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"'Can you steer?' I asked the agent eagerly. He looked very dubious; but I made a grab at his arm, and he understood at once I meant him to steer whether or no." (2.23)
It is not the words "can you steer" but the gesture of grabbing the pilgrim’s arm that make him understand that Marlow wants him to steer. Language is ineffective in the interior, but gestures and human contact are not.
""We two whites stood over him, and his lustrous and inquiring glance enveloped us both. I declare it looked as though he would presently put to us some questions in an understandable language; but he died without uttering a sound, without moving a limb, without twitching a muscle." (2.23)
In his dying moments, the black helmsman communicates without words, through a simple gaze. Marlow feels as if he could understand the man if he tried to speak. Again, this understanding is achieved not with language, but with emotion.
"But what made the idea of attack inconceivable to me was the nature of the noise – of the cries we had heard. They had not the fierce character boding immediate hostile intention. Unexpected, wild, and violent as they had been, they had given me an irresistible impression of sorrow. The glimpse of the steamboat had for some reason filled those savages with unrestrained grief." (2.16)
Despite the fact that the native Africans’ cries had no comprehensible words, Marlow still understood one of the emotions communicated: sadness. While language is not universal, emotions, it seems, are.