Marlow and the narrative setup
"And this also" said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places on earth."
This opening statement, adn the ones that shortly follow serve to set up the story that is to follow. It shows us the framework for the discoveries that Marlow has made. It is a statement made in retrospect. In a sense, it is both the end of the story and the begining. To the reader or listener, who has not yet heard the tale, it is cryptic. But for Marlow, it is a simple statement of fact. It is the knowledge that has resulted from his adventures.
When marlow makes this statement, he is referring to the historical cycle of empire. He goes on to point out that England, in it's earlier days must have appeared very much like a land of "sand banks, marches, forests" an savages. In it's early state, the uncivilized land of England was very much like the Africa of Marlow's contemporaries.
Marlow talks about how England might have seemed to some Roman commander sent there on compaign. To him, England would seem uncivilized, and the Gaulish residents less so. It is no coincidence that Marlow chooses to use the Romans as an example. Indeed, like MArlow's England, the Roman empire was a great imperialist power. It brought it's influence ot bear upon England many years ago. With it came both light and darkness. The darkness, of course, is the oppression of the indigenous people by the overt power of the empire. The light, however, was the science of technology, of rational though, and of education.
In this way, Marlow likens the English empire to the romans, but with a cynical edge. He accepts the pretence that England is the contemporary version of the Roman empire. Indeed, at the surface it would appear that the English were carrying on the work of "civilyzing" it's own colonies. However, Marlow seems to put this "imperialization" in a historical context. He realizes that there is a cycle of rise and fall within empire. He realizes that the period of ones power may be no more than a flash in the pan.
In his opening statement, he says that this "also" was a dark place. The other dark place, to which he alludes is of course Africa. He likens the Roman civilization of England to the British civilization of AFrica. It is England's "noble cause" that he refers to. However, in the dialog that follows, Marlow is revealed to be sarcastic of, if not outright disgusted by the form that this cause has taken.
In Marlow's mind, the cause has been corrupted. When he later speaks of his predecessor, he talks of a man who is by all common definition "the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs." After some time engaged in the "nobele cause" he has become a tyrant, and perhaps even a lunatic. This is far from being the only example of the corrupting influence of the cause. Indeed, it seems to Marlow that the cause is far from noble. Instead of being a fordce of light and education, it was the "sword and often the torch."
Marlow casts doubt not only on the empire as a whole, but on the individuals themselves. MAny are in Africa for no more reason than looting and adventure. It is very much reminiscent of the boys in Kiplin's soldier tales. They are Englishmen set loose in a new frontier. What manifests itself in these men is farm from beautiful. IT is ab/out this that Marlow speaks when he recounts his story.
The actions of the British at large are none the less supported by the empire. It allows, and perhaps even encourages this often-rampant lifestyle. It is, at it's heart, culpable for all that transpires. The author alludes to this when he refers to the setting on the boat. He speaks of a "gloom to the west" that could only hang over England. It is the gloom of empire. This gloom, a shadow in itself is both metaphysical foreshadowing of the tale to come, and a literal one.
From the outset we have some ida of what is to transpire within the story. When placed in the contxt o f empire, the opening sets the state for the action. It shows us the history, or cycle, of empire. It also shows us a bit about the effect of this system. Indeed, we can see the end knowledge that marlow holds in his cynical oration.