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Summary: Each of these stories deals with the "dark side" of the human character. Heart of Darkness is a journey up a Congo river to where an ivory agent, Kurtz, mentally disintegrates into a grotesque creature. The Secret Sharer is about a murderous captain who is tragically alienated from other people.
Heart of Darkness begins on board the Nellie, a small ship moored on the Thames River in London. After describing the river and its slow-moving traffic, the unnamed narrator offers short descriptions of London's history to his companions who, with him, lazily lounge on the deck, waiting for the tide to turn. With him are the Director of Companies (their Captain), a lawyer, an accountant, and Marlow, the novel's protagonist. As the sun sets, the four men become contemplative and brooding; eventually, Marlow breaks the spell of silence by beginning his tale about his voyage to the Congo.
The other men remain silent while Marlow collects his ideas, after which he begins the story proper. The remainder of the novel becomes (with a few exceptions) the narrator's report of what Marlow tells him and the others on board the Nellie. Conrad's novel is thus a frame tale, or story-within-a-story.
As a boy, Marlow was fascinated by maps and yearned to become a seaman or explorer who could visit the most remote parts of the earth. As a young man, Marlow spent approximately six years sailing in the Pacific before returning to London -- where he then saw, in a shop window, a map of Africa and the Congo River. Recalling the news of a Continental trading Company operating in the Congo, Marlow became determined to pilot a steamboat to find adventure in Africa. He asked his aunt, who knew the wife of a Company official to assist him in getting a job as a pilot; she happily complied.
Marlow hurried across the English Channel to sign his contracts at the Company's headquarters in Brussels. Passing through an office with two women who are knitting, Marlow spoke with the Company's director for less than a minute; after being dismissed, he was asked to sign a number of papers in which he promised not to divulge any trade secrets. Marlow finally reached the mouth of the Congo. Finding passage on a little sea-bound steamer to take him where his steamboat awaited him, Marlow spoke with its Swedish captain about the Company and the effects of the jungle on Europeans. The Swede then told Marlow a short yet ominous story about a man he took upriver who hanged himself on the road. Shocked, Marlow asked why, only to be told that perhaps the "sun" or the "country" were too much for him. Eventually, they reached the Company's Outer Station, which amounted to three wooden buildings on the side of a rocky slope. Out of this station was shipped the Company's most important and lucrative commodity: ivory.
Marlow spent the next ten days waiting for the caravan to conduct him to the Central Station (and his steamboat), during which time he saw more of the Accountant. On some days, Marlow would sit in his office, trying to avoid the giant "stabbing" flies. When a stretcher with a sick European was put in the office temporarily, the Accountant became annoyed with his groans, complaining that they distracted him and increased the chances for clerical errors. Noting Marlow's ultimate destination in the interior region of the Congo, the Accountant hinted that Marlow would "no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz," a Company agent in charge of an incredibly lucrative ivory-post deep in the interior. The Accountant described Kurtz as a "first class agent" and "remarkable person" whose station brought in more ivory than all the other stations combined. He asked Marlow to tell Kurtz that everything at the Outer Station was satisfactory and then hinted that Kurtz was being groomed for a high position in the Company's Administration.
The day after this conversation, Marlow left the Outer Station with a caravan of sixty men for a two hundred-mile "tramp" to the Central Station. (The men were native porters who carried the equipment, food and water.) Marlow saw innumerable paths cut through the jungle and a number of abandoned villages along the way. He saw a drunken White man, who claimed to be looking after the "upkeep" of a road, and the body of a native who was shot in the head. Marlow's one White companion was an overweight man who kept fainting due to the heat. Eventually, he had to be carried in a hammock, and when the hammock skinned his nose and was dropped by the natives, he demanded that Marlow do something to punish them. Marlow did nothing except press onward until they reached the Central Station, where an "excitable chap" informed him that his steamboat was at the bottom of the river; two days earlier, the bottom of the boat had been torn off when some "volunteer skipper" piloted it upriver to have it ready for Marlow's arrival.
