“Heart of Darkness” Essay: Marlow, Kurtz, and “The Horror”.
In the novel the Heart of Darkness, the author Joseph Conrad creates a juxtaposition between the journeys of Kurtz and Marlow. Initially, Kurtz condemns the imperialistic ambitions and methods of the European invaders and thus seeks to lead the “primitive” people to proverbial light and civilization. In order to so, he approaches the Africans as a “God” and exerts influence on them through his charisma and words. Nevertheless, upon gaining power, his ambitions falter as he falls prey to the dangers of the wilderness and his greed for ivory gets in the way. Eventually, Kurtz begins to misuse his influence over the natives and becomes insecure about his powers. On the other hand, Marlow too demonstrates interest in civilizing the Africans and thus is impressed by Kurtz, mainly due to his reputation as a noble and humanitarian man. Nevertheless, Marlow shows more enlightenment than Kurtz. Marlow, unlike Kurtz, realizes that the company operates only for its profit and thus there is no place for the good of humanity. In addition, Marlow also shows more illumination over Kurtz as he directly witnesses the inhumane atrocities towards the natives and the hypocritical, selfish, and power-hungry side of the European invaders throughout his journey. Thus, although Kurtz and Marlow begin their journey as “psychological twins”, the different situations they face alter their perceptions towards “the heart of darkness”: While Kurtz’s final words, “The horror! The horror!” (147) demonstrate his failure to succeed in his ambitions, Marlow’s “horror” (147), or “the nightmare” (138), represents both the social injustice and cruelty, and the realization that one’s soul is substantially capable of depravity.
Due to Kurtz’s complex character, his finals words – “The horror! The horror!” (147) – yield the vaguest and most ambiguous explanation of his actual horror. Perhaps, one of the most plausible interpretations of Kurtz’s “horror” is his epiphany, or self-realization, of his misdeeds and corruption. As mentioned earlier, Kurtz’s original intent of exerting influence over the natives was to show them the light of civilization. Nevertheless, in this process, Kurtz falls prey to the eerie silence and the barbaric customs of the natives himself. Upon gaining the power, Kurtz’s ambition becomes more self-centered than self-righteous, and he begins to misuse his power over the natives by raiding villages, brutally killing Africans, and stealing the natural resources like ivory to forward his own goals for advancing the company and gaining reputation. Nevertheless, Kurtz perhaps realizes this mistake on his deathbed and thus during these last few minutes of his life, he bemoans and regrets his deeds and envisions himself being chastised in the hell; thus, shrieking “The horror! The horror!” (147). On the other hand, however, another possible interpretation of Kurtz’s “horror” is his frustration and illness itself. Upon gaining significant influence over the natives, Kurtz’s only goal in life was to gain power and become reputed throughout the company. Nevertheless, in this hunt for fame, Kurtz goes through significant changes. First, Kurtz begins to misuse his charisma and influence over the natives by ruling them as a tyrant. In fact, Kurtz begins to misuse his power to such an extent that he hangs the heads of the rebels on arrows and threatens to kill people if they don’t give him ivory. Contrarily, however, this power also becomes the core reason of Kurtz’s illness and insanity. The hunger for ivory and fame imbalances Kurtz’s psychology to such an extent that he becomes overly insecure of other officers and once again misuses his influence over the natives to kill whomever he considers to be a threat to his power. In time, however, this crazed obsession reaches such a height that it splits Kurtz’s soul. Hence, when Kurtz realized that he is about to die and that whatever he did in order to gain power and reputation has gone to vain, he laments in frustration.
Marlow, like Kurtz, comes to Africa with noble intentions of doing good things for the Dark Continent. However, Marlow’s journey through Africa enlightens Marlow and teaches him two important things – the social injustice and cruelty of the Europeans, and the realization that one’s soul is substantially capable of depravity – which altogether strengthen Marlow’s conscience that there is no place for the good of humanity in Africa and that the Company operates only for its profit. In addition, these realizations also create a sense of “horror” in Marlow which, to his benefit, prevents him from becoming like Kurtz. The first of Marlow’s horrors – the social injustice and cruelty of the Europeans – is enforced earlier in Marlow’s journey when he reaches the Outer Station and first-handedly witnesses the “sordid face” (78) of imperialism through the dark chaos and destruction caused by the Europeans. “It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails. To the left a clump of trees made a shady spot, where dark things seemed to stir feebly. I blinked, the path was steep. A horn tooted to the right, and I saw the black people run. A heavy and dull detonation shook the ground, a puff of smoke came out of the cliff, and that was all” (81). Further, when Marlow approaches the company offices, he also witnesses the atrocities of the Europeans towards the natives as he comes upon a gloomy place which he calls a “grove of death”: “They were earthly now — nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom” (83). Alternatively, Marlow’s second horror – the realization that one’s soul is substantially capable of depravity – is not enforced until the near end of his journey. Throughout his journey, Marlow’s attitude towards the mysterious Kurtz goes through numerous evolutions. Initially, Marlow shows little interest in Kurtz. However, when Marlow looks at Kurtz’s painting and later when he hears the story of Kurtz returning back to jungle, he becomes fascinated by Kurtz. Shortly after, Marlow becomes so impressed with Kurtz, mainly due to the hypocritical praises of several officers, that he longs to see and meet him. In fact, when he journeys towards the inner station, he is so impatient to meet Kurtz that he describes his boat as “crawling towards Kurtz” (108) as its passengers “…crept on, towards Kurtz” (111). Nevertheless, this awe and admiration towards Kurtz soon turns to bitter resentment as Marlow directly witnesses Kurtz and his tyranny over the people. In fact, Marlow becomes so uneasy of the devout adoration that the harlequin and the other natives possess towards Kurtz, that he seeks to differentiate himself from them by declaring, “…Mr. Kurtz was no idol of mine” (134). On top of that, the true face of Kurtz also troubles Marlow to such an extent that he calls Kurtz “…hollow at the core” (133) and one whose actions don’t match the words.
According to me, one of the biggest horrors encountered in this novel is the savagery of the civilized man. Throughout the novel, the author Joseph Conrad repeatedly depicts the paradox between the white men, who despite their civilization, act more savage than the natives, who are controlled by no laws and are instead left to act on their conscience. An example of this is seen when Marlow heads in his steamboat towards the inner station along with the manager, the pilgrims and several cannibals. Throughout the journey, the manager represents the brutal side of the civilized as he starves the cannibals by withholding their supplies and instead even throwing their only food – rotten hippo meat. On the other hand, however, the cannibals, even after starving and being paid in only thin pieces of brass wire, do not attack the white men. Thus, either in the form of the power-hungry officers or the depraved and tyrannical Kurtz, Conrad repeatedly demonstrates the horror that a civilized man may spawn if succumbed by the evil of greed and power.
According to Marlow, Kurtz’s final words are perhaps the most terse and precise description of the depravity of human nature. The doctor once told Marlow that people who go to Africa never come back; and those who do have “changes take place inside [their brain]” (75). In truth, however, the changes not only take place in the brain but also in the easily-corruptible heart. And when this heart of darkness is stimulated, it is more than enough to make any “blank space on Earth” (70), a place of daunting darkness and forlorn horror!