The White Collars in Heart of Darkness
In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Charles Marlow relates to his listeners aboard the Nellie the story of his service with a European company operating in the African Congo. Arriving in this European country to interview for employment, Marlow recalls, "I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a white sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt" (73). But whose prejudice is he speaking of: his or that of the citizens of that commercial center? Either way, his image is prophetic. The white sepulchre contains the remains of the countless Africans slaughtered by these colonizers--not in the form of corpses, but in the wealth that has been stolen from the African continent. The significance of the sepulchre's whiteness (and that of the longed-for ivory) lies in the contrasting images of a piece of white worsted and the starched white collars that Marlow comes upon in the jungles of the Congo. While the collars represent the violence, oppression, and hatred that dominate the European's treatment of the African, the white worsted is an attempt by an enslaved African native to gain the magical powers that he believes the white collar possesses.
On his way to the company's station, Marlow decides to seek some shade from the daytime heat and the sun's direct rays: "My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within it than it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno" (81). In this shaded place, Marlow comes to understand the situation in which he has placed himself. The starving black men he finds huddled together there are victims of a white plague that has enslaved them to do work that has no purpose, such as the blasting away of the cliffs. It is all part of a process in which the white man intends to kill either the natives' resistance or the natives, whichever comes first.
Among the group, Marlow encounters a black man who has tied a piece of white cloth around his neck, an act that Marlow does not...