HomeLiterature Study GuidesHeart Of DarknessPart 1 Marlow Seeks A Position Summary

Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Part 1 (Marlow Seeks a Position) | Summary

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Summary

Marlow travels to the continent to seek a job with the Company. His aunt knows someone who works for the Company and is able to introduce him.

Marlow applies for a position made vacant when a captain named Fresleven is killed by the native people. In a flash forward (a narrative technique in which the story skips ahead before coming back to the present), Marlow tells how he later encounters the corpse of the man in the jungle, unburied but surrounded by grass high enough to hide his bones. Marlow arrives at the Company offices and finds two women knitting with black wool and looking at him with downcast eyes. He is ushered into a room, signs some papers, and is examined by a doctor. The doctor asks whether there is any madness in Marlow's family and tells him that it would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes that take place in people "out there."

Marlow goes to say good-bye to his aunt before taking his job as a pilot on a steamer. His aunt relishes the idea that the Company is there to, as she sees it, wean the savages from their horrid ways. This assessment makes Marlow uncomfortable because he knows that the Company is there to make a profit, not civilize the population.

Analysis

Conrad's text does not name the the city of these early scenes, but most scholars consider the city to be Brussels, Belgium. He also does not explicitly identify the Congo River, though it is widely accepted to be the location of the Company's trading stations. By not naming the exact locations in the novella, Conrad implies that this story of depravity, theft, and barbarism could take place at any time and in any place. It is a universal story of condemnation and serves as a cautionary tale. Evil has the potential to arise in the hearts of humans everywhere.

He refers to it as the "sepulchral city" and says it looks to him like a "whited sepulchre." With these comments, Conrad makes reference to the Gospel of Matthew 23:27, in which Jesus compares the Jewish Pharisees to "whitewashed tombs" that look beautiful "on the outside" but hold the "bones of the dead." In that passage Jesus charged the Pharisees with being hypocrites, more interested in collecting taxes than in upholding God's law. Brussels, a city of commerce, is thus a city of hypocrites, guided by imperialist greed and its accompanying abuses rather than by the proclaimed civilizing mission. This point is underscored by Marlow's last conversation with his aunt. She is thrilled that he is about to join the Company and promote what she sees as its glorious civilizing mission. Marlow counters that the Company cares only about making profits. Should there be any uncertainty as to which view is correct, he reflects on how "out of touch with truth women are." This comment, albeit sexist, destroys any inclination to accept the aunt's view.

The white city is further associated with a tomb and with death in the image of the two women knitting funeral shrouds in the Company offices. The whiteness of the "whited sepulchre" serves as a false veneer covering the darkness inside. The concept of whiteness covering darkness may also suggest that skin color is of little consequence in an ethical world.

Further foreshadowing takes places when the secretary in the office is "full of desolation and sympathy." Marlow also runs into a Company employee with whom he shares a drink. This man "glorified the Company's business," but when Marlow asks why he himself does not make the journey to Africa, the man says, "I am not such a fool as I look." The Company's business may be glorious, but let someone else do it. The doctor who tells Marlow it would be interesting to watch mental changes "on the spot" warns Marlow, and the reader, that something momentous could happen "out there." His comment that the Europeans who go to Africa change on the "inside," in their minds, foreshadows the madness that overtakes Kurtz.

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