“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.