The Group of Listeners to Marlow’s Story
The four men, sitting on the deck of the ship called the “Nellie” and listening to their companion by the name of Charles Marlow, play no role at all in the actual story. These four men, therefore, do not concern us much except in connection with our consideration of the structure of the novel and the technique of narration in it. It is only the fifth man, Charles Marlow, who really matters.
He is the narrator of the main story, and he is supremely important in the novel which deals with his experiences in the Congo. This man possesses extraordinary powers of observation, of perception, of reflection, of meditation, and of analysis. He is a man of action who, at the same time, has a strong philosophical bent of mind and a penetrating psychological insight. It is through this man’s eyes that we witness the state of affairs in the Congo; and it is through his mind and his thoughts that we arrive at our own conclusions about what was happening in a dark country conquered by the whites who were ostensibly civilizing the savages but who were actually pursuing their own selfish aims to satisfy their greed and appease their lust for power and pelf. Marlow represents, to a large extent, Conrad’s own reactions to things and people, and he represents Conrad’s own view-point. Marlow is the colossus that bestrides the novel. Of course Mr. Kurtz is the dominating character in the story, but the story is told by Marlow who is the chief narrator in the book and who possesses an exceptional intelligence and extraordinary powers of thinking and meditation, besides an unusual capacity for observation. He may be regarded as the moving spirit behind the whole book. It is through his eyes that we look at the Belgian Congo of Conrad’s time, and it is through his eyes that we look at people including the personality and character of Mr. Kurtz. And it is because of his liking for Mr. Kurtz that we also feel somewhat inclined to take a lenient view of Mr. Kurtz’s vices and degradation. As already pointed out, Marlow represents Conrad himself; and that is why he appears to us to be an excellent combination of a capacity for offering us with a philosophical commentary, and a psychological insight into the characters of people.
The Two Knitting Women
These two women have no part to play in the action of the novel, but they are important in a symbolic sense. The elder one of the two seems to Marlow to know everything about everybody including himself. He thinks of the elder woman as one who possesses supernatural powers. The two together seem to him to be guarding the door of darkness. They are knitting black wool as if they were weaving a shroud for the unknown dead. Symbolically these women represent the Fates of ancient mythology. In other words, they are to be imagined as the arbiters of the destiny of every human being in this world. Marlow’s seeing them is only a bad omen for the voyage which he is going to undertake.
Marlow’s aunt is described by Marlow as a “dear, enthusiastic soul”. It is she who is instrumental in getting Marlow a job in the service of a Belgian trading company. She expresses the view that the white men, who visit the interior of any dark country, do a great service to the natives because they have a civilizing effect on these ignorant and backward people. Marlow does not share this view and, in this context, he says that women live in a world of their own, a world which is divorced from the stark realities of life.
The Company’s Doctor
The doctor is not an ordinary member of the medical profession. He is a physician-cum-psychologist. He not only examines the health of the body, but also measures the skulls, of the men whom he examines for admission to the company’s service. He is interested in studying the effects of the climate and the environment of the African countries upon the minds of the visiting Europeans. He speaks to Marlow half jokingly and half earnestly. On the whole he is an interesting man who provides the basis for several touches of humour in Marlow’s narration.
The Company’s Chief Accountant
This man’s chief qualification is that he keeps his account-books in perfect order and that, furthermore, he maintains a neat and tidy personal appearance. Marlow finds him flawlessly and neatly dressed in the midst of the squalor and the sordid surroundings. Indeed, Marlow thinks it a great achievement on the part of this man to dress so well in this environment. However, this man strikes us as being partly a comic figure because of his continuing to dress himself nicely even though it is not at all necessary for him to do so at the place where he lives. His starched collar, white cuffs, snowy trousers, and varnished boots seem to be out of tune with his surroundings.
The Manager of the Central Station
The manager is a self-important man who does not even ask Marlow to take a seat when Marlow appears before him first after his twenty-mile walk that day. Marlow tells us that the manager inspired neither love nor fear nor respect in anybody, and that he inspired only “uneasiness” in people. Marlow further says that there was nothing “within” this man. The manager has neither learning nor intelligence; but he does_ have ambition. He feels jealous of Mr. Kurtz because he thinks that Mr. Kurtz might one day supersede him and rise to the topmost position.
The brick-maker is a brick-maker in name only because he makes no bricks; and he makes no bricks because the raw materials for the making of bricks are not available to him. Having no bricks to make, the only function he performs is to serve as a kind of assistant to the manager who also makes use of this man as his spy and informer. The brick-maker provides to Marlow plenty of miscellaneous ‘information about various matters pertaining to the conditions prevailing in this region, and also pertaining to the various persons including Mr. Kurtz.
