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Free Study Guide for Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad-BookNotes/Summary
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CHAPTER 1

Summary

This scene begins in the first-person voice of a man on board the cruising yawl, The Nellie, anchored on the Thames River outside of London at sunset. This unnamed narrator names the men on board the boat, the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, and Marlow. The frame narrator is proud of the accomplishments of English explorers such as Sir Francis Drake, whom he calls "the great knights-errant of the sea." He meditates complacently on the glory of imperialism, accomplished by those "bearing the sword, and often the torch." Marlow who looks over at London, regarded by Europeans as the height of civilization, and says, "this also has been one of the dark places of the earth" interrupts his thoughts. This statement serves as a foreshadowing to the evil (darkness) of the imperialism perpetrated on Africa and described in the book by Marlow.

The statement also refers to the title of the book and begins his discussion on the Roman conquest of England. He describes the struggles of the Romans with the weather, disease, savage inhabitants, and death while conquering the British Isles. He also states that the Roman explorers were "men enough to face the darkness." This reference to the early Romans' hardships and conquest in England is parallel to the hardships of the British in Africa. Marlow compares these ancient explorers to the modern European explorers, whom he regards as lesser men. For Marlow the only thing that "redeems" the "robbery" of imperialism is that there is a pure idea behind it.

These meditations prepare Marlow to launch into his story of his trip up the Congo. He describes his childhood fascination with maps and his special interest in the blank places on the maps. Although Africa is no longer a blank space on the map, to him it is still a place of mystery, darkness, and challenge. He is particularly interested in the mighty river (the Congo) that flows through the land. He describes the river as an uncoiled snake. An image that further develops the mood of the story and foreshadows the deadly dangers that Marlow will experience in Africa. In order to experience the Congo or the continent that surrounds it, Marlow must find a job with a trading company operating in Africa. Unable to find such a job on his own, Marlow turns to his aunt, who has contacts with a trading company and who is delighted to help him.

Soon news arrives that the Company wishes to hire Marlow to replace a Danish captain, Fresleven, who has been killed by Africans over a quarrel about two hens. Marlow, as he often does in the novel, interrupts his chronological tale in order to give additional information. This time he reveals how he later finds Fresleven's undisturbed skeleton at the spot where he met his tragic end in the land of darkness.


Marlow crosses over the English Channel to present himself to his new employers and arrives in a city (Brussels) which he describes as "a whited sepulchre" (or sun-bleached tomb from where the ivory trade causes its death and destruction). When he gets to the company offices, two women dressed in black and knitting black skeins of wool (symbolic of a funeral shroud) greet him. He refers to them as "guarding the door of Darkness." Ironically, behind them a map of the world is pictured in bright colors, and Africa appears in the very center of the map in yellow colors and with the Congo snaking through it in mystery and darkness. At the manager's office, a pale, unimpressive man who ironically controls much money and power greets him.

Marlow has a strange feeling after he signs the contract with the manager and passes back into the outer office. There he is, regarded strangely by the knitting women, and the secretary seems to pity him, as if she knows the darkness that awaits him. At the company doctor's office, Marlow's head is measured "in the interests of science," and the doctor advises Marlow that he must remain calm in the tropics above all else. Marlow next visits his aunt who supports the business of the company enthusiastically as if it were purely altruistic. She regards Marlow as "something like an emissary of light" and she talks of the Christian missionary goal of "'weaning those ignorant millions of their horrid ways.'" Marlow believes that his aunt's ignorance about the profit motive of the company arises from women's inability to deal with the reality of the world. Feeling like an impostor, Marlow sets sail for Africa, what he calls the "center of the earth," (which is also appropriately known as the location of hell).

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