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CHAPTER I (continued)
THE SEPULCHRAL CITY. THE COMPANY
As a boy, Marlow tells the group, he used to be fascinated by maps, especially the blank spaces-places that hadn't yet been explored. (This was true of the young Conrad, too.) At the start of his tale he's a young sailor just back from a stint in the Orient, and looking without much success for work. One day in a shop window he sees a map of the African Congo-one of the blank spaces of his childhood maps and hardly more explored now. The trading companies on the Congo River, he realizes, must use steamboats; it dawns on him that he could get a commission as skipper of one of them.
Since the Congo Free State was a possession of the king of the Belgians, Leopold II, Marlow asks an influential aunt who lives in Brussels to try to help him get a post. She succeeds; a new captain is needed to replace the skipper of one of the Company's boats, who was killed in a scuffle with the Africans.
From 1885 to 1908 the Congo Free State, a territory of almost one million square miles, was the personal property of Leopold II. Leopold spoke in the most exalted terms about civilizing the Africans, yet the exploitation, massacre, and enslavement of the natives got worse with each year of his reign. Heart of Darkness was one of the early expressions of a revulsion that eventually grew to international proportions.
Marlow's nickname for Brussels, "the sepulchral city," comes from the words of Jesus (Matthew 23:27-28): "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres [tombs], which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity." This would make a good description of the Belgians' hypocrisy toward the Congo: they claimed to be guiding and helping the Africans, when in fact they were enslaving and slaughtering them in record numbers.
Marlow never calls Brussels by name, nor, for that matter, does he
name the Company, the Congo, the Congo River, or most of the characters
in the novel. Conrad once wrote that explicitness "is fatal to the
glamour of all artistic work, robbing it of all suggestiveness, destroying
all illusion." Because unnamed cities and characters seem more general,
they can carry a heavier burden of symbolic meaning-and Conrad wanted
to load his novel with symbolic meaning.
Marlow visits the offices of "the Company" that has a large concession in the Congo. They strike him as ominous, disturbing. Two women sit in the outer office, dressed in black and knitting black wool. Marlow fancifully imagines greeting them with the cry of the Roman gladiators. The phrase, in Latin, translates as "Hail! We who are about to die salute you!"- which wouldn't be altogether wrong, since more than half of those who traveled to the Congo never came back. After being introduced briefly to the director of the Company, Marlow is accompanied by a clerk to his medical examination. The clerk prattles about the glories of the Company's business, but when Marlow asks him why he himself hasn't traveled to Africa, he suddenly turns cold and intimates that only a fool would go there. The doctor isn't very reassuring, either. He keeps hinting (though he never says so directly) that if Marlow goes to Africa he may go mad, and he offers the not-very-helpful advice that he should try to "avoid irritation" there. Madness is indeed a terror Marlow will face-and nearly succumb to-in the jungle, but as yet he doesn't know why, though he has an inkling that something isn't right.
Conrad has created an ominous atmosphere before Marlow even leaves for Africa. The Congo River on a map looks like a snake to Marlow, and you don't have to recall that ever since the story of what happened in the Garden of Eden the snake has been a symbol of evil to sense the reason that this image bodes ill for Marlow. He comes right out and says that "it fascinated me as a snake would a bird-a silly little bird." Will it, in some sense, swallow him up, make him its own? Likewise, the Company's offices are gloomy and strange, and its officials behave as if they were all in on some evil secret. And in a sense they are: the secret is the horrible brutality of the Belgians to the black Africans. Marlow isn't naive, but he isn't prepared for the terrible spectacle that will confront him when he gets to the Congo.
Before leaving "the sepulchral city" of Brussels, Marlow pays a visit to the aunt who helped get him his commission. Talking to her he realizes that she must have recommended him not merely as a good sailor but as an exceptional and gifted man as well. He's embarrassed not only because of his natural modesty but, more to the point, because he perceives that he's expected to travel down as an "emissary of light"- an apostle of civilization in the jungle, spreading enlightenment among the ignorant millions. All this rhetoric-the "rot let loose in print and talk just about that time," he calls it-strikes him as hypocritical, and he's disturbed to hear his aunt spouting it.
This discrepancy between the myths and the facts-the unreliability of words-will form one of Conrad's major themes.
Marlow is unable to make his aunt see the truth. Women, he reflects condescendingly, live in a world of beautiful illusions. Marlow's opinions about women strike us as offensive today, but they wouldn't have seemed unusual to Conrad's Victorian audience, which regarded its women-at least its wealthy ones-as fragile creatures who needed to be protected from life and work. (Work, we'll find, is one of Marlow's highest values.) In any case, the passage is an important one; you should keep it in mind when you reach the last scene of Marlow's tale, in which he confronts another woman, a woman whose illusions won't seem so beautiful.