A Symbolic Figure, Illustrative of Several Ideas
The portrayal of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is one of the main concerns of the novelist. Mr. Kurtz is one of the two dominating figures in the novel, the other being the narrator of the story, Marlow.It is true that Heart of Darkness has several other themes too; but one leading theme of this novel is the character of Mr. Kurtz and the significance of his character. The portrayal of Mr. Kurtz in this novel is an elaborate and extended affair; and Mr. Kurtz has been presented to us in such a manner that he appears to us a very complex personality whom it is not easy to understand or define. Till the end, Mr. Kurtz remains an enigma or a mysterious individual about whom we keep thinking a good deal even after we have ended our reading of the novel. The character of Mr. Kurtz illustrates several ideas; and Mr. Kurtz therefore becomes a symbolic figure in our eyes.
Symbolic of the Greed and Commercial Mentality of Westerners
First of all, Mr. Kurtz symbolizes the western man’s greed and commercial mentality. The
was in those days valued by the Westerners chiefly as a source of ivory. Mr. Kurtz had, like many others, been sent by a Belgian trading company as an agent to collect ivory and dispatch it to Congo Europe through the manager of the Company’s Central Station. The whole apparatus at the Central Station, and at the other stations as well, centres round ivory. Mr. Kurtz has proved to be the best agent in the sense that he collects more ivory than all the other agents taken together. It is evident that the trading company, of which Mr. Kurtz is the employee, trades in ivory for the sake of the financial returns which it brings. In this respect, Mr. Kurtz has proved to be very useful to the Company, so useful that the other white men in the , including the manager himself, think that Mr. Kurtz would one day rise very high. Indeed, the point to note here is that Mr. Kurtz does not merely collect ivory but that, in the process of collecting it, he has himself developed a passion for ivory. This passion for ivory shows the extreme to which a man’s greed can go. Evidently, Mr. Kurtz has begun to realize that his success in collecting ivory would bring him a big promotion. Mr. Kurtz often goes into the interior of the Congo in his quest for ivory. Even when he lies ill, he keeps asking those around him to save his ivory lest it should be plundered. On one occasion, he had threatened to kill his Russian friend if the latter were not to surrender a certain quantity of ivory which the Russian had got. The Russian had been given a small quantity of ivory as a present by one of the native chiefs, but Mr. Kurtz had taken possession even of that small quantity of it. Greed cannot go further. Mr. Kurtz certainly represents the commercial mentality of the western nations. Congo
Symbolic of the White Man’s Love of Power
Then Mr. Kurtz symbolizes the western man’s love of power. Power and pelf are the two leading interests of the western man. The western man speaks glibly of the white man’s burden, meaning that the white man has to exert himself a lot to improve the conditions of life for the backward peoples of the earth. Now, there is no doubt at all that the white man has civilized huge numbers of people all over the world, and that the white man has spread knowledge, information, enlightenment, technology, and even a love of learning all over the globe. But the deplorable fact is that the white man has never failed to exact his price for the services which he has rendered to the backward peoples of the world. It is while governing the backward peoples that the white man has civilized them. It was his love of power which made him conquer the backward countries and to govern them; and then it was his love for power which also led him to civilize the backward people. Mr. Kurtz, a mere paid agent of a trading Company, develops a love of power when he finds himself among ignorant, superstitious savages whom he can control by virtue of his superior knowledge, his tact, his cunning, and above all his eloquence. Once he finds that he can control some of them, he begins to extend his control to others and, in course of time, is able to establish his supremacy over whole tribes of them. Ultimately, he becomes so powerful that the chiefs of the native tribes come crawling to pay their homage to him. He now becomes almost the ruler or the king of these native tribes who begin to worship him as a man-god. He has also now formulated in his mind certain “plans”; and these plans no doubt visualise his becoming the sovereign of this whole region. The heads and the skulls stuck to the poles standing on the ground around his residence bear witness to the authority which he has already begun to exercise in this region because these heads and skulls are of those natives who had been executed under his orders for having rebelled against him. Mr. Kurtz’s love of power and authority surely symbolize the colonial power which the white people of the various European countries exercised upon the natives whom they governed for very long periods in their history. Mr. Kurtz symbolizes imperialist rule. He symbolizes the rule of the British government, the French government, the Spanish government, the Portuguese government, and the Belgian government over the respective countries which they had conquered and over which they were able to establish their sway.
