HomeLiterature Study GuidesHeart Of DarknessPart 1 Framing The Story Summary

Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Part 1 (Framing the Story) | Summary

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Conrad divided Heart of Darkness into three parts. This study guide breaks down those parts further by location and plot points for close summary and analysis.

Summary

As Heart of Darkness opens, five friends sit on a yacht, waiting for the tide to change on England's Thames River so they can head out to sea. It is 1891, and European colonization of the African continent is at its height. The five friends are the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, Charlie Marlow (a seaman and an adventurer), and an unnamed narrator of the story, whose words begin and end the novella and thus frame Marlow's tale. The friends are used to telling stories to one another.

Marlow, the best yarn spinner of the group, begins his story by saying, "And this also ... has been one of the dark places of the earth," and then discusses the attitudes of the Romans who conquered Britain in ancient times. At the end of the section, he begins to tell his tale. He speaks of a time some years before when he once turned "freshwater sailor" and begins what the narrator calls one of "Marlow's inconclusive experiences." Marlow talks of being frustrated over not having a ship and then seeing a map in a shop window and remembering a place he wanted to explore as a child. He had been drawn to a particular "inviting" blank place on the map. Although much of that "blank space of delightful mystery" had since been filled in by explorers, leaving the area "a place of darkness," there is a river, one that resembles "an immense snake uncoiled," that remains mysterious. He recalls that there's a trading company with business on the river and resolves to seek employment with the Company.

Analysis

Marlow contrasts the darkness of ancient Britain with the present, saying, "Light came out of this river since," but adds that this light, which is civilization, is like "lightning in the clouds." In commenting, "We live in the flicker ... darkness was here yesterday," he suggests that the darkness is not so distant and that the brief flash of illumination or enlightenment may not last. This passage both connects modern humans to the ancient darkness and foreshadows the triumph of darkness over the so-called civilized Europeans at the end of the narrative.

As Marlow speaks about why the Romans felt it was acceptable to plunder England, a people they considered savage, he foreshadows the way in which the Company does the same in Africa. He says that the ancient Romans were "conquerors" and that for conquest all that is required is "brute force." Modern Europeans, in contrast, have a "devotion to efficiency." This suggests that their conquest is more thorough than the Roman one, introducing the idea of the exploitation of Africa and its people. Modern imperialists, arrogant in their power, believe they have a better life to offer the "savage" peoples of Africa, although King Leopold's version of colonization is particularly barbarous.

The first section also introduces the darkness of Africa when Marlow speaks of the unnamed river. Its mystery attracted him as a child and lures him at this time as well. He compares the course of the river to a snake, which "charmed" Marlow and convinced him to seek a job with the Company. The snake and associated images foreshadow evil and danger. The snake recalls Satan, who took the appearance of a serpent when tempting Eve in the story of the fall of humankind recounted in Genesis. Marlow also said that the river "fascinated me as a snake would a bird," adding, "silly bird," because some snakes are dangerous to birds. The metaphor is a warning about succumbing to the heart of darkness and being swallowed, as happens to Kurtz. Finally, in saying that the snake-like river "charmed" him, he reverses the dynamic of the popular figure of the snake charmer. Here, human is not in control of nature, but vice versa.

The narrator says that Marlow is not a typical storyteller. When he spins a yarn, he envelops it "as a glow brings out a haze." He means the tale is not straightforward; its meaning will be hazy, and different listeners may interpret it in different ways. The "glow" and the earlier image of lightning also suggest a kind of understanding that is not easily articulated. The narrator also wryly calls Marlow's story "inconclusive," and yet he relates it, suggesting there is meaning to it. Readers must construct meaning from Marlow's tale on their own.

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