Life in London set a cushion for its citizens, “with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums. (Pg. )” On the other hand, once a man enters the Congo, he is all alone. No policeman, no “warning voice of a kind neighbor,” — no one. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness sets Marlow on a journey in the Congo, where he realizes the environment he comes from is not reality, but an illusion hiding true human nature. His arrival at the First Station is his first exposure to the Congo where a horrid reality and nave mentality is revealed — a comparison of darkness and light.
The chosen passage falls in the beginning of the narrative to set a picture of what to expect at upcoming stations. Marlow leaves London, his home, and his Aunt to travel to his first stop on the Congo River; the First Station. Here, Marlow begins to realize the unspeakable horror that exists. “Six black men advanced in file… I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them.” Marlow disapproved of what he saw and chose to avoid the six men. After his encounter with the “gang,” he meets the Chief Accountant, a well-dressed, tidy man, whom he admires. “I respected his collars… his appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That’s backbone. (Pg. 227)” Despite the dehumanization surrounding them, there still stands a man who can present himself “properly”. The first chapter of the novel is framed to present life in London, then contrasting it with a picture of the savage Congo, and finishing by showing that civilized life can still exist in the jungle.
Diction plays two pertinent roles in the passage: to produce imagery and to label objects or people. Diction reflects the extent of the contrasting light and darkness of the station that the imagery creates. In the midst of “mounds of turned-up earth by the shore… a waste of excavations,” Marlow notes “a blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare.” “Blinding,” “glare,” and “drowned” all produce the affect that the image is blocked from view, conveying the message that light will overcome darkness. This is the nave mentality of the Europeans contained in the theme. Exemplified by the French man of war, they believed the fight for imperialism had reason to shine their light upon the dark Congo.
“In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened… it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden out of sight somewhere (Pg.222-223).”
Marlow is watching this occurrence, referring to the great firearms as simple “tiny projectiles” producing a measly “pop.” The Europeans see themselves fighting an honorable war against savage enemies in the name of imperialism. These enemies were no where to be seen, but a European crewmate assured him that the enemies were “hidden out of sight somewhere.” This is the nave mentality of the Europeans at the time, blinded by the “glare” of imperialism.
Labels are much more than words, they display judgment of a person or event. “A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants.” Marlow initially recognizes the natives humanity, however, he also labels them as ants in the same sentence–dehumanizing them. Again, Marlow demoralizes the African natives: “To the left a clump of trees made a shady spot, where dark things seemed to stir feebly.” This time, his inference is worse. An ant is at least a living creature, but now they are simple things, stripped of life. Diction in naming shows the European nave mentality, yet also shows the horrid reality and the praise for civilization. It is the European mindset that causes Marlow to subconsciously demoralize the natives, yet in doing so, he exposes the new reality of the Congo. Calling them “ants” shows the role of the natives in the Congo. The Africans are only workers: blasting holes, building railroad, gathering ivory. Referring to them as objects defines their insignificance in the colonist world. However, when meeting with the Chief Accountant, he labels him as an idol. “He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear. / I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the company’s chief accountant (Pg. 227).” Marlow then meets with the station’s manager, who begins to describe Kurtz. “Mr. Kurtz was the best agent he had, an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the company (Pg. 232)” Conrad uses “miracle,” “best,” “exceptional,” and “greatest importance,” all very strong words, all complimenting the “civilized” inhabitants of the Congo.
Conrad makes both extremes clear to the reader. Some men, such as Kurtz, see the horrid reality that lies before them. His final words, “The horror! The horror! (Pg. 283),” echo his dismay of the reality he was exposed to in the Congo. Other men are still oblivious to the environment of the Congo, including the listeners on the Nellie, who growls at Marlow, “Try to be civil, Marlow (Pg. 245).” Still, in their navet, they find it hard to believe that such a reality exists; the notion of it is incomprehensible. One character still remains ambiguous on the scale: Marlow. Where does he stand? Does Marlow resent the way Europeans live and is he willing to live the same life as Kurtz? Conrad never makes a clear assertion answering this question, however there is evidence leading to both extremes. Aboard the Nellie, he tells his mates that “I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world (Pg. 237).” Towards the end of the novel, Kurtz’ fianc asks Marlow what Kurtz’ last words were, he responds, “The last word he pronounced – was your name (Pg. 297).” Although detesting lies, he proceeds to tell one to the Intended based on his own good judgment. Marlow’s stance remains a mystery.