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THE CHARACTERS (continued)


Marlow meets the woman Kurtz was engaged to marry, his Intended (it is always capitalized), after Kurtz has been dead for more than a year. She is living under the delusion that Kurtz was generous, kind, and noble to the end, and Marlow doesn't choose to enlighten her. He lies that Kurtz died with her name on his lips. (Proper Victorian that he is, Marlow thinks it fitting and just that women be relegated to the world of "beautiful illusions.") But he pays a price for his dishonesty. The sudden recognition of how intimately goodness and lies are mingled in the world almost drives him to despair.

Though there's something saintly about the Intended, there's also something slightly repellent in the intensity of her delusion. She's linked by a gesture to Kurtz's savage mistress. And just as that woman represents the soul of the jungle in all its cruelty, the Intended is the soul of civilization, a civilization woven partly of truth and partly of the lies we need to go on living. The Belgian public needs the lie of the Company's high ideals and philanthropic intentions in order to stomach the colonization of the Congo; likewise, the Intended needs the lie of Kurtz's ideals and intentions to believe that he died for a worthwhile cause. But as Marlow perceives how necessary it is to lie, Kurtz's final judgment-"The horror! The horror!"- rings in his ears, and it suddenly seems like a judgment not just on Kurtz's own life and the darkness of Africa, but a judgment on even the best, the most beautiful parts of civilization-including the drawing room of this loyal, tragic woman.


Talking of Kurtz, Marlow says that the wilderness had "loved him, embraced him" (Chapter II), and Conrad gives us a vivid symbol of that embrace in Kurtz's savage mistress. Marlow calls her the soul of the jungle-"wild and, gorgeous," "savage and superb," and like the jungle, dangerous. She seems to be a leader of Kurtz's army; at least, she's the most fearless of his followers, the only one not petrified by the shriek of the steam whistle. As the boat departs, Marlow reports she "stretched tragically her bare arms after us over the sombre and glittering river" (Chapter III); and it's this gesture that reminds Marlow of her when he sees the Intended "put out her arms as if after a retreating figure... across the fading and narrowing sheen of the window" in her drawing room. One woman represents the civilization that loses Kurtz; the other symbolizes the jungle that destroys him.


The "pilgrims," as Marlow sarcastically calls them, are the 20 or so agents at the Central Station who carry long staves like actual religious travelers and talk so much about ivory that "You would think they were praying to it." Lazy and self-satisfied, they represent the worst of the whites in Africa: "as to effectually lifting a little finger-oh, no" (Chapter I). At one of the Congo trading stations Conrad visited, he recorded in his diary: "Prominent characteristic of the social life here; people speaking ill of each other." He must have been remembering this behavior when he wrote that the pilgrims "beguiled the time by backbiting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way" (Chapter I). Although he despises them, Conrad uses the pilgrims for comic relief, especially on the trip upriver. (Three or four of them accompany Marlow and the manager.) During the attack, their terror and their wild gunfire are incongruously funny. But the pilgrims are also bloodthirsty; they enjoy massacring Africans. "Don't! don't you frighten them away," they cry when Marlow scares off their human targets with the screech of the steam whistle (Chapter III).


On the trip upriver Marlow enlists a crew of about 30 cannibals to do the boat's manual labor. In contrast to the idiotic pilgrims, Conrad portrays the cannibals with dignity. They grow increasingly hungry on board, especially after the pilgrims throw their provision of stinking hippo meat overboard and the manager refuses to stop to trade for food on shore. Marlow tries to imagine why they don't eat him and the pilgrim, and the only answer he can offer is the restraint he values so highly in civilized people: "Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. But there was the fact facing me" (Chapter II). Marlow respects them: "They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them." Work is one of Marlow's highest values, and the pilgrims, we know, are terrible workers. In fact, the pilgrims are always behaving on a level beneath what you would expect of civilized men, while the cannibals keep acting on a level above what you would expect of savages.


The fireman is an African who has been trained to operate the boat's vertical boiler. Marlow says, ironically, that through instruction he's an "improved specimen," but he doesn't really understand the machine-he thinks there's an evil spirit inside who gets angry if you don't give him enough water. The fireman is an expression of Conrad's pessimism about civilizing the jungle. It can be done-perhaps-but it will be a long, slow process, much more difficult than all the glib, idealistic talk about "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways" (Chapter I) takes account of.


The African helmsman who steers the boat is an "athletic black belonging to some coast tribe" who dies from a spear wound during the attack on the steamer. He's a poor worker, swaggering and undependable, and Marlow (who calls him a fool) has to watch over him constantly. His death is largely his own fault, since he abandons his post to stand at the window and shoot wildly at the attacking tribe. "He had no restraint," Marlow comments, "no restraint-just like Kurtz" (Chapter II). Nevertheless, Marlow clearly values him. A subtle bond has grown between them through working together (Marlow is always thinking about the rewards of work), and he doesn't think getting to Kurtz was worth the death of his helmsman.


The manager's uncle arrives at the Central Station while Marlow is delayed there repairing his boat. He's a short, fat man who heads something called the Eldorado Exploring Expedition-a group pretending to be interested in geography but really just out to get rich. Marlow compares them to burglars. He also overhears a conversation between the manager and his uncle in which the uncle proves to be particularly bloodthirsty, urging his nephew to exercise his authority and hang whomever he wants to.


Marlow's foreman is a mechanic at the Central Station, a boiler-maker by trade. His rough manners make him an object of disdain to the pilgrims, but he appeals to Marlow because of his capacity and enthusiasm for work. He makes only a brief appearance, just after Marlow's long talk with the brickmaker. His simple bluntness is a relief after the brickmaker's caginess, and his unrefined, working-class bearing forms an effective contrast to the brickmaker's effete, upper-class smugness.


Marlow's aunt is based, at least in part, on Marguerite Poradowska, who was related to Conrad by marriage. (She was not a true aunt, but he addressed her that way in his letters.) Like Marlow's aunt, Poradowska lived in Brussels and intervened on Conrad's behalf to secure him an appointment as captain of a Congo steamer.

If Conrad was trying to depict Marguerite Poradowska realistically, the portrait was not a very flattering one. The aunt has been swayed by all the "rot let loose in print and talk just about that time," and she prattles about the high (and false) ideals she's been hearing about-civilizing the ignorant masses, and so forth-until finally Marlow has to remind her that the Company is run for profit. Her chatter prompts the first of several passages on "how out of touch with truth women are" (Chapter I)- a reflection that comes home during Marlow's encounter with Kurtz's Intended at the end of the novel.


We learn very little about the actual narrator of the novel, the man who, aboard the Nellie anchored at the mouth of the Thames, hears Marlow spin his yarn and later reports it to us. But we can see that he has been affected by what he hears, as the change in imagery from the beginning to the end of the book indicates. At the outset he's impressed by all the light on the Thames, and he thinks about English nautical history in terms of light-for instance, "bearers of a spark from the sacred fire." By the end, his imagination is full of darkness. If Marlow intends his tale as a warning that we need to pay more heed to the "darkness"- the incomprehensible, the opposite of civilization and progress-then in the case of the narrator, at least, he's made his point.

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