Summary and Analysis
When Marlow visits Brussels to get his appointment, he describes the city as a "whited sepulcher" — a Biblical phrase referring to a hypocrite or person who employs a façade of goodness to mask his or her true malignancy. The Company, like its headquarters, is a similar "whited sepulcher," proclaiming its duty to bring "civilization" and "light" to Africa in the name of Christian charity, but really raping the land and its people in the name of profit and the lust for power. Marlow's aunt, who talks to him about "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways" serves as an example of how deeply the Company's propaganda has been ingrained into the minds of Europeans. Uncomfortable with his aunt's ideas, Marlow suggests that the Company is simply "run for profit"; before he sees how these profits are acquired, he is blissfully unaware of the Company's depravity. Marlow dwells in the realm of wishful thinking, wanting to believe that the Company has no imperialistic impulses and is simply an economic enterprise, much like the ones to which he is accustomed as a European.
The first glimpse Marlow and the reader have of the Company's headquarters hints at the organization's sinister, evil, and conspiratorial atmosphere. First, Marlow "slipped through one of the cracks" to enter the building, implying that the Company is figuratively "closed" in terms of what it allows the public to learn about its operations.
Second, the two women knitting black wool suggest the Fates of Greek mythology; like these goddesses, the Company is "knitting" the destiny of the Africans, represented by the black wool. The Company, therefore, plays God with the lives of the Africans, deciding who in the Congo will live or die.
Third, Marlow is led into a dimly lit office — the lighting reflects the "shady" and ambiguous morals of the Company. He only speaks with the Company's President for forty-five seconds, suggesting that the Company views Marlow — and people like him — as expendable.
Fourth, Marlow is asked to sign "some document" that ostensibly contracts him to not reveal "any trade secrets," but figuratively suggests the selling of his soul to the Devil. (As the Manager of the Central Station will later remark about Africa, "Men who come out here should have no entrails.") As the Devil seeks human souls to overthrow God in Heaven eventually, the Company is metaphorically seeking to acquire the souls of as many Europeans as possible to make greater profits.
Fifth, when Marlow is examined by the Company's Doctor, he learns that many Europeans who venture to Africa become mad: When the Doctor begins measuring Marlow's skull, the reader infers Conrad's point that European "science" and "technology" (even with a science as ludicrous as phrenology) are no match for the power of the jungle. When "civilized" Europeans go to Africa, the restraints placed upon them by European society begin to vanish, resulting in the kind of behavior previously seen in Fresleven. Later in the novel, when his anger begins to grow after finding all of his gear damaged by the porters, Marlow ironically remarks, "I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting."
Also worth noting is the abundance of white and dark images in these opening pages of Marlow's narrative. The Congo is described as a "white patch" on a map, Fresleven was killed in a scuffle over two black hens, Brussels is a "whited sepulcher," the two women knit black wool and the old one wears a "starched white affair," the President's secretary has white hair, and the Doctor has black ink-stains on his sleeves. Many critics have commented (sometimes inconclusively) on Conrad's use of white and black imagery; generally, one should note how the combination of white and black images suggests several of the novel's ideas:
The Company claims to be a means by which (as Marlow's aunt calls them), "emissaries of light" can bring civilization to the "darkness" of Africa, which is done by denoting Brussels as white and the Congo as white.
The White men in the novel (particularly Marlow and Kurtz) will be greatly influenced by their experiences with the Africans.
Although the Company professes to be a force of "White" moral righteousness, it is actually "spotted" with "black" spots of sin and inhumanity, and the corpses of the black natives that are found throughout the Congo.
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