For twenty years the sea was Joseph Conrad’s career and home. Sometime during those years, he was promoted to captain of a steamer that traveled the Congo River for six months. It is said that the only thing that Conrad returned with was ill health and disillusionment. This experience forms the foreground of the symbolic novella of imperialism and the human soul, Heart of Darkness. This heavily critiqued novella pushes the question: what are the ethics behind power? Where, between the slim boundary of saviorism and brutality, does the human heart stand?
Marlow, the prime narrator (although he narrates through another), is hired by a company to go into Africa as a replacement steamboat captain. When he arrives at the second station, he finds a painting done by the chief of the Inner Station, Mr. Kurtz. Marlow finds the painting intriguing. “Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre-almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister” (40). Marlow slowly learns about Kurtz as he journeys deeper into Africa. This painting, done by Kurtz’s own hand, provides some insight into the man. Ian Glenn confirms this: “[the painting] represents a misguided idealism and justice” (247). The painting provides a slight foreshadowing: Justice (represented by the woman) is taking light (power) into the darkness. Her movements are “stately” but the light on her face is “sinister.” The women’s intentions seem to be good, but she is “misguided” and may fall.
Another piece that delves into the depths of Kurtz’s character is the report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. This report shows the mixture of Kurtz’s mental states, from the man with a moral code, to the man who had been demoralized in the face of power and ivory. Kurtz’s paper begins with the argument that “we whites… ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings-we approach them with the might as of a deity…by the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded'” (84). This excerpt shows the Kurtz with the moral code. He believes that he can use the illusion of power to produce an “unbounded” amount of good. The “postscriptum,” obviously written by the Kurtz that had been corrupted by power, reads: “Exterminate all the brutes!” (84). His obsession with the ivory and power led to a skewed viewpoint, where the power was not going to be used for the “unbounded” good, but for his own purposes. N.O. Orisabiyi supports Kurtz’s descent into the darkness: “[Kurtz] knowing fully well how much power he has, he gratifies forbidden desires, becomes confidently brutal and appears to both the other agents and the natives as a kind of god” (96). Kurtz, as a god to the natives, commands them to conquer other tribes and build his wealth.
Kurtz presides over the text in both physical and spiritual means. He is arguably the most important character, but he is also the most complex. One critic, Owen Knowles, gives a very accurate statement explaining the importance of Kurtz:
Elements of ambiguous charisma combine extravagantly with traits of the Promethean quester and philosopher-outlaw at the abyss in the construction of this ubiquitous Kurtz-he is the “voice” of destructive eloquence who has “kicked the very earth to pieces”; the solitary whose isolation is the condition of his greatness and the cause of his eventual consuming madness; a polymath and compulsive monologuist on “love, justice, conduct of life” who attracts apostles and disciples; and finally a “universal genius: mad with delusions of greatness. (75-6)
Knowles has taken Kurtz, with all that he had become by the end of the novella, and put his entire being into one statement. However, this small paragraph does not display Kurtz’s control over everyone that he came into contact with.
Every man within the company that Kurtz came into contact with is described as being “hollow” to some extent or another. One manager related to Marlow that “Men who come out here should have no entrails” (35). The so-called “papier-maché Mephistopheles” who seemed as if Marlow could poke a hole into him and find nothing but a “little loose dirt, maybe” (42). This brickmaker who doesn’t make bricks is considered “one of the true hollow men in the story” (Montag 94). These men, including the Russian harlequin, all praise Kurtz in a disciple-like, brainwashed way. Kurtz exerts a kind of presence that strikes a mixture of fear and admiration into them. In fact, Marlow uses the power of Kurtz’s name to have his rivets delivered quicker. “Rivets were what really Mr. Kurtz wanted, if he had only known it. Now letters went to the coast every week” (46). But at what expense did Kurtz attain this power? “I think it [darkness] had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude-and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core” (98). Kurtz acquired this power, but he sold his soul for it.