The Manager’s Boy-Servant
The manager’s boy-servant is described by Marlow as an overfed young negro who treats the white men, in the very presence of his master, in a very insolent manner. It is this boy-servant who ultimately reports Mr. Kurtz’s death to his master and the others who are taking their dinner in the mess-room of the ship. The words which he speaks at this time have become famous. Speaking in a tone of scathing contempt, this boy-servant. says: “Mistah Kurtz––he dead.”
The Manager’s Uncle
The manager’s uncle is the leader of an expedition called the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. In appearance, this man resembles a butcher working in a poor neighbourhood; and his eyes have an expression of cunning in them. He has a fat belly and short legs. Thus he looks a comic figure but he is actually a villain who shows his craftiness in his conversation with his nephew (the manager of the Company’s Central Station).
The Russian looks like a harlequin or clown because of the multicoloured clothes which he wears. He is an adventurer who travels to satisfy his spirit of adventure and also to gather knowledge. He is a seasoned seaman, and very fond of smoking tobacco, with a preference for English tobacco. This Russian is a great admirer of Mr. Kurtz, and he gives Marlow plenty of information about that man and that man’s influence over the natives. His devotion to Mr. Kurtz is very touching, indeed.
Mr. Kurtz is the central figure in the novel. Although the main theme of the novel is the conditions prevailing in the Belgian Congo as witnessed by Marlow (or Conrad), yet Mr. Kurtz seems to dominate the novel. He is actually an agent of the Belgian trading company but, by virtue of his special talents, he becomes a kind of god in the eyes of the natives. In course of time, he acquires so much influence and prestige at the station where he is posted that the chiefs of the native tribes come crawling to him in order to pay their homage to him. He becomes a cult-figure for the savages of the whole region; and he begins to share many of the beliefs, superstitions, and customs of these people. He presides over the midnight dances of the savages which always end with “unspeakable rites.” Mr. Kurtz has extraordinary gifts of speech and conversation. His speeches are marked by exceptional, eloquence. Although he is bitterly disliked by the white manager of the Central Station and by the other white men working in the Congo, yet he is able to win the admiration and devotion not only of a Russian explorer but also of Marlow who is a most intelligent and experienced man. Mr. Kurtz dies while being brought back from his station to be sent back to Europe because of his illness.
The Native Woman
The native woman who appears on the scene towards the end of the story has a very impressive and majestic appearance. She wields a lot of influence over the savages because of her closeness to Mr. Kurtz. In fact, she controls Mr. Kurtz’s household and may be regarded as his housekeeper. Perhaps she has also been his mistress. On one occasion she had come into conflict with the Russian who, thereafter, has never trusted her, and who has always been on his guard against her. She does not want that Mr. Kurtz should be taken away by the white men from his headquarters, but she feels helpless in the face of the determination of the manager and his assistants to take the ailing Mr. Kurtz away. She is perhaps intended by the author to_ be regarded by us as the finest specimen of the womanhood in the wilds of the Congo.
Mr. Kurtz’s Fiancee
Mr. Kurtz’s intended is a fine woman who is very devoted to him. If he had lived, he would surely have married her. She has been waiting for him to return, but she feels terribly disappointed and grieved on learning about his’ death. When Marlow meets her a year after Mr. Kurtz’s death, he finds her still in mourning. She speaks to Marlow in glowing terms about Mr. Kurtz, and about Mr. Kurtz’s ideas and ideals. However, she is living in a world of illusions. If she had known the reality about Mr. Kurtz, she would have felt terrified of him. As it is, she cherishes sweet memories of the man. She feels very touched when Marlow tells her that Mr. Kurtz’s last word was her name. Of course, Marlow has told her a lie, but she does not know that it is a lie, and, therefore, she feels immensely pleased and deeply moved on being told that her lover’s last thoughts were about her.
Some Other Characters
A few other minor characters may be mentioned here. One is the foreman or a boiler-maker by trade. He is a good worker and, a widower with six young children. The passion, of his life is pigeon-flying; and he is an enthusiast and a connoisseur in this field. However, he hardly plays any role in the story except helping Marlow in repairing the wrecked steamer. Then there is the helmsman who steers Marlow’s steamer for a part of the voyage but is then killed by the attacking natives. Marlow says that the helmsman was a fool because he got killed through a blunder of his own. According to Marlow, this man had no restraint––just like Kurtz. The cannibal crew of Marlow’s steamer also deserve a word. These men are willing workers and, although they feel a Braving for human flesh, they do not attack the white men on board the steamer to eat their flesh. Thus they possess self-restraint which even Mr. Kurtz did not possess. Finally, there are the persons who call on Marlow in Brussels in order to obtain from him the packet of papers and the photograph which Mr. Kurtz had given to him. These persons include (i) a clean-shaved man with an official manner and wearing gold-rimmed spectacles; (ii) a cousin of Mr. Kurtz; and (iii) a journalist.