A ship called the Nellie is cruising down the Thames--it will rest there as it awaits a change in tide. The narrator is an unidentified guest aboard the ship. He describes at length the appearance of the Thames as an interminable waterway, and then he describes the inhabitants of the ship. The Director of Companies doubles as Captain and host. They all regard him with affection, trust, and respect. The Lawyer is advanced in years and possesses many virtues. The Accountant is toying with dominoes, trying to begin a game. They already share the "bond of the sea." They are tolerant of one another.
Then there is Marlow. He has an emaciated appearance--sunken cheeks and a yellow complexion. The ship drops anchor, but nobody wants to begin the dominoes game. They sit meditatively at the sun, and the narrator takes great notice of how the water changes as the sun sets. Marlow suddenly speaks, noting that "this also has been one of the dark places of the earth." He is a man who does not represent his class: he is a seaman but also a wanderer, which is disdainful and odd, since most seamen live sedentary lives aboard the ship that is their home. No one responds to the remark, and Marlow continues to talk of olden times when the Romans arrived and brought light, which even now is constantly flickering. He says those people were not colonists but conquerors, taking everything by brute force. This "taking of the earth is not a pretty thing" when examined too closely; it is the idea behind it which people find redeeming. Then, to the dismay of his bored listeners, he switches into narration of a life experience: how he decided to be a fresh water sailor after coming into contact with colonization.
As a child, Marlow had a passion for maps, and he would lose himself in the blank spaces, which gradually turned into dark ones as they became peopled. He was especially taken with the picture of a long, coiling river. In his tale, after a number of voyages in the Orient and India, Marlow hopes to get charge of the steamboats that must go up and down that river for trade. Marlow looks for a ship, but he has hard luck finding a position. His aunt has connections in the Administration and writes to have him appointed a steamboat skipper. The appointment comes through very quickly, and Marlow is to take the place of Fresleven, a captain who was killed in a scuffle with the natives. He crosses the Channel to sign the contract with his employers.
Their office appears to him like a white sepulcher; the reception area is dimly lit. Two women sullenly man the area. Marlow notes an unfinished map, and he sees that he is going into the yellow section, the central area that holds the river. He signs but feels very uneasy as the women look at him meaningfully. Then there is a visit to the doctor. Marlow questions why he is not with the Company on its business. The doctor becomes cool and says he is no fool. Changes take place out there. He asks his patient whether there is madness in the family. With a clean bill of health and a long goodbye chat with his aunt, Marlow sets out on a French steamer, feeling like an "impostor."
Watching the coast as it slips by, the new skipper marvels at its enigmatic quality--it tempts and invites the seer to come ashore, but in a grim way. The weather is fierce, for the sun beats down strongly. The ship picks up others along the way, mainly soldiers and clerks. The trade names they pass on ships and on land seem almost farcical. There is a uniformly somber atmosphere. After a month, Marlow arrives at the mouth of the big river and takes his passage on a little steamer. Once aboard he learns that a man picked up the other day hanged himself recently.
He is taken to his Company's station. He walks through pieces of "decaying machinery" and observes a stream of black people walking slowly, very thin and indifferent. One of the "reclaimed" carries a rifle at "its middle." Marlow walks around to avoid this chain gang and finds a shade to rest. He sees more black people working, some who look like they are dying. One young man looks particularly hungry, and Marlow offers him the ship biscuit in his pocket. He notices that the boy is wearing white worsted around his neck, and he wonders what this is for. Marlow hastily makes his way towards the station. He meets a white man dressed elegantly and in perfect fashion. He is "amazing" and a "miracle." After learning that he is the Chief Accountant of the Company, Marlow respects him. The station is a muddle of activity.
The new skipper waits there for ten days, living in a hut. Frequently he visits the accountant, who tells him that he will meet Mr. Kurtz, a remarkable man in charge of the trading post in the ivory country. The Accountant is irritated that a bed station for a dying man has been set up in his office. He remarks that he begins to "hate the savages to death." He asks Marlow to tell Kurtz that everything is satisfactory.
