In Heart of Darkness, Marlow is desperate for a chance to attain a commission to sail a steamboat down a river in central Africa where England is exploiting its colonial holdings to profit from the market in ivory. He is a professional sea captain, and wants nothing more than to return to the work he knows best. Toward that end, he considers any means towards that end. He is scarcely interested in ivory; his passion is in operating a steamboat, and navigating it down the long, winding river that leads to a destination the likes of which he can’t imagine. First, he must convince the Company to give him a commission. Early on, he ruminates about the expedition that is within his reach, but that he cannot quite grasp:
“Dash it all! I thought to myself, they can't trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh water -- steamboats! Why shouldn't I try to get charge of one?”
Marlow considers every means he can think of to convince the Company of his worth. It is in this context that he first refers to his aunt.
“I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: . . . I am ready to do anything, anything for you. . . I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence with,' etc., etc. She was determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat, if such was my fancy.”
His ploy successful, he receives the commission. Before departing for Africa, however, he determines to “say goodbye to my excellent aunt,” during which visit he becomes aware of precisely how laudatory had been his aunt’s recommendation to “the wife of the high dignitary.” The recommendation had been so laudatory that the Company was convinced it was being offered an “exceptional and gifted creature – a piece of good fortune for the Company – a man you don’t get every day.”
How his aunt’s recommendation of him to the wife of the high dignitary affected Marlow is a matter of perspective. Marlow is successful in is objective: he becomes captain of a riverboat plying the very waters that had captured his imagination. Whether the revelations regarding the plight of those colonized by the British, however, and the megalomania and descent into madness experienced by Kurtz constitute a just reward is a matter for discussion. During his journey down the Congo river, Marlow is exposed to the deprivations and cruelty at the heart of European imperialism. His observations regarding the indigenous slave laborers is eye-opening, and the Company’s moral depravity in raping the African land of its resources is truly disturbing. The “problems” his aunt’s efforts on his behalf create are purely psychological – or, maybe philosophical. As Marlow states near the end:
" . . . I did not go to join Kurtz there and then. . . I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end, and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more. . . Droll thing life is -- that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself -- that comes too late -- a crop of unextinguishable regrets.”
The price Marlow pays for his efforts is recognition of the terrible things man does in the pursuit of wealth and power. When, in his dying moment, Kurtz utters the immortal words “the horror, the horror,” he is encapsulating the extent to which England’s role in Africa has cast its legacy in darkness.