Academic journal article Conrad Studies

Marlow's Narrative (I)

Academic journal article Conrad Studies

Marlow's Narrative (I)

Article excerpt

i. (a) The Company's Headquarters

MARLOW PROCEEDS to tell us how he got the appointment which took him to Africa. After "loafing ashore" for a while, he had sought unsuccessfully a further seafaring post; then one day the sight of a map of Africa had re-awakened his boyhood fascination by unexplored regions, and he had decided to apply for command of a steamboat plying the Congo. Through the agency of an aunt living in Europe, he had a successful interview with a director of a huge trading company, and, after an examination by the company's doctor and a further meeting with his aunt, set off on the journey to Africa.

This part of the narrative offers various kinds of relief to the reader. The previous pages of the tale have been difficult for him to negotiate: he has been thrown to and fro in time, from the "present" to the days of the Roman conquest and back again, and he has been passed from one first-person narrator to another. But now he can settle into acceptance of Marlow as chief guide, the dominant voice; and a comparatively straightforward narrative pattern emerges as the relatively generalised, philosophical and reflective gives way to the relatively specific, practical and active. And Marlow soon displays a number of characteristics which invite sympathetic identification with his personality. He has a selfcritical, self-mocking quality ("I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilise you"); he treats reticently or curtly the experiences which in a less sophisticated man would be the subject of self-pitying recollection ("But the ships wouldn't even look at me. And I got tired of that game too"); and he has an ironically critical eye (for when the aunt explained that she had represented him to the company as "an emissary of light", Marlow had "ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit"). Furthermore, the reader, who has probably suffered the strains of interviews himself, feels sympathetic identification with the Marlow who so vividly records the Alice -in- Wonderland feeling which intervie w- tension induces: that half-hallucinated, half-intoxicated vision produced by apprehensiveness and unfamiliar surroundings.

Ominous hints multiply. When Marlow had seen the map of Africa in the shop -window, the central river had looked like a snake, and the map had fascinated him "as a snake would a bird". A similar map greets him at the Company's offices: and again the river seems "fascinating - deadly - like a snake". Between the references to the two maps, we are told of the fate of his predecessor, Fresleven, who was killed in the jungle. The city in which the offices are situated reminds Marlow of "a whited sepulchre". In the offices, two strange women are "guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall": and of the elder, he remarks: "AvA Old knitter of black wool. M on turi te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again - not half, by a long way."

"Morituri te salutant " (the Roman gladiators' tribute to their emperor, "They, who are about to die, salute you",) is indeed the key-note of this section. The jovial clerk who takes him to the doctor's suddenly becomes very cool when Marlow expresses surprise that he isn't going to the Congo. "I am not such a fool as I look," he comments. And the doctor who so clinically examines Marlow hints not only that few return from the journey, and not only at the perils of madness there, but also that anyone who applies for such a post may ipso facto be touched by lunacy ("Ever any madness in your family?"). These cameos of the clerk and the doctor convey adroitly Marlow's sense of critical alienation from them, and theirs - beneath their outward joviality or courtesy - from him: specimen observes specimen.

One of the problems presented by this sequence is that of Marlow's geographical evasiveness. It is easy enough for the reader to infer that the snake-like river is the Congo, that the region of the company's activities is therefore the Belgian Congo and that the "sepulchral city" is therefore Brussels. …

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