The Narrator describes the scene from the deck of a ship named Nellie as it rests at anchor at the mouth of the River Thames, near London. The five men on board the ship—the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, the Narrator, and Marlow, old friends from their seafaring days—settle down to await the changing of the tide. They stare down the mouth of the river into the Atlantic Ocean, a view that stretches like "the beginning of an interminable waterway."
The opening establishes a dark tone. Water is often a symbol of the unconscious, so the "interminable waterway" connecting civilized England to the rest of the world implies that England's civilization is just a veneer over the dark heart all men share. That the characters in the ship are known by their jobs and not their names hints at the hollowness of civilization: their selves have been swallowed by their roles.
In silence they watch the sunset, and the Narrator remembers the fabled ships and men of English history who set sail from the Thames on voyages of trade or conquest, carrying with them "The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empire."
The Narrator's thoughts about conquest and colonialism are conventional and romantic: that great men go out with great dreams and build great empires to the greater glory of the world.
Suddenly Marlow interrupts the silence. "And this also," Marlow says, "has been one of the dark places of the earth." He imagines England as it must have appeared to the first Romans sent to conquer it: a savage, mysterious place that both appalled and attracted them, that made them feel powerless and filled them with hate.
But Marlow takes an opposite view: he sees England itself as once one of the savage places, and imagines how that savagery warped its conquerors. The implication is that hidden behind its civilization England has a "dark" heart.
Marlow observes that none of the men on the boat would feel just like those Romans, because the men on the boat have a "devotion to efficiency," while the Romans wanted simply to conquer.
Marlow believes that a devotion to efficiency, a devotion to work, protects a man from being corrupted by powerlessness and hate.
Yet Marlow adds that conquest is never pretty and usually involves the powerful taking land from those who look different and are less powerful. Conquest, Marlow says, is redeemed only by the ideas behind them, ideas that are so beautiful men bow down before them.
The practice of conquest and colonialism is always ruthless. But the noble idea motivating conquest, such as civilizing the savages, can be so beautiful it hides the ruthlessness even from the conquerors.
Marlow then reminds the other men that he once served as captain of a freshwater riverboat, and begins to tell his story. As a young boy, he had a passion for maps and unknown places. As he grew older many of those places become known, and many he visited himself. Yet Africa still fascinated him, especially its mighty river, the Congo. After years of ocean voyages in which he had "always went by [his] own road and on [his] own legs," Marlow asks his aunt to use her influence help him get a job as a steamship operator for the Company, a continental European trading concern in Africa.
Marlow makes it clear he doesn't usually ask people for favors, instead going by "his own road and on his own legs" because of his belief in the honesty and importance of work. He is not comfortable relying on others to do his work for him, and sees it as a possibly dangerous and definitely shameful thing to do.
The Company hires him immediately: it has an open position because one of its captains, a Dane named Fresleven, had recently been killed. After some time in the jungle, the normally mild-mannered Fresleven had started hitting the native chief of a village with a cane over a disagreement regarding two black hens, and was accidentally killed by the chief's son. The natives, in fear, immediately abandoned their village.
The absurd story of Fresleven's death foreshadows Marlow's absurd experience in the jungle, where colonialist white men go insane and clash with the exploited natives, producing violence and more absurdity.
Marlow travels to the unnamed European city where the Company has its headquarters. He describes the city as a "whited sepulcher."
A sepulcher is a tomb, and hides in its heart either emptiness or death.
At the Company's office, Marlow is let into a reception area presided over by two women, one fat, one slim, both of whom constantly knit black wool. There, Marlow examines a map of Africa filled in by various colors representing the European countries that colonized those areas. He briefly meets the head of the Company (a "pale plumpness in a frock coat"), then is directed to a doctor. While measuring Marlow's head, the doctor comments that in Africa "the changes happen inside" and asks Marlow if his family has a history of insanity.
More foreshadowing of what Marlow will soon experience in colonial Africa. The women in black seem to symbolize fate or death, the head of the Company's "plumpness" covered by a "frock coat" implies greed masked by civility, and the doctor explicitly says that Africa drives Europeans crazy.
Marlow has a farewell chat with his aunt, who sees her nephew as an "emissary of light" off to educate the African natives out of their "horrid ways." Marlow points out to his aunt that the company is run for profit, not missionary work, and expresses amazement to his friends on the boat how out of touch women are with the truth.
Earlier Marlow said that the beautiful idea behind colonization masks the ruthless practice of colonialism. Well, his aunt clearly buys the idea, and in doing so establishes women as symbols of civilization's inability to see its hollow corruption.