The next day Marlow begins a 200 mile tramp into the interior. He crosses many paths, many deserted dwellings, and mysterious black men. His white companion becomes ill on the journey, which makes Marlow impatient but attentive. Finally they arrive at the Central Station, and Marlow must see the General Manager. The meeting is strange. The Manager has a stealthy smile. He is obeyed, but he does not inspire love or fear. He only inspires uneasiness. The trading had begun without Marlow, who was late. There were rumors that an important station was in jeopardy and that its chief, Kurtz, was ill. A shipwreck on Marlow's boat has set them back.
The manager is anxious and says it will be three months before they can make a full start in the trading. Marlow begins work in the station. Whispers of "ivory" punctuate the air throughout the days. One evening a shed almost burns down. A black man is beaten for this, and Marlow overhears: "Kurtz take advantage of this incident." The manager's main spy, a first-class agent, befriends the new skipper and begins to question him extensively about Europe and the people he knows there. Marlow is confused about what this man hopes to learn. The agent becomes "furiously annoyed."
There is a dark sketch on his wall of a woman blindfolded and carrying a lighted torch. The agent says that Kurtz painted it. Upon Marlow's inquiry about who this man is, he says that he is a prodigy, an "emissary of pity and science." They want Europe to entrust the guidance of the cause to them. The agent talks precipitately, wanting Marlow to give Kurtz a favorable report about his disposition because he believes Marlow has more influence in Europe than he actually does.
The narrator breaks off for an instant and returns to his listeners on the ship, saying that they should be able to see more in retrospect than he could in the moment. Back in the story, he is bored by the droning of the agent. Marlow wants rivets to stop the hole and get on with the work on his ship. He clambers aboard. The ship is the one thing that truly excites him. He notes the foreman of the mechanics sitting onboard. They cavort and talk happily of rivets that should arrive in three weeks. Instead of rivets, however, they receive an "invasion" of "sulky" black men with their white expedition leader, who is the Manager's uncle. Marlow meditates for a bit on Kurtz, wondering if he will be promoted to General Manger and how he will set about his work when there.
A logical way to begin analyzing the tale is by applying the title to the novel. "Darkness" is a problematic word with several meanings. It is initially mentioned in the context of maps, where places of darkness have been colored in once they have been explored and settled by colonists. The map is an important symbol. It is a guide, a record of exploration. The incomplete map has a dual purpose in that maps unlock mysteries, on the one hand, by laying out the geography of unknown lands for new visitors, and on the other hand, by creating new mystery and inspiring new curiosity about the lands listed as unknown, in addition to new questions about what is only partly known. The river is another important symbol, perhaps our first symbol of the “heart,” which is itself a symbol of the human spirit. Always moving, not very predictable, the gateway to a wider world, it is an excellent metaphor for Marlow's trajectory. Marlow says that as a child he had a "passion" for maps, for the "glories of exploration." Although this description seems positive, it also sounds ominous. Marlow's tone is of one who recalls childhood notions with bitterness and regret.
The cause of this regret is evident in the first description of Marlow. His sallow skin and sunken cheeks do not portray him as healthy or happy. He has had the chance to explore, but apparently the experience has ruined him. This is Conrad's way of arranging the overall structure of the novella. The audience understands that this is to be a recollection, a tale that will account for Marlow's presently shaky, impenetrable state. The author is also presupposing knowledge of colonialism. The bitterness of Marlow's recollection suggests Conrad's strong bias against colonialism, which he seems to be imparting to the reader by expressing Marlow’s difficulties.
The imagery of light and dark clearly corresponds to the tension already evident between civilization and savagery. The Thames River is called a "gateway to civilization" because it leads to and from the civilized city of London. It is important to note that the city is always described in stark contrast with its dark surroundings, which are so amorphous as to be either water or land.
The vivid language of maps becomes more interesting when we consider that the word “darkness” retains its traditional meaning of evil and dread. The fact that Marlow applies the concept of darkness to conquered territories may indicate Conrad’s negative view of colonialism. We read clearly that colonists are only exploiting the weakness of others. Their spreading over the world is no nobler than violence and thievery. On the map, places that are blank and devoid of outside interference are apparently the most desirable for certain people.
