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THE MANAGER AND HIS UNCLE
One evening as Marlow lies snoozing on the deck of his steamer, he's awakened by a conversation. The manager and his uncle are talking beside the boat; they don't realize Marlow's sleeping on top of it.
Conrad was trying here to capture the feel of a half-heard conversation. For that reason, you may find their talk a little hard to follow, especially at first. But it helps to know that the two men are talking about Kurtz. The manager, it appears, feels just as threatened by Kurtz as the brickmaker did: "Look at the influence that man must have," he tells his uncle. "Is it not frightful?" (The manager and the brickmaker are eager to attribute as much of their rival's success as they can to "influence"; it's easier to admit that he's more influential than that he's more talented than they are.) The uncle, in his turn, suggests callously that the climate may take care of the problem-with a little luck, Kurtz could die out there alone at the Inner Station. (We know already that he's rumored to be ill.) The manager is also irked about an insolent note Kurtz sent him. But Kurtz keeps sending back ivory, and lots of it, which impresses Company higher-ups, though it infuriates the manager.
Some months ago, we learn, Kurtz began his return trip on the river, with a clerk and a huge shipment of ivory. But 300 miles along the way he decided, for some reason, to turn back. The clerk, who brought the ivory the rest of the way to the Central Station, reported that Kurtz had been seriously ill and that he'd "recovered imperfectly." What could possibly have caused a sick man to return to a lonely outpost where there are no other civilized whites?
Actually, Kurtz isn't the only white man at the station. We learn by putting
together bits and pieces of the manager's talk that some sort of wandering
trader is out there, too. The presence of a non-Company trader angers
the manager still further: he calls him "unfair competition"
and declares that he ought to be hanged. The blood-thirsty uncle immediately
agrees that the scoundrel should be hanged: "Anything-anything can
be done in this country," he tells his nephew, meaning that out here
in the wilderness the manager's word is law.
The manager goes on ranting about Kurtz. He's especially galled by the ideals Kurtz was always spouting when he was at the Central Station. "Each station," Kurtz had said, sounding very much like the "emissary of pity and science and progress" the brickmaker had called him (I, 5), "should be like a beacon" (note the image of light) "on the road toward better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing." This prompts the manager to comment, "That ass!" to which he adds bitterly, "And he wants to be manager!" No wonder he feels threatened.
What have we learned about Kurtz so far? Little by little we're getting hints that all isn't right with him. Since we know that he's ill and probably in need of medication, it's hard to explain why he would return to his lonely outpost. We've been told twice now-by the brickmaker and by the manager-that he's a man of the highest moral ideals; but we also know that he's living in a land with "no external checks" (I, 4), no laws, a land where, as the uncle declares, "anything can be done" if you have the authority of the gun. The question is: alone in the jungle, has Kurtz been able to stay loyal to his ideals?
The manager's own health has been "like a charm," but most of the agents who come to Africa, he says, sicken and
die more quickly than he can send them out of the country. "Ah, my boy," the uncle reassures him once again, the
jungle will take care of Kurtz. "Trust to this," he tells his nephew, and he points to the foreboding land-"to the
lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.... The high stillness confronted these two
Conrad invests the jungle with human qualities, as if it were some kind of patient monster waiting for the "fantastic invasion" of white men to pass-or waiting to pounce on them. This technique is called personification, and Conrad will use it throughout to portray the wilderness. By giving the dark jungle intelligence, and a certain malice, he achieves some of his creepiest effects.
The uncle's gesture toward the forest is so eerie and so startling that Marlow forgets himself and leaps to his feet on the boat. The noise scares the wits out of the two men, and after swearing from sheer fright they hurry off at once to the station.