Symbolic of the Influence of Barbarism Upon a Civilized Man
Furthermore, Mr. Kurtz symbolizes the effect of a savage environment on a civilized man. The civilized man certainly civilizes the backward people; but, if a civilized man is compelled to live alone among the backward natives for a certain length of time, then he too is likely to fall under their influence. Mr. Kurtz, living at the Inner Station of the Company, is completely cut off from civilized society. Living there, he comes into close contact with the backward natives; and he has to undertake frequent trips into the interior parts of the country in quest of ivory. Thus he comes into a prolonged, intimate contact with the savages over whom he has begun to exercise great control also. In the course of this prolonged association with them, and having witnessed again and again their superstitious observances, he himself falls under their influence and reverts to a state of savagery and barbarism. Here is one of the greatest ironies of Conrad’s novel. A civilized man himself falls a prey to the forces of primitivism. Mr. Kurtz has begun to identify himself with the savages and has begun to participate in their customs and ceremonies. He has been presiding over their dances which always end with “unspeakable rites”. Evidently ire unspeakable rites include sex orgies, all kinds of sex perversions, group sex, homosexuality, sadistic and masochistic sexual practices, human sacrifice, brutality, bloodshed, etc. Mr. Kurtz has now been experiencing the unrestrained gratification of his lusts, and he has been experiencing monstrous abominable satisfactions. He has been providing a free outlet to his monstrous passions. All this happened because of the influence of barbarism and of the primitive way of life with which Mr. Kurtz had become closely associated. Thus the thin veneer of civilization wears off under the influence of a continued association with savages. Of course, Mr. Kurtz, being a highly intelligent man, has managed to retain his identity as a white man fed on European cultural values; but this identity reveals itself only when he is alone or when he comes into contact with other white men. In the company of savages, Mr. Kurtz becomes himself a savage. Initially, Mr. Kurtz used to be “hollow at the core” in spite of his high education and the high cultural values which he had imbibed; and this hollowness exposed him to the influences of primitivism even more readily. In this context, it is noteworthy that Mr. Kurtz symbolizes a lack of self-restraint also. If he had possessed even a moderate degree of self-control and self-restraint, he would not have gone to the extremes in seeking the gratification of his lusts and appetites.
Symbolic of Experience and Maturity
In spite of his basic hollowness, Mr. Kurtz has shown a certain degree of intelligence by virtue of which he has become very wise and shrewd. His accumulated experience and his capacity to think upon his experiences have made him something of a philosopher. His philosophical outlook, combined with his exceptional eloquence in speech, has turned him into a kind of sage who exercises a certain fascination upon those intellectuals who come into contact with him. Thus the Russian, who is himself a very intelligent man, falls under Mr. Kurtz’s influence, and becomes his admiring devotee. Even Marlow, an exceptionally rational and intelligent man, also finds Mr. Kurtz’s influence to be irresistible. Marlow frankly admits that, having a soul untainted by greed or by selfishness, he yet became a devoted admirer and friend of Mr. Kurtz to whom he remained loyal even after Mr. Kurtz’s death. Mr. Kurtz’s last words (“The horror! The horror!”) are regarded by Marlow as highly significant and pregnant with meaning. Thus, even in his evil, Mr. Kurtz symbolizes the wisdom which comes to an intelligent man through experiences and through meditation.
Symbolic of the Repentant Sinner
Mr. Kurtz also symbolizes the repentant sinner. It is not only that Marlow finds Mr. Kurtz to be a demonic person, and a kind of devil occupying a high rank among the devils of the land, Mr. Kurtz himself ultimately recognizes the evil within him. While dying, he utters the words “the horror” which clearly express this recognition on his part when his end approaches. He becomes aware that he is about to die; and this awareness brings with it also a realization of the evil which he has been practising during his stay at the interior station in the
. Such a realization does not come to hardened criminals and seasoned scoundrels who are beyond redemption. It comes only to those devils who still have some spark of goodness in them. By virtue of the spark of goodness, which still remains in Mr. Kurtz, he is able to see a vision of death and of the damnation which awaits him. Mr. Kurtz evidently sees the horror of hell whither he is to go after his death. These last words of Mr. Kurtz produce a profound effect on Marlow who regards these words as an affirmation, as a victory, and as a sign of some firm belief. Many sinners experience feelings of regret, remorse, and repentance when they are about to die and when their minds go back to the misdeeds which they had committed recklessly. The last words of Mr. Kurtz should therefore serve as an eye-opener for us. We should certainly derive a lesson from Mr. Kurtz’s final words on the earth. Of course, Mr. Kurtz’s fiancee is not told his final words by Marlow who does not wish to hurt her feelings or to disillusion her about the character of her lover. If Marlow had told her Mr. Kurtz’s last words, she would have felt shocked beyond words and would definitely have changed her view of the man whom she had been blindly worshipping. Congo