Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
Chapter one of Heart of Darkness introduces Marlow's psychological dilemma. Though he despises the petty and materialistic goals of the majority of the Europeans in Africa and can see that they are recklessly damaging the land and the people, he cannot ignore his own complicity in the imperialist project. He separates himself morally from the imperialists by asserting that his reasons for coming to Africa were idealistic, based on a long- held fascination since childhood with exploring parts of the world that have not yet been well mapped. As he finds himself surrounded by European men whom he finds morally repugnant, he begins to identify with Kurtz, the only European who seems to have come to Africa for idealistic reasons. However, stories of Kurtz are contradictory. Even though Kurtz is supposed to be against the Europeans' materialistic presence in Africa, he sends back more ivory than any other agent.
Marlow recognizes the connection between the sword and the torch, a show of force to subdue those whose land and resources are desired and a show of religion for more complicated goals. The nations of Europe are all Christian nations, which operate under a rule of law. In order to justify taking other people's land, they need moral arguments that say they are actually enlightening the people.
This kind of thinking leads to the development of the notion of the "white man's burden," the idea that it is up to Europeans to civilize the rest of the world, to bring other people up to the enlightened level of civilization that the Europeans have attained and to introduce them to Christianity. The ideology of the "white man's burden" supposedly justifies the material goal of taking the land and labor of non-European countries.
Marlow bases his perceptions of the Africans on a kind of thinking that was current during the time that Conrad wrote the novel, what today we term scientific racism. Scientists of the nineteenth century theorized that various human populations were at different places on an evolutionary scale that ran on a continuum from savage to civilized. They placed Europeans on the continuum at the furthest reach yet achieved by humanity--the fully civilized. They placed the people whom their explorers encountered much farther back on the evolutionary scale, as if they were not fully evolved human beings, and called them savages. If Europeans were dealing with less than human populations, they did not have to follow the same rule of law in dealing with them; they could take their land, and enslave the people, all in the name of advancing progress.
The problem arose in another part of this theory. Scientists claimed that although Europeans had reached the height of civilization, far from their savage past, they still retained a memory of savagery in them. Hence, the reader sees Marlow often fearfully wondering about his own affinity to the Africans whom he has been taught to believe are savages.
Kurtz is a proponent of the kind of thinking that justifies imperialism with some kind of moral authority. The other Europeans have dispensed with moral justification for their place in Africa. They are simply interested in profit. Lacking a third alternative--one that would condemn imperialism per se and grant that Africans are fully human--Marlow chooses to identify with Kurtz. He never recognizes the full humanity of the Africans he sees. Most often he sees them through the eyes of a European who has been indoctrinated in scientific racism. He sees them as animal-like and subhuman. In fact, in his descriptions of Africans, Marlow seldom describes them whole. He only sees parts--arms, legs, and eyes.
On the level of narrative, the first chapter of Heart of Darkness sets up the structure of the novel. Conrad uses an unnamed frame narrator to tell Marlow's tale. This man relates to the reader what he heard Marlow tell years ago (hence almost the entire novel is in quotations and the characters' speech is placed in internal quotations). Marlow tells his tale orally to four men one evening. He tells of an experience that he had years ago. The reader is, thus, removed from the action of the story too. One possible reason Conrad set his narrative up in this innovative way was that it was a painful experience in his own life and he needed some distance on it. So he gives it distance in time, in space, and in narrators.
Another means of distancing the painful experience is to break the narration periodically. When Marlow is describing a particularly uncomfortable scene, he will break off telling the tale. The reader is suddenly reminded of the scene of the telling on board the Nellie, all safe and sound close to London. Conrad also distances the reader from the center of the experience, at the Inner Station, geographically. Marlow begins outside of London then travels to Brussels, then to Africa, the Outer Station, the Central Station, and finally, the Inner Station (detailed below), where Marlow meets Kurtz and has his last remaining illusion shattered. Then Conrad continues this structure, having Marlow return to Europe, Brusses to meet Kurtz's Intended.