Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
CHAPTER II (continued)
The fog finally lifts, and the boat sets off again. Pay particular attention to Conrad's technique in the episode that follows. Conrad has often been called an "impressionist" novelist, and it's easy to see why from his description of the attack. Marlow gives us a string of unconnected impressions, telling us not what happened but exactly what he saw and felt. Only afterward does he put his impressions together and make sense out of them. We get a sense of sensations followed by a deduction: Marlow is annoyed to see his poleman (the man who operates the pole with which they test the depth of the water) lie down flat on the deck, and is amazed when his fireman sits down in front of the furnace and ducks his head. Just then he catches sight of a snag ahead of them. At the same time, he notices a shower of sticks whizzing around him. Finally he puts it all together and makes the deduction: "Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at!" Notice, by the way, that in his series of impressions he includes the sighting of the snag, which doesn't relate to the arrows and the actions of the poleman and the fireman, but which has equal rank as a sensation.
They get around the snag, barely, and Marlow dashes into the pilot-house (which contains the steering wheel) to close the shutter on the land side. The black helmsman (the man who operates the steering wheel) is hysterical, stamping and snorting and steering so badly that they're only ten feet from the bank. Marlow has to lean all the way out to grab the shutter, and when he does, all at once he makes out the whole swarm of naked arms and legs and chests, the army of tribesmen.
Marlow spots another snag ahead, but before he can get a good look at it,
the pilgrims on deck below start firing wildly, and he's blinded by the
smoke rising from their rifles. The Africans on shore start to howl, and
the blacks on the boat raise a warlike whoop in return. A rifle explodes
at Marlow's back-the fool of a helmsman has abandoned the wheel, thrown
open the shutter Marlow just closed, and he's firing the rifle at the
bank. Marlow makes a dash for the wheel. Since he can't see the snag,
the best he can do is steer close to the bank, where he knows the water
is deep, and hope for the best.
In the incident that follows we again get an excellent example of Conrad's impressionist technique. The crazy helmsman is still at the open shutter, shaking the empty rifle and yelling at the shore. Suddenly he drops the gun overboard and falls against the steering wheel. He appears to be holding a long cane at his side; it looks like in wrenching it away from one of the warriors on shore he lost his balance and fell back. Somehow they clear the second snag. Then Marlow feels something warm and wet on his feet, and looks down. At once he puts his impressions together and realizes what's happened. His feet are covered with blood: the helmsman was speared and he's bleeding to death on the floor of the cabin. Marlow reaches for the line of the steam whistle and sends out a series of screeches. The warlike yells stop, and the attackers let out a long wail of fear and despair before they flee in terror.
One of the pilgrims appears in the doorway, and Marlow puts the horrified man at the wheel. Actually, the uppermost thought in his mind is to get out of his bloody shoes and socks. It isn't unusual for people in extreme situations to fasten their minds on such details, and Marlow's fixation on his shoes is comic and gruesome at the same time. But we may also wonder whether irritation and hardship aren't taking their toll on Marlow's nerves. The doctor in Brussels had warned him to "avoid irritation" and dropped hints about madness (I, 2). Is Marlow, perhaps, getting closer to the brink of insanity?
"He is dead," the pilgrim observes from the steering wheel; and Marlow agrees rather inanely, "No doubt about it," adding that by this time Mr. Kurtz is probably dead, too-murdered by these hostile natives.