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, live evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.
This passage, taken from the fourth section of part one, presents Marlow’s first impression of the Central Station. The word ivory has taken on a life of its own for the men who are employed by the Company. In their eyes, it is much more than an elephant’s tusk – it is economic freedom, advancement through the social chain, and freedom from the life of a lowly employee.
The word itself has become something of an object of worship. The reference made by Marlow, regarding a decaying corpse, can be seen as both literal and figurative: Elephants and Africans will die at the hands of the white man and their pursuit for ivory. The system is corrupt.
In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the seas closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They no doubt like the rest of us found what they deserved. I did not inquire.
Marlow looks on as the Eldorado Exploring Expedition depart from the Central Station. This is the only news he learns of their fate. The true irony is that the quote is characteristic of Marlow, who at present, has come to view white men as ‘less valuable animals.’ Despite having chalked the fate of the expedition up to destiny or just reward, he has grown to distrust moral formulations, hence why he has no interest in seeking further information about the Expedition.
It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the though of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend. And why not?
As Marlow makes his way up to river and nears closer to Inner Station, he sees glimpses of native villages. More frequently, he hears the beating of drums, chanting, and howls – all sounds that engage his imagination and spark anxiety amongst the men. This is one of many examples where Marlow admits his own limited perception. These moments permit a reading of the book that is much more critical of colonialism and more ironic about all of the stereotypes engendered by it.
The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart and into the sea of inexorable time. …I saw the time approaching when I would be left alone of the party of ‘unsound method.’
This passage is shared as the steamer begins its journey back from the Inner Station in Part 3, with Kurtz and his beloved ivory on board, connecting the images of the river and the heart of darkness it breaches. The river is one of many things that disconnects Marlow from inner Africa; while on the river he is surrounded by the jungle. And, despite its brown current, the river unavoidably delivers him back to white civilization.
I was within a hair’s breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it… He had summed up – he had judged. The horror! He was a remarkable man.
Towards the start of the last section of Part 3, Marlow has regained his health after a near-death illness. His having nothing to say is not a reflection of any lack of substance, but is instead his realization that anything he might have to say would be so abstruse and profound that he would have been unable to put it into words. On the other hand, Kurtz had a remarkable ability to push through ambiguity and define his existence through words.
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