Summary and Analysis
In short, the Company may appear to be "white" and pure, but it is actually quite the opposite, as denoted by the accountant and his white shirt.
Some critics have claimed that Conrad's use of "darkness" to represent evil suggests the racist assumptions of the novel; others argue that the "white" characters in the book are actually more "black" than the natives they slaughter and that Conrad's imagery stresses the hypocrisy of the Company and its "white" employees. Regardless of this critical dispute, a reader should note that Conrad toys with white and black imagery throughout the course of the novel, and of course, in its very title.
Marlow feels like "an imposter" when he leaves the Company's headquarters, because he has joined the ranks of an outfit whose assumptions about Africa and European activity there sharply contrast with his own. Marlow has no imperialistic impulses and only seeks adventure — but he is beginning to see the Company for what it truly is. Thus, Marlow's growing perception of the moral decay around him becomes one of the major issues of the novel.
Like the Company headquarters, Africa itself is initially portrayed as an enchanting and intriguing place. The continent is described as unfinished and "still in the making," possessing an air that beguiles Europeans to "Come and find out" if they can survive there.
This portrayal of Africa as an untouched paradise, however, is quickly countered by Marlow's description. He notices a French man-of-war firing its guns into the bush; the "pop" made by its guns highlights the Company's ineffectual attempts to subdue the continent. Similarly, Marlow notices a boiler lying in the grass, an unused railway car resembling "the carcass of some animal," a series of explosions that do nothing to change the rock they are attempting to remove, an "artificial hole" the purpose of which he cannot discern, and a ravine filled with broken drainage pipes. Stunned by these images of chaos, Marlow remarks, "The work was going on. The work!" Clearly, these signs of waste and ineptitude are not what Marlow expected to see upon his arrival; these discarded machines symbolize the complete disregard of the Company for making any real progress in the Congo, as well as the disorganization that marks its day-to-day operations.
Even more disturbing to Marlow is the "grove of death": a shady spot where some of the natives — like the machinery mentioned previously — are dying without anyone seeming to notice or care. Calling them "nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation" and "bundles of acute angles," Marlow attempts to show some charity by offering one of them a biscuit; the dying native, however, can only grasp it in his hand, too weak to even bring it to his mouth. Marlow notices that this man has "a bit of white worsted" tied around his neck and puzzles over its meaning, but the reader can see that the wool is symbolic of the Company's "collaring" the natives and treating them like animals. Disturbed Marlow leaves the grove to soothe his shaken mind. Rather than confront the horror head-on, he retreats; later he will not have this luxury.
Marlow moves from the natives to a European: the Company's chief accountant, who suggests the immense amount of money that the Company is making from its campaign of terror and whose dress is impeccable. Again the reader sees the Company's attempts to array itself in colors and façades of purity. Marlow calls the Accountant a "miracle" because of his ability to keep up a dignified European appearance amidst the sweltering and muddy jungle. (He even has a penholder behind his ear.) Completely and willingly oblivious to the horrors around him, the Accountant cares only for figures and his own importance: When a sick agent is temporarily placed in his hut, the Accountant complains. He also tells Marlow, "When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages — hate them to the death." To the Company, as embodied in the Accountant, profits take precedence over human life and the bottom line is more important than any higher law of humanity.
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