Marlow boards the steamer that will take him to the mouth of the Congo with a sense of foreboding. To Marlow on the steamer, the forested coast of Africa looks like an impenetrable enigma, inviting and scorning him at the same time. He occasionally sees canoes paddled by native Africans, and once sees a French ship firing its guns into the dense forest at invisible "enemies."
Marlow goes to Africa because as a boy he had a passion for unknown places. He wanted to know the unknown. But Africa resists being known, and makes colonialists do ridiculous, hollow things like shoot at forests.
At the mouth of the Congo, Marlow gets passage for thirty miles from a small steamer piloted by a Swede. The Swede mocks the "government chaps" at the shore as men who will do anything for money, and wonders what happens to such men when they get further into the continent.
The pilot, a man who works, condemns the colonialists who care not about work, but about money. The pilot's question about what happens to such people in the jungle is more foreshadowing.
At last they reach the Company's Outer Station, a chaotic and disorganized place. Machinery rusts everywhere, black laborers blast away at a cliff face for no reason. Marlow comments to the men on the Nellie that he had long known the "lusty devils" of violence and greed that drive men, but in Africa encountered "a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly."
Note Marlow's horror at the inefficiency of the station and the rusting of machinery. The "lusty devils" are the desires that move men to act badly, but without deception. The "pretending" devils move men to fake their noble intentions for greedy ends.
Marlow then stumbles upon what he calls the Grove of Death, a grove among the trees that is filled with weak and dying native laborers, who are living out their last moments in the shade of the ancient trees.
Marlow sees the death of the natives with the same horror as the rusting machinery. It's a tragedy to him, but not a human tragedy.
At the station, the Chief Accountant impresses Marlow with his good grooming. One day the Chief Accountant mentions that further up the river Marlow will probably meet Mr. Kurtz, a station head who sends in as much ivory as all the others put together and who "will be a somebody in the [Company] Administration before long." He asks Marlow to tell Kurtz that all is satisfactory, saying he doesn't want to send a letter for fear that rivals at the Central Station will intercept it.
The Chief Accountants comments both introduce Kurtz as a remarkably talented fellow and also convey the backbiting and politics going on under the surface in the Company. Marlow admires the Chief Accountant's grooming because such hygienic habits involve disciplined work, especially in the midst of the chaos of Outer Station.
Just then a dying "agent' from up country" is brought into the Chief Accountants quarters for lack of other space, which gently annoys the accountant. When, a while later, there is a "tumult" of noise as a caravan of pilgrims and natives comes into the station, the Chief Accountant comments, "When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate these savages—hate them to death."
Yet beneath the Chief Accountant's civilized exterior, he's filled with the sense of "powerlessness and hate" that Marlow earlier described infecting the Roman conquerors of England.
A few days later Marlow joins a caravan headed the two hundred miles upriver to Central Station. After a fifteen-day trek through the jungle during which the only other white man fell ill and many of the native porters deserted rather than carry the sick man, Marlow reaches the Station.
The absurd inefficiency and waste of the colonial effort just keeps growing...
At the station, Marlow is greeted by the first man he sees with news that the ship he was supposed to pilot has sunk. Apparently, the General Manager had suddenly decided to try to reach Kurtz at the Inner Station with an inexperienced pilot at the helm of the steamship. The steamship promptly sank.
...and growing... until it's clear that the colonial effort isn't about building anything, and isn't motivated by a central civilized idea. It's motivated by greed, which is bound to produce inefficiency and waste.
Marlow, on the Nellie, says that though he can't be sure, he suspects that it's possible the General Manager wanted the steamship to sink.
Marlow's guess foreshadows the General Manager's negative feelings about Kurtz.
Marlow is immediately taken to see this General Manager, who is thoroughly unremarkable in intelligence, leadership, and unskilled at even maintaining order. Marlow believes the General Manager holds his position through two traits: he inspires vague uneasiness in others, and unlike any other Europeans he's resistant to all the tropical diseases.
The General Manager is the embodiment of the "pretending" devils Marlow mentioned earlier. His main trait is that he doesn't die! He's defined by his lack of identity. In other words, he's hollow.
The General Manager explains why he took the steamship onto the river before Marlow, its pilot, arrived: Kurtz, the Company's best agent, is sick. The General Manager takes special interest when Marlow mentions he heard Kurtz's name mentioned on the coast. The General Manager estimates that it will take three months to repair the ship, and turns out to be almost exactly right.
