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Conrad divided Heart of Darkness into three longish chapters. To make discussion easier, they can be subdivided as follows:
• CHAPTER I
1. Prologue: Marlow Begins His Tale.
• CHAPTER II
1. The Manager and His Uncle.
• CHAPTER III
1. The Russian's Story.
BE SURE TO REMEMBER that these subdivisions aren't Conrad's. They are used in this guide only to make the novel easier to analyze and discuss.
Quotations cited can usually be found in the subdivision being discussed. When a quotation is from a subdivision other than the one under discussion, it will be identified this way: "(III, 5)", meaning Chapter III, subdivision 5- the subdivision titled "Marlow's Illness and Return."
PROLOGUE: MARLOW BEGINS HIS TALE
Five Englishmen are enjoying themselves one pleasant afternoon aboard a sailboat close to the mouth of the Thames River outside London. Since there isn't much wind, they're stranded when the tide turns ("The flood had made"); all they can do is drop anchor and wait several hours until the tide shifts again. The men on board are our nameless narrator; a weathered sailor by the name of Marlow; and three typical representatives of Victorian professional society: a lawyer, an accountant, and a director of companies (who owns the boat).
Sunset: the light on the Thames is brilliant. Our narrator patriotically recalls the great British sailors, from the 16th-century Sir Francis Drake to the 19th-century Sir John Franklin, who navigated this river in times past. His thoughts are full of satisfaction and nationalistic smugness: these heroes, he reflects, are "bearers of a spark from the sacred fire" of English civilization.
The narrator exhibits an optimism that was typical of the Victorians:
he thinks civilization (particularly British civilization) is going to
make the world better and better. It was widely believed in the 19th century
that scientific and technological progress would eventually turn the world
into a paradise. We can sense something of this attitude in our narrator's
enthusiastic tone, and it's probable that his three professional companions
share his viewpoint. We never learn much about these men individually,
but Conrad may have chosen them to represent the Victorian bourgeoisie-that
optimistic class to whom Marlow's warning tale will be largely addressed.
These people believed smugly that enlightenment would overcome backwardness;
in terms of images, that light (as in "enlightenment") was bound
to conquer the darkness of ignorance and superstition.
Notice how our primary narrator's descriptions sparkle with images of light: he believes, too confidently, in the forces of progress. The cautionary tale he's about to hear about a journey into the "heart of darkness" is going to dampen some of this easy confidence.
Be sure to pay particular attention at this point to the images of light on the river, because they'll form an important contrast to the book's closing images of darkness. In fact, this contrast will make up the most pervasive image pattern in the novel. You should keep an eye out for the way Conrad uses light and dark, or white and black, for much of the novel's meaning can be deduced from these image patterns.
The men are sitting in silence when, out of the blue, Marlow observes that the very civilized land around them was once a primitive wilderness, "one of the dark places of the earth." He imagines how ominously ancient England must have struck its Roman conquerors. The savage land must have seemed horrible to any civilized Roman commander. Marlow describes the way the "fascination of the abomination" of a place like that might go to work unhinging the mind of such a man. Although Marlow seems to be rambling, Conrad is actually foreshadowing what is going to happen later in the book. The tale Marlow tells will concern a modern-day colonizer, Mr. Kurtz, who succumbs to "the fascination of the abomination" in the wilderness of Africa. The phrase is only vaguely ominous now, but its meaning will grow clearer as Marlow develops his tale.
Nevertheless, Marlow continues, there wasn't much to admire in these Roman conquerors. They were really just glorified robbers out to get whatever they could grab. In fact, the conquest of the earth is an ugly thing-greed carried out on a large scale. But, he adds, it can be redeemed by a "devotion to efficiency" and by an idea-the idea of progress. Conquest for plunder is one thing, but conquest for the purpose of civilizing the world is something else entirely.
Again, through this seemingly casual monologue Conrad is introducing another major theme: the brutality of colonization. But observe that as scathing as Marlow is about brute conquest, he makes an exception for those conquerors who spread progress and enlightenment around the globe, which was exactly how the British saw themselves.
Conrad probably put these positive sentiments about colonization into Marlow's mouth in order to pacify his British audience. Britain at that time, after all, was one of the great imperial powers, and British readers wouldn't have taken kindly to an out-and-out attack on the morality of colonization.
Marlow's reflections remind him of an incident in his own past, and the narrator realizes that he's about to launch into a tale.