Heart of Darkness
Marlow’s overhearing of the conversation between the manager and his uncle through the beginning of his voyage up the river.
One evening, as Marlow lies on the deck of his wrecked steamer, the manager and his uncle appear within earshot and discuss Kurtz. The manager complains that Kurtz has come to the Congo with plans to turn the stations into beacons of civilization and moral improvement, and that Kurtz wants to take over the manager’s position. He recalls that about a year earlier Kurtz sent down a huge load of ivory of the highest quality by canoe with his clerk, but that Kurtz himself had turned back to his station after coming 300 miles down the river. The clerk, after turning over the ivory and a letter from Kurtz instructing the manager to stop sending him incompetent men, informs the manager that Kurtz has been very ill and has not completely recovered.
Continuing to converse with his uncle, the manager mentions another man whom he finds troublesome, a wandering trader. The manager’s uncle tells him to go ahead and have the trader hanged, because no one will challenge his authority here. The manager’s uncle also suggests that the climate may take care of all of his difficulties for him, implying that Kurtz simply may die of tropical disease. Marlow is alarmed by the apparent conspiracy between the two men and leaps to his feet, revealing himself to them. They are visibly startled but move off without acknowledging his presence. Not long after this incident, the Eldorado Expedition, led by the manager’s uncle, disappears into the wilderness.
In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver.
Much later, the cryptic message arrives that all the expedition’s donkeys have died. By that time, the repairs on Marlow’s steamer are nearly complete, and Marlow is preparing to leave on a two-month trip up the river to Kurtz, along with the manager and several “pilgrims.” The river is treacherous and the trip is difficult; the ship proceeds only with the help of a crew of natives the Europeans call cannibals, who actually prove to be quite reasonable people. The men aboard the ship hear drums at night along the riverbanks and occasionally catch glimpses of native settlements during the day, but they can only guess at what lies further inland. Marlow feels a sense of kinship between himself and the savages along the riverbanks, but his work in keeping the ship afloat and steaming keeps him safely occupied and prevents him from brooding too much.
Marlow’s work ethic and professional skills are contrasted, throughout this section, with the incompetence and laziness of the Company’s employees. Working to repair his ship and then piloting it up the river provides a much-needed distraction for Marlow, preventing him from brooding upon the folly of his fellow Europeans and the savagery of the natives. To Marlow’s mind, work represents the fulfillment of a contract between two independent human beings. Repairing the steamer and then piloting it, he convinces himself, has little to do with the exploitation and horror he sees all around him.
Nevertheless, Marlow is continually forced to interpret the surrounding world. The description of his journey upriver is strange and disturbing. Marlow describes the trip as a journey back in time, to a “prehistoric earth.” This remark reflects the European inclination to view colonized peoples as primitive, further back on the evolutionary scale than Europeans, and it recalls Marlow’s comment at the beginning of his narrative about England’s own past. What disturbs Marlow most about the native peoples he sees along the river, in his words, is “this suspicion of their not being inhuman”: in some deep way these “savages” are like Europeans, perhaps just like the English were when Britain was colonized by Rome. Marlow’s self-imposed isolation from the manager and the rest of the pilgrims forces him to consider the African members of his crew, and he is confused about what he sees. He wonders, for example, how his native fireman (the crewman who keeps the boiler going) is any different from a poorly educated, ignorant European doing the same job.
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.
The mysterious figure of Kurtz is at the heart of Marlow’s confusion. The manager seems to suggest that his own resistance against the consequences of the tropical climate reflects not just physical constitution but a moral fitness, or the approval of some higher power. That this could be the case is terrifying to Marlow, and in his shock he exposes his disdain of the manager to the man himself. Yet Marlow has a difficult time analyzing what he has overheard about Kurtz: if the manager’s story contains any truth, then Kurtz must be a monomaniacal if not psychotic individual. Next to the petty ambitions and sycophantic maneuverings of the manager, however, Kurtz’s grandiose gestures and morally ambiguous successes are appealing.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this section, though, is how little actually happens. The journey up the river is full of threatened disasters, but none of them comes to pass, thanks to Marlow’s skill; the most explosive potential conflict arises from an act of eavesdropping. The stillness and silence surrounding this single steamer full of Europeans in the midst of the vast African continent provoke in Marlow an attitude of restless watchfulness: he feels as if he has “no time” and must constantly “discern, mostly by inspiration, [hidden] signs.” In this way, his piloting a steamboat along a treacherous river comes to symbolize his finding his way through a world of conspiracies, mysteries, and inaccessible black faces. Now that both Africa and Europe have become impenetrable to Marlow, only the larger-than-life Kurtz seems “real.”