Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors
used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Fog is a sort of corollary to darkness. Fog not only obscures
but distorts: it gives one just enough information to begin making
decisions but no way to judge the accuracy of that information,
which often ends up being wrong. Marlow’s steamer is caught in the
fog, meaning that he has no idea where he’s going and no idea whether
peril or open water lies ahead.
The “whited sepulchre” is probably Brussels, where the
Company’s headquarters are located. A sepulchre implies death and
confinement, and indeed Europe is the origin of the colonial enterprises
that bring death to white men and to their colonial subjects; it
is also governed by a set of reified social principles that both
enable cruelty, dehumanization, and evil and prohibit change. The
phrase “whited sepulchre” comes from the biblical Book of Matthew.
In the passage, Matthew describes “whited sepulchres” as something
beautiful on the outside but containing horrors within (the bodies
of the dead); thus, the image is appropriate for Brussels, given
the hypocritical Belgian rhetoric about imperialism’s civilizing
mission. (Belgian colonies, particularly the Congo, were notorious
for the violence perpetuated against the natives.)
Both Kurtz’s Intended and his African mistress function
as blank slates upon which the values and the wealth of their respective
societies can be displayed. Marlow frequently claims that women
are the keepers of naïve illusions; although this sounds condemnatory, such
a role is in fact crucial, as these naïve illusions are at the root
of the social fictions that justify economic enterprise and colonial expansion.
In return, the women are the beneficiaries of much of the resulting
wealth, and they become objects upon which men can display their
own success and status.
The Congo River is the key to Africa for Europeans. It
allows them access to the center of the continent without having
to physically cross it; in other words, it allows the white man
to remain always separate or outside. Africa is thus reduced to
a series of two-dimensional scenes that flash by Marlow’s steamer
as he travels upriver. The river also seems to want to expel Europeans
from Africa altogether: its current makes travel upriver slow and
difficult, but the flow of water makes travel downriver, back toward
“civilization,” rapid and seemingly inevitable. Marlow’s struggles
with the river as he travels upstream toward Kurtz reflect his struggles
to understand the situation in which he has found himself. The ease
with which he journeys back downstream, on the other hand, mirrors
his acquiescence to Kurtz and his “choice of nightmares.”
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