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Free Study Guide for Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad-BookNotes/Summary
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CHAPTER 2

Summary

From the deck of his steamboat, Marlow overhears the Manager and his uncle, the head of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, talking about Kurtz. The Manager admits to his uncle that he fears Kurtz, for he is favored by the company and may be promoted into his position of general manager. He is also jealous of Kurtz's success in providing quantities of ivory, for the Manager knows this will win him even more favor in the company. The Manager, in retaliation, is determined to continue the withholding of supplies to Kurtz, as he has done for the last nine months.

The Manager then tells his uncle of Kurtz sending an unqualified English clerk down the river in charge of a fleet of canoes carrying a load of ivory. He adds that Kurtz had apparently begun the trip with the clerk, but after traveling for three hundred miles, had turned back in a small canoe with four paddlers, sending the clerk on with the ivory. Marlow feels he "sees" Kurtz for the first time and speculates that Kurtz may have turned back because he is "a fine fellow who stuck to his work for its own sake." Marlow also realizes that the Manager hates him, just as he does Kurtz.

The talk of Kurtz continues with the Manager complaining to his uncle of Kurtz's idealism -- that "each station would be like a beacon on the road towards better, things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing." Talk then turns to another man who The Manager thinks should be hanged. Since the conversation has drifted away from Kurtz, Marlow makes a sudden noise in order to be noticed. The Manager and his uncle are startled and leave quickly fearing they have been overheard.


Marlow finally begins his trip up the Congo toward Kurtz's station, a long, tedious voyage that takes two months to accomplish. He feels that traveling up the Congo is like traveling to the beginning of time. Marlow feels bewitched and cut off from all he has ever known as real. He is fascinated with the thick jungle vegetation and the hippos and alligators along the bank. However, Marlow cannot ponder too long this unfamiliar world because he must work very hard at piloting the steamboat to avoid the many islands and rocks that could cause sudden disaster.

Marlow then again interrupts his story and addresses his audience on board the Nellie, comparing them to circus performers in their jobs. One of the men on the Nellie responds abruptly, "Try to be civil, Marlow." Marlow apologizes to his listeners and resumes his story. He describes a group of twenty African workers on his steamer, who he says are cannibals, but who are fine men to work with. They do a good job of pushing the steamer off sandbars and keeping the boilers burning with wood. Marlow's only complaint about them is that they eat hippo meat, which smells terrible as it rots in the heat. Marlow then lists the other passengers on the boat. The Manager of the central station is on board, as well as several pilgrims and their staff, and the regular crew.

As the steamer passes by small stations along the way, white men who are delighted to see them greet the passengers, but Marlow has no time for small talk. He has only one goal in mind -- to push onward to the inner station in order to meet the mysterious Kurtz, about whom he has heard so much and with whom he already identifies.

Marlow continues to meditate on the immensity of the natural world around him, saying that by comparison it makes him feel small and lost. He feels like the earth at this region of the Congo is uninhabited and primordial: "We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil." However, Marlow's sense of being first is interrupted when he sees glimpses of native people on the shores of the river. The naked Africans make hideous faces at the passerby's, while dancing wildly and yelling loudly (in total contrast to the friendly greetings from the white men along the shore).

Marlow cannot understand the language of the African, whom he calls "the prehistoric man," and feels suddenly lost in this strange, dark land. The unfamiliarity and vastness of nature here heighten Marlow's sense of insecurity. He tells his listeners on the Nellie (interrupting his story once again) that as Europeans, they are familiar with a conquered earth, but that in Africa, the earth is "monstrous and free."

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