“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”
This quote, from the fourth section of Part 1, offers Marlow’s initial impression of the Central Station. The word “ivory” has taken on a life of its own for the men who work for the Company. To them, it is far more than the tusk of an elephant; it represents economic freedom, social advancement, an escape from a life of being an employee. The word has lost all connection to any physical reality and has itself become an object of worship. Marlow’s reference to a decaying corpse is both literal and figurative: elephants and native Africans both die as a result of the white man’s pursuit of ivory, and the entire enterprise is rotten at the core. The cruelties and the greed are both part of a greater, timeless evil, yet they are petty in the scheme of the greater order of the natural world.
“In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire.”
During the first section of Part 2, Marlow watches the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, a band of freelance bandits, reequip and then depart from the Central Station. This enigmatic report is the only news he receives concerning their fate. The dry irony of this quote is characteristic of Marlow, who by this point has truly come to see white men as the “less valuable animals.” Although he chalks up the Expedition’s fate to some idea of destiny or just reward, Marlow has already come to distrust such moral formulations: this is why he does not seek further information about the Expedition. Again he mentions a “patient wilderness”: the Expedition’s fate is insignificant in the face of larger catastrophes and even less meaningful when considered in the scope of nature’s time frame.
“It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not?”
As Marlow journeys up the river toward the Inner Station in the first section of Part 2, he catches occasional glimpses of native villages along the riverbanks. More often, though, he simply hears things: drums, chants, howls. These engage his imagination, and the fact that they do so troubles him, because it suggests, as he says, a “kinship” with these men, whom he has so far been able to classify as “inhuman.” This moment is one of several in the text in which Marlow seems to admit the limits of his own perception. These moments allow for a reading of Heart of Darkness that is much more critical of colonialism and much more ironic about the stereotypes it engenders. Nevertheless, it is important to notice that Marlow still casts Africans as a primitive version of himself rather than as potential equals.
“The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time. . . . I saw the time approaching when I would be left alone of the party of ‘unsound method.’”
This quote, which comes as the steamer begins its voyage back from the Inner Station in the third section of Part 3, with Kurtz and his ivory aboard, brings together the images of the river and the “heart of darkness” which it penetrates. The river is something that separates Marlow from the African interior: while on the river he is exterior to, even if completely surrounded by, the jungle. Furthermore, despite its “brown current,” the river inexorably brings him back to white civilization. The first sentence of this quote suggests that Marlow and Kurtz have been able to leave the “heart of darkness” behind, but Kurtz’s life seems to be receding along with the “darkness,” and Marlow, too, has been permanently scarred by it, since he is now ineradicably marked as being of Kurtz’s party. Thus, it seems that the “darkness” is in fact internalized, that it is part of some fundamental if ironic “unsoundness.”
“I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. . . . He had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man.”
At the beginning of the final section of Part 3, Marlow has just recovered from his near-fatal illness. His “nothing to say” is not reflective of a lack of substance but rather of his realization that anything he might have to say would be so ambiguous and so profound as to be impossible to put into words. Kurtz, on the other hand, is “remarkable” for his ability to cut through ambiguity, to create a definite “something.” Paradoxically, though, the final formulation of that “something” is so vague as to approach “nothing”: “ ‘The horror!’ ” could be almost anything. However, perhaps Kurtz is most fascinating to Marlow because he has had the courage to judge, to deny ambiguity. Marlow is aware of Kurtz’s intelligence and the man’s appreciation of paradox, so he also knows that Kurtz’s rabid systematization of the world around him has been an act and a lie. Yet Kurtz, on the strength of his hubris and his charisma, has created out of himself a way of organizing the world that contradicts generally accepted social models. Most important, he has created an impressive legacy: Marlow will ponder Kurtz’s words (“ ‘The horror!’ ”) and Kurtz’s memory for the rest of his life. By turning himself into an enigma, Kurtz has done the ultimate: he has ensured his own immortality.