Marlow’s journey down the coast of Africa through his meeting with the chief accountant.
The French steamer takes Marlow along the coast of Africa, stopping periodically to land soldiers and customshouse officers. Marlow finds his idleness vexing, and the trip seems vaguely nightmarish to him. At one point, they come across a French man-of-war shelling an apparently uninhabited forested stretch of coast. They finally arrive at the mouth of the Congo River, where Marlow boards another steamship bound for a point thirty miles upriver. The captain of the ship, a young Swede, recognizes Marlow as a seaman and invites him on the bridge. The Swede criticizes the colonial officials and tells Marlow about another Swede who recently hanged himself on his way into the interior.
Marlow disembarks at the Company’s station, which is in a terrible state of disrepair. He sees piles of decaying machinery and a cliff being blasted for no apparent purpose. He also sees a group of black prisoners walking along in chains under the guard of another black man, who wears a shoddy uniform and carries a rifle. He remarks that he had already known the “devils” of violence, greed, and desire, but that in Africa he became acquainted with the “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.” Finally, Marlow comes to a grove of trees and, to his horror, finds a group of dying native laborers. He offers a biscuit to one of them; seeing a bit of white European yarn tied around his neck, he wonders at its meaning. He meets a nattily dressed white man, the Company’s chief accountant (not to be confused with Marlow’s friend the Accountant from the opening of the book). Marlow spends ten days here waiting for a caravan to the next station. One day, the chief accountant tells him that in the interior he will undoubtedly meet Mr. Kurtz, a first-class agent who sends in as much ivory as all the others put together and is destined for advancement. He tells Marlow to let Kurtz know that everything is satisfactory at the Outer Station when he meets him. The chief accountant is afraid to send a written message for fear it will be intercepted by undesirable elements at the Central Station.
Marlow’s description of his journey on the French steamer makes use of an interior/exterior motif that continues throughout the rest of the book. Marlow frequently encounters inscrutable surfaces that tempt him to try to penetrate into the interior of situations and places. The most prominent example of this is the French man-of-war, which shells a forested wall of coastline. To Marlow’s mind, the entire coastline of the African continent presents a solid green facade, and the spectacle of European guns firing blindly into that facade seems to be a futile and uncomprehending way of addressing the continent.
“The flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly” is one of the central images with which Marlow characterizes the behavior of the colonists. He refers back to this image at a number of key points later in the story. It is thus a very important clue as to what Marlow actually thinks is wrong about imperialism—Marlow’s attitudes are usually implied rather than directly stated. Marlow distinguishes this devil from violence, greed, and desire, suggesting that the fundamental evil of imperialism is not that it perpetrates violence against native peoples, nor that it is motivated by greed. The flabby, weak-eyed devil seems to be distinguished above all by being shortsighted and foolish, unaware of what it is doing and ineffective.
The hand of the “flabby devil” is apparent in the travesties of administration and the widespread decay in the Company’s stations. The colonials in the coastal station spend all their time blasting a cliff for no apparent reason, machinery lies broken all around, and supplies are poorly apportioned, resting in abundance where they are not needed and never sent to where they are needed. Given the level of waste and inefficiency, this kind of colonial activity clearly has something other than economic activity at stake, but just what that something might be is not apparent. Marlow’s comments on the “flabby devil” produce a very ambivalent criticism of colonialism. Would Marlow approve of the violent exploitation and extortion of the Africans if it was done in a more clear-sighted and effective manner? This question is difficult to answer definitively.
On the other hand, Marlow is appalled by the ghastly, infernal spectacle of the grove of death, while the other colonials show no concern over it at all. For Marlow, the grove is the dark heart of the station. Marlow’s horror at the grove suggests that the true evils of this colonial enterprise are dehumanization and death. All Marlow can offer these dying men are a few pieces of biscuit, and, despite the fact that Marlow is “not particularly tender,” the situation troubles him.
In this section, Marlow finally learns the reason for the journey he is to take up the Congo, although he does not yet realize the importance this reason will later take on. The chief accountant is the first to use the name of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, speaking of him in reverent tones and alluding to a conspiracy within the Company, the particulars of which Marlow never deciphers. Again, the name “Kurtz” provides a surface that conceals a hidden and potentially threatening situation. It is appropriate, therefore, that the chief accountant is Marlow’s informant. In his dress whites, the man epitomizes success in the colonial world. His “accomplishment” lies in keeping up appearances, in looking as he would at home. Like everything else Marlow encounters, the chief accountant’s surface may conceal a dark secret, in this case the native woman whom he has “taught”—perhaps violently and despite her “distaste for the work”—to care for his linens. Marlow has yet to find a single white man with a valid “excuse for being there” in Africa. More importantly, he has yet to understand why he himself is there.