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CHAPTER III

THE RUSSIAN'S STORY

As the excitable, clownish young Russian prattles on, Marlow envies his pure "spirit of adventure," not to mention "the glamour of youth" in him. But he doesn't envy him his devotion to Kurtz. We already know how little value Marlow places on talk. Now the impressionable youth tells him how Kurtz's eloquence swayed him and made him into a follower.

In his digression on Kurtz (II, 5), Marlow had cited the saint and the fool as types of people who, even alone in the jungle, were safe from the lure of madness, the call of the darkness: "Of course you may be too much of a fool to go wrong-too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of darkness." The Russian is just such a character; dressed in motley, he even looks like a conventional fool. He's a simple man utterly lacking in malice, he couldn't harm a fly. Even though he's lived side-by-side with a man who's sunk to the most gruesome depths of evil, he seems untouched by the horror of it; he hardly even recognizes it. There's something sweet and likable about him, though you certainly can't approve of his attachment to Kurtz. He explains it simply: "I have no great thoughts"; and Kurtz, we know, is made up of one "great thought" after another-which isn't to say that the thoughts have any more substance than the empty, high-toned words of his report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. But the simple, trusting fool can't make this distinction.

The station house is decayed. It turns out that Kurtz hardly lived there. He would disappear for long stretches into the forest, where he'd discovered a lake and gotten to know the Africans living around it. His guns made him seem like a god to them. Remember the words of Kurtz's report to the International Society: the white men "must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings-we approach them with might as of a deity" (II, 5). Kurtz had used these Africans as his personal army to raid others for ivory. He isn't a brilliant trader after all, just another ruthless plunderer, no better than the "burglars" of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Once he even threatened to shoot the Russian, who was hoarding a small quantity of ivory-"because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him from killing whom he jolly well pleased." Nothing, that is, but the restraint he lacks. The law of the jungle, as it's expressed here in the words of Kurtz, recalls the words of the manager's despicable uncle: "Get him hanged! Why not? Anything-anything can be done in this country." Kurtz isn't, ultimately, a much better man.


Kurtz hated what was happening to him, the Russian continues, but the wilderness had a grip on him and he couldn't tear himself away. Marlow, meanwhile, is nervously sweeping his telescope along the side span of the jungle. He spots an object so startling that he reels back in surprise. Earlier he had mentioned the ornamental balls on the upright posts in front of the house; through the telescope he sees that these carved balls are really human heads. Returning to a favorite theme, Marlow reflects that the heads showed that Kurtz "lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts." He also thinks Kurtz ultimately understood this failing: "I think the knowledge came to him at last-only at the very last." (This is a foreshadowing that you should keep in mind; later on it will provide a clue to the meaning of Kurtz's final, enigmatic words.) But when the young Russian ventures to tell Marlow more about the dark ceremonies Kurtz took part in, Marlow cuts him off angrily (disappointing curious readers, perhaps). Suddenly he's too disgusted to hear more details; he feels as though he's been confronted by a horror far worse than "pure, uncomplicated savagery," which he says "has a right to exist-obviously-in the sunshine."

NOTE:

Savages may be primitive, but they aren't evil. Whatever Conrad means by the darkness, it isn't, finally, simple savagery. Savages may be immersed in the darkness of ignorance (the darkness that "enlightenment" is supposed to combat), but not in the darkness of evil-Kurtz's darkness. That wicked aspect of the darkness enters the picture only when somebody civilized plunges to savagery-it's the darkness of atavism. It isn't a disgrace to be uncivilized, unless you were civilized to begin with.

Marlow is disgusted with the Russian, too, who has disgraced himself at least in the sense that he's "crawled as much as the veriest savage of them all" in bowing down to the "magnificent eloquence" of Kurtz. But circumstances are too much for this poor, loyal fool, and he breaks down: he's been struggling to save Kurtz's life, he hasn't slept for ten nights, there's been no medicine, no proper food, Kurtz was "shamefully abandoned.... Shamefully!
Shamefully!" We know from Marlow's earlier hint that the manager sabotaged the steamboat, that he may be right.

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