Marlow was therefore forced to spend time at the Central Station. As he did with the Outer Station, he relates to his audience on the Nellie his impressions of the place. Marlow met a Brickmaker (although Marlow did not see a brick anywhere) who pressed him for information about the Company's activities in Europe. When Marlow confessed to knowing nothing about the secret intrigues of the Company, the Brickmaker assumed he was lying and became annoyed.
At this point, Marlow breaks off his narrative, explaining to the men on the Nellie that he finds it difficult to convey the dream-like quality of his African experiences.
Marlow resumes his tale by continuing the description of his talk with the Brickmaker, who complained to Marlow that he could never find the necessary materials needed to make any bricks. Marlow told of how he needed rivets to repair his steamboat, but none arrived in any of the caravans.
After his conversation with the Brickmaker, Marlow told his mechanic (a boilermaker) that their rivets would be arriving shortly. (Marlow assumed that because the Brickmaker was eager to please him because he assumed Marlow had important friends, he would get him the necessary rivets.) Like the Brickmaker, the mechanic assumed that Marlow had great influence in Europe. However, the rivets did not arrive -- instead, a number of White men riding donkeys (and followed by a number of natives) burst into the Central Station. Marlow learned that these men called themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition and that they had arrived in search of treasure. The Manager's uncle was the leader of the Expedition, and Marlow saw him and his nephew conspiring on many occasions. At times, Marlow would hear Kurtz's name mentioned and become mildly curious, but he felt a strong desire to repair his steamship and begin his job as a pilot.
Heart of Darkness is best known as the story of Marlow's journey to Africa, which, in part, it is. However, the novel is also the story of a man on board a London ship who listens to Marlow's story as well. This "story-within-a-story" form is called a frame tale. (The significance of the framing device is discussed in the Critical Essays section.)
Exploring man's inhumanity toward other men and raising some troubling questions about the impulse toward imperialism, Heart of Darkness is also an adventure story where (such as many others) the young hero embarks on a journey, and in the process, learns about himself. Marlow begins his narrative as a rough-and-ready young man searching for adventure. Unlike those of Europe, the maps of Africa still contained some "blank spaces" that Marlow yearned to explore; his likening the Congo River to a snake suggests the mesmeric powers of Africa. However, the serpent is also a well-known symbol of evil and temptation, harkening back to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Thus, Conrad's comparing the river to a snake also suggests the danger Marlow will find in Africa and the temptations to which Kurtz succumbs when he sets himself up as a god to the natives. Despite the uncertainty of what lay there, Marlow had to go.
However, before Marlow even sets foot on the African shore, Conrad begins to alert the reader to the terrible power of the African jungle. Marlow learns that a piloting position has become open because a chief's son has killed one of the Company's pilots over two black hens. Fresleven, the dead pilot, was thought by all to be "the kindliest, gentlest creature that ever walked on two legs," but Conrad hints that something caused him to shed his self-control (as a snake sheds its skin) and attack the chief of a village. (This something, being the effects of "the jungle" on uninitiated Europeans, becomes more and more pronounced to Marlow and the reader as the novel progresses.) Marlow eventually sees Fresleven's remains on the ground with grass growing up through the bones. The image suggests that Africa itself has won a battle against Fresleven and all he represents. The earth reclaimed him as its own, and Nature has triumphed over civilization. This is the first lesson Marlow learns about the futility of the Company's agents' attempts to remain "civilized" in the jungle, which releases instinctual and primitive drives within them that they did not ever think they possessed.
