by A. T. Miller
Study of "Heart of Darkness" by J. Conrad
| “The horror. The horror.” falls off Kurtz’s dying lips, but his final words, seemingly a plea for an extension of life, represent far more. The words separate Kurtz into two separate beings, the idealistic politician seeking in his self-righteous superiority to civilize the natives of the Dark Continent, and the god of the wilderness removed by Marlow from the power he covets, committing far more horrendous acts against the native tribesman than the mandates his original agenda set forth. These are not the perspectives of two radically dissimilar men sharing one body, but multiple facets of the same man. Kurtz’s actions, choices, and experiences refine him of the impurity of the altruism Christianity believes inherent in the conversion of barbarian infidels, burning away the allusion to the divine impetus of the cause and leaving the oppressive nature that is beneath it. Kurtz’s deathbed epiphany mocks the European need to shape and mold those the West deems inferior, proving that it is no more than a smoke screen to inflict savage indignities on a noble and worthy people as the means to a despicable end. Frances B. Singh, who wrote “The Colonialistic Bias of Heart of Darkness,” asserts, “the horror being referred to is the blackness of Kurtz’s soul.” (277). The white men who penetrate the heart of Africa are the real darkness, dispensing with Christian idealism and perverting the conversion of the African savages with greed and ignorance. Kurtz’s fear and loathing in that last moment demonstrates the ability of every human, light and dark, to wrestle with and even kill themselves in order to save themselves from what they do not understand or want to admit.
In Robert LaBrasca’s essay “Two Visions of ‘The horror!’,” Kurtz is portrayed as the quintessential European. LaBrasca claims the story’s “darkness illuminates the grim emptiness at the limit of personal and national ambition, the vanity of power’s claim to civilization, and the frail evil that lurks in even the best of its emissaries.” (290). Marlow describes Kurtz’s pamphlet for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs as “vibrating with eloquence,” but the writings scrawled in Kurtz’s own handwriting as “luminous and terrifying.” (51). Kurtz entrusts his pamphlet to Marlow because the two men share a confidence he is unwilling to impart on other Europeans. According to Frances Singh:
Certainly from the point of view of the African tribesman Kurtz has done nothing abominable in recognizing the virtues of his way of life. And from the point of some modern anthropologists, who believe that only by becoming part of another culture can one understand and appreciate it, Kurtz is an enlightened individual, far more advanced than his contemporaries in his thinking about primitive societies. (276-277).
Kurtz initially faces the dark frontier as an intrepid social missionary with the dream of molding the native Africans into a state more compatible with “Caucasian” interests, but his compatriots stain the pristine image of his society while he abandons it. Chinua Achebe’s critical piece “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” places the blame for Kurtz, indeed for every European in the story squarely upon the shoulders of Conrad himself, illuminating the relationship of Africa to Europe as that of “a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate.” He goes on to show that Kurtz entered the jungle “foolishly exposed  to the wild irresistible allure of the jungle and lo! The darkness found him out.” (261). There is a sense in all of these works that Kurtz entered the jungle with much more than when he left it. The jungle stripped the agenda of his pamphlet of falsity until its true worth, or lack-thereof, could be clearly determined.
Conrad dramaticizes the change in Kurtz with the expectations of the character Marlow, and the tales told to him of Kurtz by the other Europeans. LaBrasca reaches the conclusion that “Amid the grotesque oppression of the mysterious, defeated natives, the flies, the heat, and the jackals bearing the flag of progress, Kurtz becomes a vestige of hope.” (290). In the hope of reaching Kurtz, denial selectively oblivious to the harshness of European dominance over the African tribes lingers beneath the surface. As Marlow approaches his goal, however, the jungle and its fearful occupants distort the prize. Singh explains:
The problem with Kurtz, which Marlow doesn’t realize, is not that Kurtz went native, but that he did not go native enough, for Kurtz perverted the customs of the tribe, making them a means to a deplorable end—namely, keeping ivory flowing and colonialism a profitable venture for his employers—and he never assumes the positive virtues of the tribe. (277).
The empty shack with its offering of wood foreshadows the emptiness within Kurtz’s plan for the natives. Achebe gives Conrad some charity by suggesting that he “saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.” (262). Achebe does not mention Marlow’s affection for the barbarian tending to the steamer’s engine. Despite their differences, he feels the native’s death more severely than he would have any of the white men aboard his ship, even Kurtz. Kurtz, in like fashion, enters the jungle with the intention of standing over the natives exerting god-like influence to change their nature to suit his vision. Kurtz not only fails to rebuild them, but he allows their cultural values to sink into him, such as adopting their brutal methods for dealing with malcontents. His corruptive assimilation into African culture as a would-be God highlights the ignorance of any plan to separate men and women from their culture.
