Now we join Marlow in his journey to Africa. He leads us in with a horrible yet wonderfully written passage, which hits heavily on multiple themes of the book.
To Marlow, the whole thing is a farce played against the backdrop of a mute and unchangeable wilderness. A tedious, futile farce, heavy with death and dullness. His transport hauls him down the coast, dropping off soldiers and clerks at tiny little posts.
There’s special note to be made of the scene he describes of a ship firing into the continent for no apparent reason, at no clear target. Marlow’s transport gives letters to it, where men are dying three a day from disease.
Also, the ship sometimes comes across natives rowing their own boats in the sea. There’s a vitality to them, a contrast to the pointless boredom and pain being endured by so many Europeans.
Idleness is one of the key elements of the book, specifically what it does to Men and societies. This won’t be the first time it comes up in this horrible yet farcical fashion, because that’s what the result is.
Marlow reaches the river and takes a river steamer up to a company station along the s a, his gateway further inland. This As he walks up the path to the station, he encounters assorted rusted detritus in the grass, just cast aside.
He also sees a small detonation occur on the cliffside, where the company is trying to build a railroad. The explosion makes no mark, for all the drama attending it. We also get an awful look at slavery as a line of ‘criminal’ laborers make its way past.
In an effort to get some relief from this nightmare, Marlow walks into a place where some of the laborers have gone to die. He gives the nearest of these dying men a biscuit he has in his pocket impulsively and stands there in horror. The farcical aspect of all this folly has been stripped away here.
After a moment, he manages to bolt to the station. There he meets a very different figure, the station’s chief accountant, pale and dressed in dapper style. We learn this man had been here for three years. He and his work are about the only orderly thing in the station. His office is sometimes Marlow’s refuge from chaos.
He’s a cold creature, too. They place a sick man in his office fir lack of better space and the man’s groans are distraction. Considering the chaos, futility, and cruelty of his environs, maybe this is not surprising.
He is also the one who first tells us of Kurtz. Kurtz is the company’s top agent, sending in the most ivory of all the agents from his post deeper inland.
The accountant also makes a peculiar remark as a scuffle outside disrupts his work: “When one has got to make the correct entries, one comes to hate those savages— hate them to death.” He then tells Marlow to let Kurtz know things are going well and that Kurtz is bound to go very far in the world.
Marlow at last leaves for the Central Station. The journey is cruel, hot, and has that air of ridiculous horror about it. He finally makes it to the Central Station to find it another victim of that poisonous idleness.
He quickly finds out the boat he’s supposed to be captaining is on the bottom of the river.
We also meet the manager, who is another strange and disturbing character. Marlow has issue describing why. The closest he comes is stating that “Perhaps there was nothing within him.” Except, clearly, ambition, but not backed by anything except good health, which is rare enough at the Central Station.
He is the one who tells Marlow that the word is that Kurtz is in trouble. It’s clear he has it out for Kurtz, whom he envies.
Marlow starts getting his currently sunken ship seaworthy again. We get to learn more about Kurt from the supposed brickmaker of the station, who is a bit of an aristocrat with his own ambitions.
There is a painting by Kurtz that this man has. It’s an important image, another one for the darkness and light list. It features a woman in a blindfold carrying a torch in the midst fo a black background. It is an eerie image.
We learn that Kurtz is seen as one of the great and good men, a visionary, and is viewed with a great deal of envy by those at the station, who are such utterly hollow men that it repulses Marlowe. Their subtle mealy-mouthed attacks on Kurtz make Marlowe defensive of Kurtz.
While waiting for rivets, we meet an infestation of pilgrims who will play an important role later, including their leader, the station manager’s uncle. They are annoying.
I wanted to isolate a key theme a bit from Marlowe’s time in Europe.
Tedium and decay are the order of the day in this place, as is a kind of dark hilarious futility underlain by terrible cruelty. This mad idleness turns men into hollow forms that have vague ambition not backed by any principles. The only thing that spares anyone is a dedication to some kind of work.
The spiritual vale of work, real dedication to labor, is a very major theme of Heart of Darkness. It’s a kind of salvation in the midst of nonsense, insanity, savagery, and tedium. The idle minds of the kind of men who largely populate the stations we see are rotted out and useless. They are cruel and banal now here on the edge of the true wilderness.
In the true heart of it, what can it do to more expanded minds?