When Marlow visits Brussels to get his appointment, he describes the city as a "whited sepulcher" -- a Biblical phrase referring to a hypocrite or person who employs a façade of goodness to mask his or her true malignancy. The Company, like its headquarters, is a similar "whited sepulcher," proclaiming its duty to bring "civilization" and "light" to Africa in the name of Christian charity, but really raping the land and its people in the name of profit and the lust for power. Marlow's aunt, who talks to him about "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways" serves as an example of how deeply the Company's propaganda has been ingrained into the minds of Europeans. Uncomfortable with his aunt's ideas, Marlow suggests that the Company is simply "run for profit"; before he sees how these profits are acquired, he is blissfully unaware of the Company's depravity. Marlow dwells in the realm of wishful thinking, wanting to believe that the Company has no imperialistic impulses and is simply an economic enterprise, much like the ones to which he is accustomed as a European.
The first glimpse Marlow and the reader have of the Company's headquarters hints at the organization's sinister, evil, and conspiratorial atmosphere. First, Marlow "slipped through one of the cracks" to enter the building, implying that the Company is figuratively "closed" in terms of what it allows the public to learn about its operations.
Second, the two women knitting black wool suggest the Fates of Greek mythology; like these goddesses, the Company is "knitting" the destiny of the Africans, represented by the black wool. The Company, therefore, plays God with the lives of the Africans, deciding who in the Congo will live or die.
Third, Marlow is led into a dimly lit office -- the lighting reflects the "shady" and ambiguous morals of the Company. He only speaks with the Company's President for forty-five seconds, suggesting that the Company views Marlow -- and people like him -- as expendable.
Fourth, Marlow is asked to sign "some document" that ostensibly contracts him to not reveal "any trade secrets," but figuratively suggests the selling of his soul to the Devil. (As the Manager of the Central Station will later remark about Africa, "Men who come out here should have no entrails.") As the Devil seeks human souls to overthrow God in Heaven eventually, the Company is metaphorically seeking to acquire the souls of as many Europeans as possible to make greater profits.
Fifth, when Marlow is examined by the Company's Doctor, he learns that many Europeans who venture to Africa become mad: When the Doctor begins measuring Marlow's skull, the reader infers Conrad's point that European "science" and "technology" (even with a science as ludicrous as phrenology) are no match for the power if the jungle. When "civilized" Europeans go to Africa, the restraints placed upon them by European society begin to vanish, resulting in the kind of behavior previously seen in Fresleven. Later in the novel, when his anger begins to grow after finding all of his gear damaged by the porters, Marlow ironically remarks, "I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting."
Also worth noting is the abundance of white and dark images in these opening pages of Marlow's narrative. The Congo is described as a "white patch" on a map, Fresleven was killed in a scuffle over two black hens, Brussels is a "whited sepulcher," the two women knit black wool and the old one wears a "starched white affair," the President's secretary has white hair, and the Doctor has black ink-stains on his sleeves. Many critics have commented (sometimes inconclusively) on Conrad's use of white and black imagery; generally, one should note how the combination of white and black images suggests several of the novel's ideas:
The Company claims to be a means by which (as Marlow's aunt calls them), "emissaries of light" can bring civilization to the "darkness" of Africa, which is done by denoting Brussels as white and the Congo as white.
The White men in the novel (particularly Marlow and Kurtz) will be greatly influenced by their experiences with the Africans.
Although the Company professes to be a force of "White" moral righteousness, it is actually "spotted" with "black" spots of sin and inhumanity, and the corpses of the black natives that are found throughout the Congo.
In short, the Company may appear to be "white" and pure, but it is actually quite the opposite, as denoted by the accountant and his white shirt.
Some critics, have claimed that Conrad's use of "darkness" to represent evil suggests the racist assumptions of the novel; others argue that the "white" characters in the book are actually more "black" than the natives they slaughter and that Conrad's imagery stresses the hypocrisy of the Company and its "white" employees. Regardless of this critical dispute, a reader should note that Conrad toys with white and black imagery throughout the course of the novel, and of course, in its very title.
Marlow feels like "an imposter" when he leaves the Company's headquarters, because he has joined the ranks of an outfit whose assumptions about Africa and European activity there sharply contrast with his own. Marlow has no imperialistic impulses and only seeks adventure -- but he is beginning to see the Company for what it truly is. Thus, Marlow's growing perception of the moral decay around him becomes one of the major issues of the novel.
