In a first part, we will see that what Marlow finds in this station is clearly not what he expected, and we will see that his ironic – quite unconcerned – description of the people he meets is actually a severe criticism of colonialism. Then in a second part we will see how this criticism is settled through the use of a specific technique of focalization. In the third part we will consider that this discovery of the unknown by Marlow may lead the reader to reflect on metaphysical concerns.
The whole passage is based on a discrepancy between what both the main character, Marlow, and the reader expect to find and what is actually described. We expect the pilgrims, as they are religious representatives, to be pure, wise, spiritual, benevolent, but in the text they are not which is definitely situational irony.
First, they are idle. For example, we have the brick-maker with who Marlow is chatting who does not make bricks for an obscure reason, and so he is waiting. Quote line 11 “the business intrusted to this fellow was the making of bricks, but there wasn’t a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station, and he had been there more than a year – waiting”. And this inactivity seems to be quite contagious because we find line 15 that all the pilgrims are “waiting for something” and it seems to please them because this waiting is described as a “not uncongenial occupation” in line 17.
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Secondly, we discover that they are very grasping, and that they came here only to get money. Indeed, in line 21 “their only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so they could earn percentages”. We get the feeling that upstream from this little station where Marlow is, there is an economic hierarchy that has been implanted with a very particular lexical field associated with it in the passage with words such as “1st class agent”, “manager”, “chief”, “trading post”, “business”, “percentages”, “take advantage of this unfortunate accident”. In line 30 the eyes of the first class agent are “glittering like mica discs with curiosity”, we can also imagine that they are shimmering with cupidity as he considers Marlow as a means to get some favours from the high spheres of the company. They find a pretext for everything and sometimes this irony becomes even grotesque such as when the presence of the bottle of champagne in the agent’s room is justified by “medical comforts”. The pilgrims are turned into derision. What makes their situation funny too, is the use of a euphemism in line 17 “the only thing that came to them was disease”. Actually, here, ‘disease’ surely means that they become physically sick but it can also mean madness since the whole description of those people and of this place leads us to think that they are mad men in a weird environment.
Then, we read that they are malicious. In line 22 “they intrigued and slandered and hated each other”. In line 6 we learn that the other agents consider the one Marlow is talking to as “a spy upon them”. We can perceive that there is a tense atmosphere between the different members of this camp, they are all suspicious at each other, and this is clearly mentioned in the text “there was an air of plotting about that station”.
Those men are here to bring civilization to the local tribes but we can observe an opposite effect. The first class agent’s cabin is heretically ornate with trophies as a tribal chief hut would be. In line 10 “Native mats covered the clay walls; a collection of spears, assegais, shields, knives, was hung up in trophies.”
Eventually, we can argue that those catholic missionaries are described as faithless people who only went to Congo through a religious pretext in order to get something else. Even the word “agent” used to name them is completely deprived from any religious connotation. There is a discrepancy between the fact that they are there to bring the light of Christianity to Congo as King Leopold II of Belgium wanted them to, and also as suggested in the painting made by Kurtz which is displayed in the agent’s cabin, and the fact that all of this is only an excuse to try to get rich, or maybe it is the environment that made them derived from their noble purpose. The moral weakness of these people is one of the characteristics of Conrad’s writing which is to describe fallible and disenchanted characters. The pilgrims confront a conflict between their images of themselves as civilized Europeans and the temptation to abandon morality completely once they leave the context of European society. Finally, this passage seems to be a strong criticism of Belgian colonizers in Congo, as Marlow describes those people as pathetically mediocre. It is openly written in line 20 “everything was unreal: the philanthropic pretense of the whole concern, their talk, their government, their show of work”.
But irony here is used to openly denounce colonialism but also to make the reader smile. And what carries this funny irony is a particular technique of focalization through which the gap between fiction and reality seems smaller.
At first sight, we can easily identify that this text is a narrative text. Reading this excerpt, the narrator can be clearly identified, it is Marlow. We have an internal focalization which is a focus on what the character thinks and feels. The story is seen through his eyes. The story is told in the first person, ‘I’, and Marlow describes only what he witnesses and experiences, and provides his own commentary on the story, sometimes thanks to the expression of his feelings on the situation like in line 27 “I had no idea” or in line 39 “it arrested me”, in line 16 “upon my word”, sometimes between dashes such as in line 12 “so I had been informed”. And we also have a lot of perception verbs such as “I heard, I perceived, It seems, as far as I could see, I noticed”. Because the story is told by a character of the story we call it homogietic focalization. This gives to the text an impression of reality and because the narrative is linear we have the impression to read the log of an adventurer. Thanks to the use of this witness ‘I’, we are forced to believe that what Marlow puts forward is true because he has been there and he has seen it with his own eyes.
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This technique of focalization is interesting because it can put this fiction in parallel with reality. Actually, the story of Marlow looking for Kurtz, lost in the Congo jungle, is echoing to the real story of Sir Henry Morton Stanley looking for David Livingstone in the same place of Africa. But we can also mention that Joseph Conrad actually went to Congo as well a few years before writing this novella. Going to Congo was a dream he had had since he had been a child and we can easily assume that going there, he also faced the horrors caused by colonization and this writing can be considered as confessional.
The question of who is Marlow talking his tale to is interesting as well. We get the impression that in fact Marlow is addressing to an audience when he tells his story because we can notice the presence of inverted commas at the beginning of each paragraph that are never closed as if to remind us that this is just a story Marlow is telling to someone else, like a long monologue, as if this tale was just a story within another story. We also have some clues that lead us to think this story is meant to be verbal, again line 27 “I had no idea”, line 16 “upon my word”, line 23 “but as to effectually lifting a little finger – oh, no. By Heavens!”
This text, which at first sight, seems very accessible is in fact very complex. Conrad uses the character of Marlow as a narrative tool in order to implicitly or explicitly express ideas or judgements but this narrative technique does not allow the reader to identify clearly the character or the author.
III The humorous description of those unvertuous missionaries by Marlow which leads to a strong criticism of colonization also seems to make us deeply think about the notion of good and bad. Indeed, next to religious references for instance in line 26 “the most charitable of saints” or in line 16 “pilgrims”, or in line 45 “an emissary of pity”, Marlow describes those very pilgrims as having some of the seven capital sins : as we said they are idle, overproud, envious and we can also say that the episode of the bottle of Champagne can be related to gluttony. All this is funny, but it can also be associated with the notion of evil.
Moreover this argument can be strengthened since all along the text we have oppositions between darkness and light for instance in line 1 you have an opposition between the glow and the darkness, then further on we have in line 10 the description of the candles which are representative of light, and then of course the description of the painting made by Kurtz to which the opposition of light against darkness is inherent. The prevailing madness settled by the agents’ behavior plus this opposition between darkness and light, already mentioned in the title of the book, but also present in the description of this unknown station may lead the wise reader to think about the depravity of the humane nature.
CCL : As a conclusion, let’s say that this text is clearly a denunciation of Belgian colonization in Congo, the narrator uses irony to describe the people he meets in a station in this country to make the reader laugh at the colonizers and find them ridiculous. However, even if it could be possible to connect those critics of imperialism with Conrad’s personal experience of colonization, the technique of internal focalization overlaps the tale in another which leads to puzzle the reader who finally does not know who is addressing to who and who only has to focus on the message of the text which can be a personal meditation on the dark aspects of human nature.
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