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THE CHARACTERS (continued)
When Marlow finally arrives at Kurtz's Inner Station, he encounters a young Russian sailor whose outfit is so colorfully patched that he reminds Marlow of a harlequin, the traditional Italian clown who dresses in motley. And he's as simple-minded and almost as ridiculous as a clown-a startling instance of innocence in the midst of depravity, and a peculiar contrast to Kurtz. (He also serves as a plot device, filling us in on details about Kurtz we need to know.) Though he is "Kurtz's last disciple" and apparently even witnessed the "unspeakable rites" Kurtz participated in, he's too childlike to have taken part himself. Marlow even admires his adventurous spirit, though he disapproves of his devotion to Kurtz.
But even his devotion makes him sympathetic. He nursed Kurtz through two serious illnesses without medical supplies, and he received little gratitude in return. (Kurtz even threatened to shoot him to get his small hoard of ivory.) In addition to loyalty, his character is marked by "the glamour of youth" and "the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure." He has wandered the jungles for two years, mostly alone; and he makes his exit headed for more lonely wanderings. He is full of self-doubt, he has no great thoughts and no abilities, he tells Marlow. No wonder such an impressionable youth is mesmerized by "Kurtz's magnificent eloquence."
But the Russian sailor is also a fool. Marlow tells us that a fool is safe from madness in the jungle: you can be "too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of darkness" (Chapter II). The Russian is so awed by Kurtz's ideas ("That man has enlarged my mind," he exclaims) that he becomes morally blind to the evil Kurtz does. Yet he is not malicious himself; in fact, he's one of the very few whites along the Congo who isn't a scoundrel. So it's appropriate that he doesn't work for the odious Company. (His free-agent status, in fact, is what makes the manager want to hang him.)
If Heart of Darkness has a villain, it's the manager of the Company's Central Station, who accompanies Marlow on the steamboat to the Inner Station. But he's a villain in a rather general sense, standing in Marlow's eyes for all the bloodless bureaucrats who calmly oversee the Company's mass enslavement of the Africans. He has no moral sensibility, just a business sensibility: Kurtz's foulest crimes are, to his mind, "deplorable" only because "the trade will suffer" on account of them (Chapter III).
The manager is a talentless nobody with no special abilities. His Central Station is a chaotic mess. The only claim he has to his position is his hardy constitution: he doesn't catch the tropical diseases that overwhelm other whites (including Kurtz and Marlow). That gives him staying power.
Practically the first thing Marlow says about the manager is, "He was commonplace in complexion, in feature, in manners, and in voice" (Chapter I); and the long description that follows emphasizes his commonness. In this he is certainly the opposite of his rival, Kurtz, of whom Marlow remarks, "Whatever he was, he was not common" (Chapter II). He resents Kurtz so much that he seems to be willing to let the trade suffer by sabotaging him. Marlow hints that he intentionally sank the steamer so that Kurtz, already ill, would die before help reached the Inner Station.
So his blandness conceals a deeper malignancy, which becomes most apparent as he watches Kurtz's slow death with satisfaction: "the 'affair' had come off as well as could be wished" (Chapter III). He half-starves the boat's African crew by refusing to stop to let them trade for food on shore. (He has plenty of his own.)
Unlike Kurtz, he can exercise restraint: "He was just the kind of man who would wish to preserve appearances. That was his restraint" (Chapter II). He cares a lot more about the appearance of being an upright manager than about the actual wrongs he commits. His crimes have the approval of society-most of them just involve carrying on the business of the big bureaucratic death-machine known as the Company.
Incidentally, the manager is based on the real-life Camille Delcommune, manager of a Congo trading station at
which Conrad was stationed in much the same capacity as Marlow. He wrote to his aunt (September 26, 1890):
"The manager is a common ivory-dealer with sordid instincts who considers himself a merchant though he is only a
kind of African shop-keeper. His name is Delcommune.... I can hope for neither promotion nor increase of salary
The brickmaker of the Central Station takes Marlow aside and tries to pump him for information under the mistaken impression that Marlow has highly influential connections in Europe. He would seem like more of a villain if he weren't so pathetically ineffective-as Marlow observes, he can't even manage to make bricks. (His attempt to get information from Marlow is so obvious and incompetent that it's comical.) He is a young aristocrat who toadies shamelessly to the manager, doing his menial secretarial tasks. The alliance has brought him a few special privileges, and also the dislike of the other pilgrims, who think he's the manager's spy.- He's capable, as he demonstrates with Marlow, of fawning one minute and making veiled threats the next.
Like his ally the manager, he resents Kurtz because he fears that if the highly efficient Kurtz is promoted to general manager, his own position will be endangered. The brickmaker is typical of the malaise that cripples all the Company's trading stations. Instead of a "devotion to efficiency" (which Marlow says early on is the saving grace of colonialism), he's devoted to himself. Trade and progress concern him a lot less than a possible promotion.
On first arriving at the Outer Station, Marlow becomes acquainted with the Company's chief accountant for Africa, a man who, in his "devotion to efficiency," is the very opposite of the brickmaker and the other pilgrims of the Central Station. His books are in "apple-pie order," and he really does care about his job, just as he cares about his appearance, which is immaculate. Marlow admires him. Further, the accountant thinks highly of Kurtz. After all, such an efficient worker would have no reason to fear for his job (unlike the manager and the brickmaker) if Kurtz were promoted, which he calmly predicts is what will happen. He holds the rest of the agents of the Central Station in little regard, and even suggests that to send Kurtz a letter through there would be imprudent because the agents there might snoop into it.
However, the accountant's devotion to efficiency blinds him to the sufferings of both whites and blacks in Africa. When a sick agent is brought into his office, he complains that the groans distract him from his work; he is not particularly concerned that the man is dying. He hates the Africans "to the death" simply because they make noise. Perhaps Conrad is suggesting-though not explicitly-that even at its best the Company is inhumane, caring more about numbers than about people. When Marlow last sees the accountant, he tells us he is "bent over his books,... making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still treetops of the grove of death" where a group of exhausted natives have crawled to die (Chapter I). "Perfectly correct transactions" is an ironic way of phrasing it. How could transactions that lead to wholesale death be perfectly correct?