The General Manager's interest that Marlow had earlier heard of Kurtz implies the Manager's concern at Kurtz influence and power in the Company. The Manager's perfect guess about the time needed to fix the ship implies he did purposely sink it.
Marlow sets to work fixing the ship and watches the absurd happenings of Central Station, where the various company agents (employees) do no work, stroll about aimlessly, and dream of ivory and wealth. Marlow describes the place as "unreal."
Men who do no work strike Marlow as "unreal" and without substance. Work provides a reality one can cling to.
One night a shed bursts into flame. As Marlow approaches he sees a laborer being beaten for setting the blaze and overhears the General Manager talking with another man about Kurtz, saying they should try to "take advantage of this unfortunate accident." The General Manager departs, and Marlow ends up in a conversation with the other man, a young "agent" whose responsibility it is to make bricks (which he never does) and whom the other agents think is the General Manager's spy.
The General Manager's concern for Kurtz is obviously faked. He has to try to save the sick Kurtz because it would look bad if he didn't, but as long as he has an excuse (the sunken steamship) to avoid helping Kurtz, he'll take it. The Brickmaker has a job he never does: the essence of hollowness, hypocrisy, and inefficiency.
Marlow follows the Brickmaker back to his quarters, which are much nicer than any but the General Manager's. As they talk, Marlow realizes the Brickmaker is trying to get information from him because Marlow's Aunt's contacts in the Company are the same people who sent Kurtz to Africa. The Brickmaker bitterly says that Marlow and Kurtz are both "of the new gang—the gang of virtue" meant to bring proper morals and European enlightenment to the colonial activities in Africa.
The revelation that Kurtz is backed by the same people who are close to Marlow's Aunt indicate that Kurtz isn't like the other agents. Rather than hide his greed behind false civility, Kurtz seems actually to be a man profoundly dedicated to ethics and morality. Marlow begins to see Kurtz as an antidote to the evils and hollowness of civilization.
The Brickmaker, whom Marlow now calls a "papier-mâché Mephistopheles," continues to speak about Kurtz, and asks Marlow not to give Kurtz a wrong impression of him. Marlow realizes that both the General Manager and the Brickmaker see Kurtz as a threat to their dreams of advancement.
Mephistopheles is a devil. Papier-mâché is a craft that produces hollow structures. A "papier-mâché Mephistopheles" is therefore a hollow devil, and a heck of an insult.
Though he hates lies because they have a "taint of death" and telling them is like "biting something rotten," Marlow pretends to have as much influence in Europe as the Brickmaker thinks he has in order to get the Brickmaker to speed up the arrival of the rivets needed to fix the steamship. Marlow has an idea that the faster the steamship is fixed the better it will be for Kurtz.
By doing the thing he hates most in the world—lying—in order to faster fix the steamboat and get to Kurtz, Marlow shows a sudden sense of allegiance to the moral Kurtz. Marlow's lie also foreshadows a lie he will tell later to Kurtz's Intended.
Suddenly, Marlow breaks off telling his story in order to try to explain to the men sitting on the ship in the Thames how hard it is to get across his experiences, though he is comforted by the fact that his fellows on the ship, men who see and know him, can at least "see more than I could then." The Narrator observes that it was now so dark they couldn't see Marlow at all.
Marlow despairs about the inability for one man to explain himself to another. The novel emphasizes this point ironically: when Marlow takes comfort that at least the men on the Nellie know and see him, the fact is that the men actually can't see him at all..
Marlow resumes his story. When the Brickmaker leaves, Marlow boards his broken steamship, which he has come to love after putting in so much hard work to rebuild it. Marlow says of work: "I don't like work... but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality." Marlow tells his foreman they'll soon have rivets. The two of them do a little dance of joy.
Here Marlow explicitly describes why he values work. Note that the "reality" and "chance to find yourself" that work provides directly address Marlow's discomfort with the lack of truth in the world and his growing sense of the hollowness of civilization.
But weeks pass and the rivets don't come. Instead, a group of "pilgrims" calling itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition arrives, led by the General Manager's uncle. They are all greedy, cowardly, and without any sort of foresight or understanding of work.
It's no coincidence the Eldorado Expedition is named after a mythical city made of gold. In Marlow's eyes, the pilgrims themselves are unreal, just hollow vessels for their greed.
Without rivets, Marlow can't do any work either. He has lots of time to think, and begins to wonder about Kurtz's morals, and about how Kurtz would act if he did become general manager.
What he's heard of Kurtz makes Marlow ponder if perhaps civilization isn't hollow, if perhaps there is some truth, if maybe colonialism can match the beautiful idea behind it.