Part I

The novel opens at sunset on the deck of a cruising yawl, the Nellie, which at anchor on the Thames. Five men are lying back to rest and mediate, waiting for the tide to turn. One of them, Charles Marlow, thinks aloud about ancient England at the time when the conquering Romans came seeking wealth and power. He pauses, and then begins to tell of a trip to the Congo he made as a young man. First, he describes how he came to make the trip. Out of a job and fascinated by Africa for a long time, he enlisted the help of an n influential aunt who was able to secure him a position as a river steamboat captain. Marlow then goes on to tell the story that Conrad himself had experienced in his own life.
After being examined by a doctor who measures his skull and cautions him to remain “calm” in the jungle, Marlow takes a French steamer to the mouth of the Congo River. The steamer moves very slowly, making many stops along its way, and Marlow marvels at the vastness and mystery of the jungle. They pass a French gunboat firing shells into the dense, black depths of the jungle. Marlow is told that there are enemy natives hidden there, but it is struck by the absurdity of this war with the “darkness” and its invisible forces. Finally, the steamer reaches the mouth of the Congo and Marlow disembarks.

Here, he boards another steamer, commanded by a Swede, and starts on his first leg of his journey up the river. The captain tells him of the sad fate of another Swede who had apparently hanged himself. Again and again Marlow is struck by the incongruity of the European presence in Africa.
Marlow goes ashore at the Company station, which is surrounded by broken machinery, dying slaves, and an aura of useless effort. The company accountant, an oddly out-of-place fellow dressed in a starched shirt, polished shoes and a suit, tells Marlow about Kurtz. It is the first time we hear Kurtz’s name; the accountant refers to him, ambiguously, as a “very remarkable person.”
Marlow continues his journey into the heart of darkness, trekking through the jungle accompanied by 60 natives and one other white man. He is stuck by the wild chaos of the jungle. The group comes upon the body of a native, shot through the forehead. Marlow’s European companion becomes feverish and unable to walk. All the native villages are abandoned. The paths are overgrown; the surroundings desolate and terrifying. Finally, after 15 days of walking through the jungle, they come to the central station.
There, Marlow meets the Company manager who does not even invite him to sit down but, instead, confronts him with another obstacle. The steamer, which Marlow was to command, has sunk to the bottom of the river. Not only must Marlow raise the steamer and repair its bottom, but also he must do it without the benefit of proper equipment: there are no rivets to be had upstream.
As it happens, it is three months before the ship is repaired and Marlow can start on the next leg of his journey. During his stay, we see several more examples of the madness and inefficiency of European life in Africa. A shed mysteriously bursts into flame one night. One of the Company employees tries pitifully to extinguish the flames using one bucket-which has a hole in it-to carry water from the river. Part I end at this point with the arrival of the motley Eldorado Exploring Expedition bound on a mission of greed.

Part II

Part II opens with Marlow on the deck of the little riverboat at the central station. As he lies on the deck, the manager strolls by with his uncle, who leads the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Unaware of Marlow’s presence, they begin to discuss Kurtz with a mixture of dislike and envy. They comment on his moralizing, his courage, and his enormous success in the ivory trade. They also note the high morality rate among white agents in the jungle. The conversation ends abruptly when they realize Marlow is on deck listening to them.
The riverboat is finally repaired and a group of pilgrims, led by the manager, begins the trip up the river