Darkness has another meaning that retains deep resonance—a color of skin. Much of this chapter describes Marlow's first encounters with and observations of the natives of the African Congo. The darkness of their skin is always mentioned. At first glance, Marlow describes them as "mostly black and naked, moving about like ants." While in the shade, "dark things" seem to stir feebly. There is absolutely no differentiation between dark animals and dark people. Even the rags worn by the native people are described as tails. "Black shapes" crouch on the ground, and "creatures" walk on all fours to get a drink from the river. They are called shadows: reflections of humans, not substantial enough to be real. Marlow observes the piece of white string on a young man, and he is taken aback by how much the whiteness stands out against the darkness, thinking about the string's probable European origin. He cannot seem to conceive of mixing black and white. Conrad portrays Marlow’s experience of otherness to such an extreme, and with such literary care, that it is hard to see Conrad simply expressing his own experience through Marlow, although Conrad likely was well aware of his own and others’ impressions of such places and did have a choice in how to present them. Writing through Marlow’s experience is a choice that leads us to look through Marlow’s eyes at the darkness he sees.
It is not accidental that Marlow is the only person on the Thames boat who is named. He is a complex character while, even in England, the others are presented not so much as individuals as with titles that name their occupations. Marlow is distinct from them as well; he belongs to no category. He is a man "who does not represent his class" because he crosses boundaries. His reaction to the African natives may not be sensitive by modern standards, but he is more engaged than the other officers at the stations. The Chief Accountant dismisses the cries of a dying black man as merely irritating. Marlow's gesture of offering a biscuit to the young boy with the white string appears to be somewhat considerate. But it also seems condescending, which seems to be more of a character trait than a racist tendency. Marlow can think of nothing else to do as he looks into the boy's vacant eyes. Marlow means well, and despite his individual character he is partly a product of his society.
Immediately following the encounter with the young boy, he meets the Chief Accountant, who is perfectly attired with collar, cuffs, jacket, and all the rest. He refers to him as "amazing" and a "miracle." We observe at this moment the distinctions between savagery and civilization as perceived by Marlow. The diction demonstrates a type of hero worship for this man. His starched collars and cuffs are achievements of character, and Marlow respects him on this basis. It is far too early for readers to think we understand what Marlow is all about.
Beyond Marlow’s distinction of savagery and civilization, we have a window into Conrad’s distinction when we consider his presentation of colonialism through Marlow and the colonists. The bitter irony here is that those who look the most civilized are actually the most savage. Indeed, the institution of colonialism is referred to as a "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil." Everything it touches turns sour: the station is an administrative nightmare, and decaying machinery lies everywhere. Marlow takes this situation, however, as indicative of a poor work ethic, which he despises. For this reason he is drawn to the blustering accountant, who is a hard worker if nothing else. Marlow, in his own bumbling way, does occasionally try to relate to the natives.
The sense of time throughout the chapter is highly controlled. Conrad purposely glides over certain events while he examines others in minute detail. He does this in order to build suspicion about the place to which Marlow has committed himself. Notice that he painstakingly describes precursor events such as the doctor's visit and all conversations that involve the unseen character Kurtz. Thus begins Marlow's consuming obsession with this man.
So far, Marlow’s interest in Kurtz is more or less inactive and does not inspire fear. Perfectly placed leading questions such as the one about a history of family insanity have the desired effect, however, of alerting readers to a rather fishy situation. That Marlow ignores all of these warnings creates some dramatic irony; it will take him longer to arrive at conclusions that the reader has already reached.
It also is important to recognize that Marlow is telling a story. His recollections have a hazy, dreamy quality. The narrative is thus an examination of human spirit through his perspective, which is quite subjective. Thus, we should question how trustworthy the narrative speakers are. This situation puts even more distance between Conrad’s perspective and the perspective taken by characters in the story. The outside narrator only refers to what Marlow says and does; all others are ignored, and we understand their perspective only through Marlow’s account of what they say and do. Marlow selects the facts (even though Conrad ultimately selects them). Readers interested in this topic should consider in particular Marlow's perception of the African environment, which develops into the novella’s larger themes.
So far as Kurtz is concerned, there has been incomplete communication. Marlow and the reader know him, but not much, yet. He seems sinister; people discuss him in a hushed manner, making sure to praise him. The fact that nobody has anything negative to say about him is suspicious, suggesting that they are all terribly anxious to stay on his good side. The portrait of the blind woman holding a torch, in the first agent's room, suggests the failing of Kurtz: perhaps he has blindly traveled into a situation and has become absorbed in it, much as the woman is absorbed into the darkness of the painting (despite the torch, she is painted in insufficient light). This preemptive warning is useful to keep in mind as we consider subsequent chapters.