Like the Company headquarters, Africa itself is initially portrayed as an enchanting and intriguing place. The continent is described as unfinished and "still in the making," possessing an air that beguiles Europeans to "Come and find out" if they can survive there.
This portrayal of Africa as an untouched paradise, however, is quickly countered by Marlow's description. He notices a French man-of-war firing its guns into the bush; the "pop" made by its guns highlights the Company's ineffectual attempts to subdue the continent. Similarly, Marlow notices a boiler lying in the grass, an unused railway car resembling "the carcass of some animal," a series of explosions that do nothing to change the rock they are attempting to remove, an "artificial hole" the purpose of which he cannot discern, and a ravine filled with broken drainage pipes. Stunned by these images of chaos, Marlow remarks, "The work was going on. The work!" Clearly, these signs of waste and ineptitude are not what Marlow expected to see upon his arrival; these discarded machines symbolize the complete disregard of the Company for making any real progress in the Congo, as well as the disorganization that marks its day-to-day operations.
Even more disturbing to Marlow is the "grove of death": a shady spot where some of the natives -- like the machinery mentioned previously -- are dying without anyone seeming to notice or care. Calling them "nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation" and "bundles of acute angles," Marlow attempts to show some charity by offering one of them a biscuit; the dying native, however, can only grasp it in his hand, too weak to even bring it to his mouth. Marlow notices that this man has "a bit of white worsted" tied around his neck and puzzles over its meaning, but the reader can see that the wool is symbolic of the Company's "collaring" the natives and treating them like animals. Disturbed Marlow leaves the grove to soothe his shaken mind. Rather than confront the horror head-on, he retreats; later he will not have this luxury.
Marlow moves from the natives to a European: the Company's chief accountant, who suggests the immense amount of money that the Company is making from its campaign of terror and whose dress is impeccable. Again the reader sees the Company's attempts to array itself in colors and façades of purity. Marlow calls the Accountant a "miracle" because of his ability to keep up a dignified European appearance amidst the sweltering and muddy jungle. (He even has a penholder behind his ear.) Completely and willingly oblivious to the horrors around him, the Accountant cares only for figures and his own importance: When a sick agent is temporarily placed in his hut, the Accountant complains. He also tells Marlow, "When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages -- hate them to the death." To the Company, as embodied in the Accountant, profits take precedence over human life and the bottom line is more important than any higher law of humanity.
Marlow's two hundred-mile hike to the Central Station reinforces the Company's lack of organization and brutality. Passing through deserted and razed villages, his perception of the Company becomes sharper. His journey ends at the Central Station, where Marlow spends the remainder of Part 1. Like the Company's European headquarters and the Outer Station, this place reeks of waste, inhumanity, and death. Earlier in the novel, Marlow states that he would, in time, "become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly" -- now, at the Central Station, he remarks, "the first glance of the place was enough to let you see the flabby devil was running that show." No longer the enthusiastic sailor, Marlow grows increasingly suspicious and judgmental of what he sees. The fact that he learns, upon his arrival, that his steamboat is at the bottom of the river only increases his ire and suspicion.
A noteworthy segment of Part 1 concerns Kurtz's painting, which Marlow sees hanging in the Brickmaker's room. The painting depicts a woman, blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. Clearly, this woman reminds one of the usual personification of justice, while the torch suggests the Company bringing the "light" of civilization into the "Dark Continent." (Recall Marlow's aunt and her hope that Marlow will help those "ignorant" savages become more civilized.) The woman in the painting also symbolizes the Company, which willingly blindfolds itself to the horrors it perpetuates in the name of profit; it also recalls the Company's ineptitude and the ways in which it "blindly" stumbles through Africa.