Kurtz’s power over the natives is astounding. As Marlow tells of Kurtz, “He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour” (85). The natives would worship Kurtz, steal for him, and kill for him. The loads of ivory and the ornamental heads upon the stakes outside of his compound proves this. The natives attacked Marlow’s steamer on Kurtz’s command, and they also tried to stop Marlow from taking Kurtz away from them. The natives present a kind of gente sin razón, a people without reason (Bradshaw 163). These natives became a gente sin razón, in honor of Kurtz; he was their reason.
The most important character that was influenced by Kurtz is Marlow. From the first station on Marlow’s journey, he had wanted to meet Kurtz. “When Marlow later in the journey talks of his disappointment at missing Kurtz he makes of Kurtz a voice, an intellectual, rather than the man in or under whom knowledge and power could have been combined” (Glenn 242). However, when Marlow met Kurtz, he found the man to be stricken by illness and madness. But Kurtz’s voice was still haunting. Marlow found himself loyal to Kurtz despite his own word that he did not care for Kurtz any longer. There was a certain dependency that was necessary between the two. Marlow depended on Kurtz for knowledge, while Kurtz depended on Marlow to uphold his reputation and to take care of his pamphlets. Yet, Marlow still fell under Kurtz’s power; as his Intended affirmed: “It was impossible to know him and not to admire him” (127).
“Even on his deathbed…Kurtz hardly ever relinquished control” (Gordon 299). Kurtz’s power extended even through his madness and illness. The men listened to his voice as he spoke his nonsense. His years of excess led to his demise, but his spirit and power continue through the voice of Marlow. The overexertion and abuse of his power crippled him and finally killed him. He possibly realizes this when he cries out “The horror! The horror!” (118). Marlow seems to believe that this cry is a “moral victory,” despite the sound of defeat. Kurtz had had such great plans, but he does not have the time to execute them. Although he believes that he is a god, he remains a mortal bound by death, which in turn is his defeat. Therefore his power is relinquished, and Marlow is handed the torch to carry on.
N. O. Orisabiyi presents a wonderful question concerning Marlow: “How do we see Marlow.” His answer: “In a corrupt world even a saint might commit a corrupt act” (98). Marlow, despite his self-view as being moral, defies the reader by compromising himself. He takes his first step towards the darkness by lying to the Intended. Although his intentions are good (just as Kurtz’s had been) he is taking a power that he does not understand and turns it into a “trifle.” This moral failure leads the reader to believe that he becomes the same hollow man that Kurtz did. In the beginning of the novella, Marlow is described by the narrating shipmate: “He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol” (4). Has Marlow fallen into the same darkness that Kurtz once found? Marlow’s power was not quite as strong as Kurtz’s, but throughout the novella there was much talk of his importance to the company. This leads one to believe that Marlow did take the torch from Kurtz, and is heading down the same path that Kurtz made.
Orisabiyi sums the novella up with this statement: “The fact that it is the morality of the characters in the tale that is put to test and it is their moral failure at different points that we are invited to witness” (95). The idea of the moral failure leads back to the title of this paper, “What redeems it is the idea only” (9). The idea that through power only “unbounded” good can result. But what ethical price must be paid for this good? Obviously, Kurtz and Marlow paid that price; Kurtz became hollow and saw the horror of his ways, and Marlow following the same path, dying slowly as Kurtz once did. So it is the idea that fosters the redeeming quality, but it is a high stakes game to play.
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Gordon, Haim., Gordon, Rivca. “Living with the Horror of Evil: A Sartrean
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Knowles, Owen. “‘Who’s Afraid of Arthur Schopenhauer’: A New Context for Conrad’s
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Montag, George E. “Marlow Tells the Truth: The Nature of Evil in Heart of Darkness.”
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Orisabiyi, N.O. “Heart of Darkness as an Anatomy of Moral Failure.” Lagos Review of
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