This section contains many instances of contradictory language, reflecting Marlow’s difficult and uncomfortable position. The steamer, for example, “tears slowly along” the riverbank: “to tear” usually indicates great speed or haste, but the oxymoronic addition of “slowly” immediately strips the phrase of any discernible meaning and makes it ridiculous. Marlow’s companions aboard the steamer prove equally paradoxical. The “pilgrims” are rough and violent men. The “cannibals,” on the other hand, conduct themselves with quiet dignity: although they are malnourished, they perform their jobs without complaint. Indeed, they even show flashes of humor, as when their leader teases Marlow by saying that they would like to eat the owners of the voices they hear coming from the shore. The combination of humane cannibals and bloodthirsty pilgrims, all overseen by a manager who manages clandestinely rather than openly, creates an atmosphere of the surreal and the absurd. Thus, it is not surprising when the ship is attacked by Stone Age weaponry (arrows and spears), and it is equally appropriate that the attack is not repelled with bullets but by manipulating the superstitions and fears of those ashore—simply by blowing the steamer’s whistle. The primitive weapons used by both sides in the attack reinforce Marlow’s notion that the trip up the river is a trip back in time. Marlow’s response to the helmsman’s death reflects the general atmosphere of contradiction and absurdity: rather than immediately mourning his right-hand man, Marlow changes his socks and shoes.
In the meantime, tension continues to build as Marlow draws nearer to Kurtz. After the attack, Marlow speculates that Kurtz may be dead, but the strange message and the book full of notes left with the firewood suggest otherwise. Marlow does not need to be told to “hurry up”: his eagerness to meet Kurtz draws him onward. To meet Kurtz will be to create a coherent whole in a world sorely lacking in such things; by matching the man with his voice, Marlow hopes to come to an understanding about what happens to men in places like the Congo.