Heart of Darkness Part 1: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

This lesson provides an overview of the first part of Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness. In the first section of this story we meet its main characters and become familiar with its major plot elements.

Heart of Darkness

Narrative Structure

The story told in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness comes to us through a couple of different filters. The story belongs to steamboat captain Charles Marlow, but what we receive is the story as it is remembered and retold by the nameless narrator, who heard Marlow tell his story in the presence of a bunch of sailors aboard a ship called the Nellie as it waited at the mouth of the Thames.

This story within a story format puts more degrees of separation between us and the actual facts of the story. Is the narrator remembering Marlow's story correctly? Is Marlow remembering his own story with accuracy? Has Marlow embellished or left out parts of his story? Does the narrator change things (intentionally or otherwise) because of his own opinions? These are important questions to keep in mind while reading this novella.

This lesson will summarize the first of the three parts to the book.

One of the Darkest Places

As our narrator and his companions are loafing on the Nellie as it rests at the mouth of the Thames, Marlowe speaks suddenly saying, ''And this also...has been one of the dark places of the earth.'' Even London, he asserts, was once a wild, unexplored place of darkness. The Romans invaded, subjugated the native people, and 'civilized' it.

From this image, Marlowe moves on to speak of when he was a steamboat captain in Africa, which serves to link the two places. He furthers the comparison by saying that conquest consists largely of ''taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.''


The story Marlow tells provides a critique of British imperialism. While the British at the time would like to have seen their world dominance as evidence of their God-given superiority, Marlow more accurately describes it thus: ''your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.''

He goes on to say that the imperialists ''grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale.'' This opening helps us to better realize and understand the vast differences between the imperialist Westerners and the native Africans, the exploitation, and the mistreatment which is rampant within this story.

Marlow's New Job

When we first meet Marlowe, he is an old sailor with ''sunken cheeks'' and ''a yellow complexion.'' He is middle aged and has been through a lot in life. The story he tells, however, begins when he is young and idealistic.

He tells of how he looked at a map of Africa and thought what a grand adventure it would be to explore all the blank space in the middle. He sets about pestering friends and relations to find a job that would send him to Africa.

Finally, an aunt of his sets him up as the skipper of a river steamboat. He takes the job in an instant, and two days later he travels to meet his new employer, who is only ever referred to as 'the Company.' He tells us ''they were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade.'' Later, we learn a little more about what exactly is meant by 'trade'.

Marlow Meets Africa

Young Marlow's arrival in Africa is a little jarring for him. He is confronted all at once by a different climate, new people, and some of the ugly realities of imperialism. He sees troops of Africans chained together, forced to march carrying heavy loads. ''I could see every rib,'' Marlow tells us.

Everywhere, he sees Africans being enslaved and mistreated, ''others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.'' In contrast to this, Marlow also meets ''the Company's chief accountant.'' This man appears ''in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision.''

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