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CHAPTER I (continued)
AFRICA. THE OUTER STATION
From the beginning, Africa creates an unsettling impression for Marlow. For example, he watches a battleship firing its guns at the overgrown bank; the ship seems tiny and helpless against the immensity of the jungle, almost as if it were attempting to fire not at men but at a continent. The image gives us a sense of the littleness of human beings against the immensity of the jungle; it suggests that conquering the jungle is a task so tremendous that it's almost hopeless.
The sailors on board that French ship, Marlow learns, are dying at the rate of three a day. Disease was then the greatest hazard one faced in Africa. Conrad, too, came down with dysentery during his journey to the Congo; and Marlow himself will face a bout of fever before the end.
A Swedish captain takes Marlow from the mouth of the Congo upstream to the Company's Outer Station. Talking to Marlow the Englishman, this captain seems contemptuous of the Belgian officials there. He, too, seems to suggest that the jungle is a stronger opponent than most Europeans think; and he hints that it can drive you mad, mentioning another man he recently brought upriver, who ended up hanging himself.
When Marlow reaches the Outer Station he's appalled by practically everything he finds there. The place is a nightmare of disorder and inefficiency. Machinery is rusting in the grass; a shipment of imported pipes lies smashed at the bottom of a ravine. A cliff wall is being dynamited to make way for a railroad (even though it doesn't seem to Marlow to be in the way of anything) but the explosion seems to have no effect at all on the rock. Again, the jungle-so romantic and unthreatening when Marlow envisioned it back in London-now seems so immense, so powerful, that the white man's puny efforts to bring order into it look pathetic.
Marlow hears a clinking noise and he turns to see a chain gang of raggedy, emaciated blacks, iron collars around their necks. This gruesome vision disgusts Marlow, and he moves aside to let them get ahead and out of sight.
These men are our first view of the brutality that will form so much a part of Marlow's Congo experience: they are criminals according to a set of European laws that they could never hope to understand. They're followed by a self-important African guard who doesn't understand any better.
But he's about to witness something even more terrible. He steps down into a gloomy grove and discovers a group of dying Africans. These men aren't legally criminals or slaves either, though they're bound by "time contracts" to work for set periods. They certainly don't understand contracts and probably don't even understand time. These victims are workers who have become diseased and worn out, maybe because of the unfamiliar food or the unpleasant surroundings far from their homes. So they're allowed to crawl away and die. They're a perfect, vivid emblem of what the white man has done to the black man in Africa.
For his part, Marlow is horrified. Glancing down, he sees a face near
his hand; he reaches nervously into his pocket and comes out with a cracker.
Marlow's description of his gesture is typically self-effacing; he isn't
given to celebrating his own virtues. As a gesture of compassion, his
action may not seem like much, but it surpasses anything we're going to
see from the other white men in the novel, who don't even seem to perceive
the Africans as human.
Marlow has had enough. He climbs uphill to the Station's main buildings. Soon he encounters a character who seems to embody the very opposite of all the disorder, ugliness, and futility he's seen so far. The man is wearing snowy white trousers, a light jacket, and polished boots; he has carefully brushed and parted his hair and he's holding a parasol to protect his skin from the sun. He turns out to be the Company's' chief accountant. Before long Marlow has a chance to observe him at his job, and he's impressed with the precision and neatness with which he manages his paperwork, just as he's impressed with the appearance that he manages to keep up in the middle of such confusion. He's the only example we've seen of the "devotion to efficiency" that Marlow said (I, 1) was the only excuse for colonization.
But the chief accountant is so fanatically devoted to efficiency in the form of neatness and precision that it becomes hard to admire or even like him. When one of the Company's agents is brought into his office to lie out of the sun, he shows no interest or sympathy, though the agent is feverish, delirious, and apparently at death's door. In fact, he complains that the man's groans make it difficult for him to concentrate on his work. When the Africans outside raise a shout about something, he tells Marlow that the distractions they create have made him "hate them to the death." The chief accountant understands the values of the numbers in his ledger books better than he understands the value of a life. If he exhibits virtues of orderliness that most of the Belgian colonizers utterly lack, he also shares a common failing with them: a lack of compassion, of feeling, of respect for life.
One day the accountant mentions a certain Mr. Kurtz, whom Marlow will no doubt meet upriver. When Marlow inquires about this Kurtz, the accountant tells him that he's a remarkable agent of the Company. From his post at the Inner Station (about one thousand miles away, we later learn), he's managed to send back more ivory than all the other agents combined. Apparently he has a high reputation in the Company's European office; the accountant is sure that he's going to be promoted into the administration soon, and that "he will go far, very far."
This is the first mention of a character who will become pivotal to Marlow's tale. At this point he's only the vague form of an efficient agent. But as Marlow gets closer and closer to the Inner Station, Mr. Kurtz will sharpen into grim focus.