Achebe describes Marlow as a true Englishman “holding those advanced and humane views appropriate to the English liberal tradition which required all Englishmen of decency to be deeply shocked by atrocities in Bulgaria or the Congo of King Leopold” (256). Marlow, in this light, is little less than an oppressor himself. He does not enslave Africans, but he watches as others do it and takes no action to stop it. In the jungle, Marlow is the captain of a vessel that floats like a speck of civilization on an ocean of lawlessness and chaos. He watches the shore with dire apprehension, likening it to a primeval man threatening to crush them with his bestial humanity. LaBrasca reminds us that Kurtz does have another agenda for being in the jungle other than social reform, stating that he “was at least driven by greed for ivory and the ambition ‘to have kings meet him at railway stations,’” (291). While it is true that Kurtz continues to pour ivory out of his dilapidated station, the return from that investment never materializes into anything obvious or useful to his cause. In Singh’s more resolute opinion:
I have just argued that Kurtz’s depravity consisted not in giving in too much to the tribal way of life but in not giving in enough. If that is the case I would suggest that contrary to Marlow’s implication the “horror” refers first to what Kurtz has done to the blacks and only secondarily to what he has done to himself, since the latter is only the effect, and not the cause of the former. Consequently the full application of Kurtz’s last words would not only be to himself but also to men like Marlow who seemed to hate colonialism but really lived by its values and associated the practices of the blacks with the road to perdition.” (277).
Kurtz’s Ivory is intended more to appease the civilized men prowling on the outskirts of Kurtz’s empire ready to rip it asunder than to make him rich and famous. “‘I was on the threshold of great things,’ he pleaded in a voice of longing . ‘And now for this stupid scoundrel….’ ‘Your success in Europe is assured in any case,’ I affirmed steadily.” (65). Kurtz does not care about ivory. His pamphlet’s original agenda is primary in his thoughts, even though its original spirit has long since evaporated. The sinewy tether of control he exerts on the natives replaced that spirit, the only part of the agenda that remains intact throughout.
The power to govern one’s own life while curtailing the rights of others is the greatest measure of dominance one society can have over another. Through gunpowder, the ignorance and fear of the natives, and the vein tapped by an ivory-addicted nation, the Europeans obtained power in Africa. Achebe clues us in on the primary tactic in obtaining this power, “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor.” (257). In other words, Conrad placing Kurtz and Marlow in the center of Kentucky may not have had the devastating impact of Kurtz’s plans and actions on the reader, but the Kentuckians would have suffered just as dehumanizing a degradation as the Africans, in that their suffering is immaterial to the all-important mental break-down of the protagonist. Conrad’s special consideration of Africans as the denigrated is Achebe’s point in criticizing “Heart of Darkness.” In a more human outlook, LaBrasca takes a look at Conrad’s life and suggests that his story is “a journey Conrad had made eight years before up the Congo River.” (289). Of Kurtz’s deathbed utterance, Marlow says that, “It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abdominal satisfactions. But it was a victory.” (70). Marlow comes back from the Congo a man changed by Kurtz’s having stepped over the edge into a kind of revelation. Singh writes about this remarkable transition, stating, “Kurtz’s tribalization, therefore, can be seen as a rejection of the materialism of the West in favor of a more honest way of life.” (276). Marlow does not make as dramatic a change. He is able to stay in the safety of his position in life, but he sees what Kurtz discovers in the darkness, the need for the European society to impress its values upon its neighbors while at the same time defying those values by robbing Africa of precious commodities. Kurtz does not change from one man to another from Europe to Africa, but discovers within himself the horrifying truth. The monster he has become has always been there, dormant but undeniably real.
Conrad illustrates through the words of Marlow a man larger than life, a man with the power to command the deaths of the ship’s crew. Kurtz is at once gentle and violent; he craves justice and is blind to the unjust. He enters the jungle full of diverse and tangible goals that the jungle tears away piece by piece until only the foundation, ultimate control, remains. Kurtz is idealized by Marlow not for his methods or his reasoning, but because his becomes a path to final clarity. Kurtz sees what he is, what he wanted to do, and what he has done, and comes to a conclusion not many men in his time could bear. Marlow is taken for a moment onto that path, leaving off the suffering of travel just far enough to tell where the road leads. Because of this insight, Marlow finds it difficult to return to Europe and see as he once saw, feel what he once felt about himself and his society. Conrad sympathizes with Kurtz through Marlow only so far as to say he set out in a direction, and through adversity stayed true to the course.
Achebe, Chinua. “[An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness].” Chancellor’s
Lecture. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1975. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert
Kimbrough. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. 251-262.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton,
LaBrasca, Robert. “Two Visions of ‘The Horror!’” Madison Press Connection. 1979. Rpt, in
Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. 288
Singh, Frances B. “The Colonialistic Bias of Heart of Darkness.” Conradiana. 10(1978):41-54.
Rpt, in Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton,