In Heart of Darkness, what is significant about this quote? "The word 'ivory' hung in the air. You would think they were praying to it."
Following Marlow's uneasy interaction with the Central Station's manager, he takes a closer look at the Central Station and its workers. Marlow notices that most of the employees are walking aimlessly around in a disorganized manner. Marlow describes the men as a group of "faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence." He then says,
"The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it" (Conrad, 35).
Marlow is commenting on the excessive greed surrounding the operations of the Central Station. The entire system is focused on extracting the precious ivory from Africa by any means necessary and then shipping the product to Europe. Marlow's journey exposes the debased nature of the ivory trade. Everywhere he turns, energies are directed toward extracting ivory. The fact that Marlow associates the ivory-obsessed atmosphere with religion illustrates the palpable greed throughout the Central Station. The European workers' desire for ivory is so overwhelming it seems as if they were "praying to it." This statement also foreshadows Kurtz's religious affiliation as a deity, who manipulates the natives in order to attain more ivory. On the African continent, ivory is as meaningful as divinity.
Everything that is happening in the Congo stems from the ivory trade. I believe this passage comes toward the end of the story in talking about Kurtz and his compound. Kurtz has fallen victim to the ivory trade. It has taken over his life and his greed for it has overpowered him so much so that he has people praying to it for him and with him. Kurtz was smart enough to be able to brainwash the natives into working for him, but he was unable to self-regulate and therefore, everything that is at his compound is geared toward the ivory. Marlow, on the other hand, didn't come to the Congo to get ivory, so he can keep his mindset based in reality. He was sent to save Kurtz and bring him back, but he finds that that is impossible.