he falls into corruption himself, though in a minor way, comparatively speaking. He allows himself to lie, even though he detests lying, by letting the brickmaker think he is an associate of Kurtz's. He develops sympathy for Kurtz becasue he is so appalled by the brickmaker. Relating this development leads to an aside and a pause in the story, in which Marlow reflects on the inadequacy of storytelling: "It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream," he says, which is a "vain attempt," because no retelling can "convey the dream-sensation." Nevertheless, he resumes the story. He is compelled to relate it, perhaps because he himself is still wrestling with what the story means.

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