Heart of Darkness is a frame tale, a novel where a story is told within another story. It may actually be several frame tales in one, but we’ll get there when we get there.
We begin by joining the author’s company on a cruise along the mouth of the Thames, where they watch the sunset in serene brilliance- that is not without an ominous air.
There are many things to note about this opening scene.
For one, the company consists of the Director, the Lawyer, the Accountant, Marlow, and our narrator. The Director seems more like a sea captain than a London businessman. The Lawyer is the oldest of the group and is thus accorded the most comfortable place of honor. The Accountant is building small houses with the group’s set of dominoes.
These three nameless men are all pillars of civilization. Leadership, Law, and Commerce. Law, you should note, is the oldest and accorded the place of most honor. Commerce is building things. Leadership is a man of the civilized world who would not be out of place in wilder, untrammeled places.
They’re professionals, ordered men all. They are the men who bear witness to the account we’re about to hear. As for Marlow, the true narrator of the tale, he is compared to an idol and to Buddha. If he did not have a name, he might be called the Sage, because that is the role he plays here. The narrator on this cruise is probably Conrad himself. I’ve read enough of the man’s work to catch his wry observations, though I should note there’s a lot of him in Marlow, too.
Both during and after the sun sets, there is a surfeit of light and luminosity. This is a river fo civilization. London, at this time, was the center of the world, a New Rome. The narrator dwells on this at length in a beautiful anglophilic passage.
Light and civilization are key themes in Heart of Darkness. Every major theme, in fact, is introduced to us before Marlow truly begins his tale. He mentions how this place, the heart of civilization, was once a savage place, too, and spins a tale that speaks to my classicist’s heart.
The Romans long ago, once the bearers of civilization’s light, came to the wilds of Britannia and encountered strange wilderness and those who dwell in it for a myriad of reasons— duty, profit, politics, any reason under the sun, most of them involving money. How was it for a man to encounter such savagery? To live surrounded by its relentless howl?
Marlow muses on how it must have felt. He notes that all such acts of conquest are brutally violent by nature and that they can be nothing else. The only thing that redeems them is the idea behind them. That idea must be great and inspirational, worthy of worship and sacrifice.
Here is where we begin to understand how Heart of Darkness understands colonialism. There is no veil thrown over the brutality of it, but there is an argument being made that there might be something there— under the right circumstances.
Did what occurred in Africa happen under those circumstances? Does Marlow’s musing make you think he believes they were?
And so Marlow begins his tale of his now long gone journey into Africa and what he saw of human nature there.
He starts out by explaining how he lived his life when he was a younger man, finding blank spots on maps and wondering what was there. The most appealing was in Africa, in the Congo, especially the great serpent of the Congo River.
Here’s some of the book’s more subtle symbolism, a nice bit of foreshadowing. The snake has long been a symbol of evil and this one, thanks to its location in a jungle, is clearly meant to remind you of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.
As Marlow says, the snake had him charmed and he found his way to get to it. It’s a rather funny story, actually, in a cynical and absurd sort of British way. What can life out in the deep wilds of the Congo do to a man, no matter how gentle and quiet he is? By your fruits you shall know them, after all, so what does the whole silly, violent fiasco say about the “cause of progress”?
This book has many Monty Python-esque moments of cynicism. Also, it basically beats you senseless with a bat labeled “foreboding symbolism” and keeps on hitting after you go down.
Marlow gets his job and heads to a sepulchral (tomb-like, wonderful word) city. Considering the Free State of the Congo was run by Belgium and they clearly speak French, that’s probably where this city is, but it’s not terribly relevant. Everything in it is reminiscent of the grave.
One of the pervasive symbols in Heart of Darkness is the color white and ivory. They’re used in the same way. None of it has anything to do with purity, so strip that thought from your mind now. The city is white, for starters, and the thin undertaker of a secretary has white hair. The Company man who hires Marlow is pale.
The two women in the room who receive the many comers and goers are strange (also, some more white). They are knitting constantly with black wool. the slim one greets and herds the men to the door into the dark, while the other watches them, seeming to know all. It affects neither of them. They might well be the Fates of Greek myth, who spun the threads of men’s deaths.
We meet a young, somewhat dispelled clerk who lauds the glory of the Company’s doings, but states that he is not foolish enough to go out there. The Doctor comes in, does his tests, measures Marlow’s head (science, at the time), and dispenses morbid statements. As you can tell from all this foreboding and morbidity, the Company does not see this as an adventure, but business that many they dispatch do not return from.
Marlow says goodbye to his aunt who got him the job and says several misogynistic statements. What’s intriguing about the misogyny in this novel is the place it comes from. The five women in the novel (we’ve met three) are more symbols than anything else, which is true of most of the characters in the novel. they are, in many ways, avatars of their respective aspects of civilization.
Marlow’s statements about women, which are brief, is basically going off a very old idea: that women are innately more civilized than men. Modern feminism also makes this assumption. Is it true? That’s not something this book tackles.
Women come up much later in a more interesting way. This interlude with Marlowe’s aunt is, like almost everything else at this point, foreshadowing of more serious elements.
From here, Marlow embarks to Africa. This is not the end of what is termed “Chapter 1”, but it is the end up of a lot of setup. There is a lot to discuss in the remaining portion of the chapter that I’d like to highlight in a separate post.
Feel free to add your own thoughts, comments, and questions! There is a lot going on in this book and I’d love to hear the thoughts of others about it.