This painting also symbolizes its creator. Like the blindfolded woman, Kurtz once yearned to bring the "light" of civilization and progress to the "dark" continent. (This explains the torch coming out of the darkness.) At the end of his life, however, Kurtz changes his position, most markedly apparent when Marlow reads a handwritten line in one of Kurtz's reports urging, "Exterminate all the brutes!" Thus, according to the painting, Europe puts on a show of bringing "light" -- but this light ultimately reveals a "sinister" appearance, which marks the woman's face. Here, Conrad foreshadows what Kurtz will be like when Marlow meets him: a man who once held high ideals about bringing "justice" and "light" to the Congo, but who became "sinister" once he arrived there.
One of Conrad's personifications of the "flabby" (because it has "devoured" Africa), "pretending" (because it masquerades its avarice in the name of enlightenment), and "weak-eyed" (because it refuses to "see" the effects of its work) Company is the Manager. He has no education, is a "common trader," inspires "neither fear nor love," creates "uneasiness" in all who meet him, and lacks any "genius for organizing." All Marlow is able to conclude is that he "was never ill" and is able to keep the supply of ivory flowing to European ports. Marlow's growing perceptions soon allow him to understand that the Company possesses "not an atom of foresight or of serious intention" and that "To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe."
At this point, Conrad increases the amount of rumors and half-truths that Marlow (and the reader) begins to hear about "the man who is so indissolubly connected" with Marlow's journey: Kurtz. As Heart of Darkness progresses, Conrad's emphasis shifts from Marlow's desire to explore the "snake" of the Congo to his longing to meet this shadowy figure. Kurtz is first mentioned by the Accountant, who calls him "a first-class agent" and "a remarkable person" who "sends in as much ivory as the others put together." The Manager, however, speaks of Kurtz in more ambiguous terms.
In spite of his claims of concern for Kurtz, the Manager is actually sabotaging Kurtz and doing everything in his power to ensure that he will die at the Inner Station. His motive? Professional jealousy. Marlow notices "an air of plotting" at the station and later overhears the Manager speaking to his uncle (the leader of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition), from which he learns the following things:
The Manager, against his will, was forced to send Kurtz to the interior of the jungle: "Am I the Manager -- or am I not?" he asks.
Kurtz asked the administration to send him there with the idea of "showing what he could do."
The Manager fears that Kurtz "has the council by the nose" and has requested a position in the interior because he wants the Manager's job: "Conceive you -- that ass! And he wants to be Manager!"
Thus, the Manager is nervous when talking to Marlow because he does not know who Marlow really is or if he has any powerful connections in Europe. When he replies, "That ought to do the affair," he means that three months without any relief should be long enough to ensure Kurtz's death. "Trust to this," his uncle says as he gestures to the jungle, and this is just what the Manager is doing: "Trusting" that (as his uncle also says) "the climate may do away with this difficulty" for him. Only later does Marlow realize that the Manager was responsible for his steamboat's "accident": He could not get any rivets because the Manager made sure that their delivery to Marlow was delayed as long as possible without arousing Marlow's suspicions. (When Marlow's steamboat gets close to Kurtz in Part 2, the Manager tells Marlow to wait until the next morning before pressing on, to delay their arrival even more than he already has.) Even as Marlow felt he was being entered into a giant conspiracy upon accepting his post in Europe, he has unwittingly stumbled upon one in the Congo.
The brickmaker who tries to wrangle information out of Marlow about Kurtz adds to the conspiratorial air of the Central Station. From his conversation with Marlow, the reader learns that Kurtz has disrupted the brickmaker's plans to become assistant-manager. The brickmaker also reflects the Company's disorganization, for he makes no bricks at all; he also reflects the Company's avarice, for he wants to advance in rank without completing any actual work.
