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CHAPTER III (continued)
KURTZ. HIS MISTRESS. DEPARTURE OF THE RUSSIAN
A group now appears from behind the house, and more than two thirds of the way through the novel Kurtz finally makes his appearance, borne on a stretcher. Suddenly a cry pierces the quiet afternoon (as a cry had pierced the silence of the fog that morning) and the clearing fills with an army of barbarous warriors. Unless Kurtz says the right thing to them now, the Russian whispers, they'll all be slaughtered. Marlow bitterly resents being at the mercy of a villain like Kurtz. He can see him out there, emaciated, phantomlike; and he can hear his strong, deep voice. Of course, it's appropriate that Kurtz, the man of words, turns out to be a booming voice and not much more. Apparently he says the right thing, because the savages vanish into the forest and Kurtz is carried onto the boat. He's still heavily armed with the weapons that made him a god to the Africans.
The prototype for Kurtz was Georges Antoine Klein, a French employee of a Belgian concern in Africa, who died of dysentery, much like Kurtz, aboard a steamer on the Congo River. (Conrad was aboard the steamer when Klein died.) Dysentery is an emaciating disease, and its horrifying effects are probably behind Marlow's description of his first view of Kurtz: "I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arms waving. It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand...."
The mention of ivory is important symbolically. Earlier, during his
digression on Kurtz, Marlow said, "The wilderness had patted him
on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball-an ivory ball" (II,
5). Now his whole body looks like ivory. This is a fitting image, since
Kurtz has been possessed by the greed for ivory, just as the ruthless
Spanish conquistadors were possessed by greed for the gold of Eldorado.
This isn't the only image for his obsessive greed. Marlow tells us, "I
saw him open his mouth wide-it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as
though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men
As the warriors move about indistinctly in the forest, Marlow turns his gaze to a magnificent African woman striding back and forth along the shore, her ornaments flashing in the dying sunlight. Wild-eyed, passionate, dangerous, she symbolizes to Marlow the very soul of the jungle-savage, a thing to admire but also to fear. Note that his phrasing specifically connects her with the wilderness. Earlier he had sensed in the jungle "an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention" (II, 2); now he tells us the woman had "an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose." She comes up to the steamer and gazes fiercely at the men on board; then, at a signal from her, the warriors dart out of the forest, ready for blood. Everyone waits tensely. But now that she's shown her power, she turns away and walks slowly into the forest.
The opposition between Kurtz and the manager comes to a head. Marlow hears Kurtz in his cabin ranting furiously, "You with your little peddling notions-you are interfering with me." The manager emerges, trying to look compassionate but obviously gleeful at the downfall of his rival. Immediately he expresses his disapproval of Kurtz's crimes: "Deplorable! Upon the whole, the trade will suffer." Kurtz was entirely right about his "little peddling notions": it isn't Kurtz's evil or his brutality that disturbs the manager; it's his bad business sense. In fact, the worst he can say for Kurtz's "vigorous action" is that "the time was not ripe" for it-as if it ever would be. But bureaucrat that he is, the manager can hardly wait to deliver the final blow by filing a full report with the Company.
Marlow is disgusted. "it seemed to me I had never breathed an atmosphere so vile, and I turned mentally to Kurtz for relief-positively for relief." Kurtz may be evil, but something about the manager is even worse; if the two of them represent "a choice of nightmares," then Marlow is ready to choose. Just as he was prepared to lie to the brickmaker in order to help Kurtz, whom he hadn't even met, he's prepared to defend him-even though he's learned the ugly truth-before the manager. Why does he prefer the nightmare of Kurtz? We should recall his statement that "Whatever he was, he was not common" (II, 5); in fact, he tells the manager, Kurtz is "a remarkable man." The manager isn't remarkable or even competent (we've already seen the chaos of his Central Station); he's merely a "common trader" (I, 4), but also petty and conniving and greedy and, in his own colorless way, just as murderous and evil, under the surface of appearances, as Kurtz, though there's no speck of greatness in him as there is in Kurtz. Conrad uses him to stand for the crimes of all the white men in Africa-hence the depth of Marlow's disgust. Marlow gets rid of him with a sarcastic remark.
Presently the Russian interrupts his grim thoughts. He's afraid Marlow is going to repeat what he's learned about Kurtz from him once he gets back to civilization. Marlow assures him that Mr. Kurtz's reputation is safe with him. (He doesn't know, as the end of the book will reveal, how truly he speaks. Marlow has made his choice of nightmares, and now he's destined to stay loyal to Kurtz.) The Russian is also nervous about his own life, and Marlow, remembering the conversation between the manager and his uncle, tells him he's right to be: "The manager thinks you ought to be hanged." The man of patches decides he'd better clear out at once. But first he makes a final admission to Marlow: Kurtz himself ordered the attack on the steamer, thinking it would scare the party away or that they'd give him up for dead-which they almost did. "He hated sometimes the idea of being taken away." And then he vanishes in the night.
Another set of images you should take note of is part of a pattern that's been developing since Chapter I. Marlow describes Kurtz as a "phantom," an "apparition," a "shadow." Back when he was first sailing to Africa on the French steamer, Marlow got an odd feeling that something was keeping him "away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion" (I, 3). At the Central Station, the air of plotting, the philanthropic pretense, the pilgrims' talk and their phony show of work were "unreal"- "By Jove! I've never seen anything so unreal in all my life" (II, 5). And when he let the brickmaker think that he really did have influence in Europe, he told us, "I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims" (II, 5).
The "phantom" Kurtz belongs to the realm of illusions,
the realm of words. He's even deluded himself: "I'll carry my ideals
out yet-I will return. I'll show you what can be done," he cries
to the manager. To this unreal world Marlow opposes (as we already know)
the value of work, which gives you the chance to find "your own reality"
(I, 6). To take one example, the Russian's little book on seamanship,
with its charts and numbers and diagrams, had "an honest concern
for the right way of going to work," and thus it struck Marlow as
"something unmistakably real" (II,
Marlow makes an exception in his principles for women, who don't work and who live in a world of "beautiful illusions" of which he seems to approve. We'll hear more about this subject in the final pages of the novel. It's hard to say why he should excuse women-except that for a Victorian writer like Conrad women simply didn't work, that was the order of things. (We may disagree strongly today.) In any case, women's world of "beautiful illusions" is very different from the ugly realm of delusions that Kurtz has created in the jungle.