While the plot concerning Marlow's steamboat and rivets adds to Conrad's overall air of conspiracy, it also metaphorically enriches the novel as a whole. Rivets hold things together, and Conrad uses the rivets as symbols of the ways in which the Company, the Manager, Marlow, Kurtz, and Kurtz's fiancée (his Intended) attempt to "hold together" their beliefs and ideas. These ideological "rivets" are seen in numerous ways. For example, the Company wants to keep its operations running without criticism, inquiry or restraint; Marlow wants to believe his own naïve ideas about Africa; Kurtz wants to remain king of his private empire and disregard his "civilized" self; and the Intended wants to believe that Kurtz was a great man with a "generous mind" and "noble heart." Each character has his or her own "rivet," from the Company's implied belief that it is "civilizing" the Africans to the Intended's acceptance of Marlow's lie about Kurtz. Heart of Darkness is an oftentimes disturbing book because Conrad's suggestion that all of these "rivets" are simply lies -- ideas, beliefs and assumptions used to excuse shameless profiteering (as with the Company) or sustain a false image of a loved one (as with the Intended). Only Marlow and Kurtz see that these metaphorical "rivets" are faulty: Marlow when he witnesses firsthand the atrocities perpetuated by the Company and Kurtz when he whispers, "The horror! The horror!" on his deathbed. Marlow's naïve belief that the Company was run only for profit and Kurtz's belief that he could escape his own "civilized" morality are both shown to be "rivets" that simply could not hold.
The final symbol in Part 1 is the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, run by the Manager's uncle. This fictional expedition is based on an actual one: The Katanga Expedition (1890-92). The fact that the Manager's uncle leads the expedition suggests that it is another example of White traders scrambling for riches in the Congo. Marlow dismisses them as "buccaneers" who do not even make a pretense of coming to Africa for anything other than treasure.
(Here and in the following sections, difficult words and phrases, as well as allusions and historical references, are explained.)
Cruising yawl a small, two-masted sailing vessel.
Gravesend a seaport on the Thames River in southwest England.
the greatest town on earth London.
Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-96) English admiral and buccaneer: 1st Englishman to sail around the world.
Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) English Arctic explorer.
the Golden Hind a ship sailed by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-96) during the reign of Elizabeth I.
the Erebus and Terror In 1845, the English Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin led a voyage in the ships Erebus and Terror in search of the Northwest Passage; the ships were stuck in ice from April 1846 to September 1848.
They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith Deptford, Greenwich, and Erith are three ports between London and Gravesend.
men on 'Change Men working in a place where merchants meet to do business; exchange.
trireme an ancient Greek or Roman galley, usually a warship, with three banks of oars on each side.
Gauls the Celtic-speaking people dwelling in the ancient region of Western Europe consisting of what is now mainly France & Belgium: after 5th century B.C.
Falerian wine wine made in a district of Campania, Italy.
a mighty big river the Congo River in Africa.
Fleet Street an old street in central London, where several newspaper and printing offices are located; the term "Fleet Street" has come to refer to the London press.
whited sepulchre in the Bible, a phrase used to describe a hypocrite. The relevant allusion in Matthew is "beautiful to look at on the outside, but inside full of filth and dead men's bones." Brussels. The hypocrisy alluded to is that King Leopold's brutal colonial empire was run from this beautiful, seemingly civilized, city.
Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Literally, "Hail! Those who are about to die salute you"; a salute of the gladiators in ancient Rome to whomever was hosting their tournaments. Here, Marlow is ironically comparing the knitters to Roman emperors.
Plato (c. 427- c.347 B.C.) Greek philosopher.
alienist an old term for a psychiatrist.
Du calme, du calme. Adieu. French: "Stay calm, stay calm. Goodbye."
Zanzibaris natives of Zanzibar, an island off the E coast of Africa: 640 sq. mi. (1,657 sq. km).
sixteen stone 224 pounds; a stone is a British unit of weight equal to 14 pounds (6.36 kilograms).
assegais slender spears or javelins with iron tips, used in southern Africa.
serviette a table napkin.
Ichthyosaurus a prehistoric reptile with four paddle-like flippers.
Life and Background of the Author.
Introduction to the Novel.
Introduction to the Story.
CliffsNotes Resource Center.
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