Two Outstanding Persons in the Novel––Marlow and Kurtz
The story of Heart of Darkness is essentially the story of two men–Marlow and Kurtz. Of course it is also the story of the collision between barbarism and civilization, the story of the savages of a dark country and the invasion of that country by white men. But Marlow and Kurtz. are the two men through whom the prevailing state of affairs in the
Belgian Congo is conveyed to us. Almost everything centres round one or the other of these two men, though there are important subsidiary figures in the story. It is not the right approach to this tale to regard it as concerned mainly and largely with Kurtz, and to treat Marlow as only a means of getting us to Kurtz. Heart of Darkness is not just a study of the success and the disintegration of Kurtz. Quite a number of the pages of this novel are set outside Africa; and of those dealing with Africa, quite a number contain no mention of Kurtz at all.
Two Narrators in the Novel
Several layers of the story of Heart of Darkness are to be recognized. First, there is the un-named narrator aboard the ship called the Nellie lying anchored in the river
Thames. Aboard the same ship are also four other men––the lawyer, the accountant, the director, and Marlow. Of these four, Marlow is the one who narrates the story which constitutes the real substance of the book. Within the story narrated by Marlow, are Marlow’s two visits to –one before his journey to the Brussels– and the other at the end of his exploration of that country; and within that story also is the account of his trip up the river Congo to pick up the ailing or dying Kurtz. Congo
The Word “Nightmare”, the Key to a Major Theme of the Novel
Marlow’s decision to travel up the river
is derived from a boyhood ambition of his to explore the country called the Congo and to sail upon its most famous river which had fascinated him as a snake fascinates a silly bird. As a boy he had seen this country on a map and had felt greatly attracted by it. As a grown-up man, who has already made long voyages on the seas, he now decides to give a practical shape to his boyhood dream. Going to the offices of a trading company in Congo , he notes the ominous atmosphere reeking with images of death, but remains undaunted, though he does feel somewhat uneasy. Soon his uneasiness gives way to a deep foreboding and, during his voyage along the African coast, we find him already describing his experience as a “weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares”. The word “nightmare” here is significant because it offers the key to a major theme of the novel. The sight of the French warship lying anchored and firing again and again into the thick forest is the first hint which Marlow gets of the futility of the white man’s presence in the dark continent of Brussels Africa. Marlow finds a touch of insanity in the repeated firing of the guns of this warship because there seems to be no target in view, though someone on the steamer tells Marlow that inside the forest is the enemy at whom the firing is aimed.
The Accountant’s “Achievements of Character”
The first white man whom Marlow meets in the
is the Company’s accountant, a man immaculately dressed and well-groomed. The accountant appears a ridiculous figure because his neat and flawless clothes offer a glaring contrast to the sordid surroundings. And yet Marlow somehow feels drawn towards this man because the man’s capacity to maintain a tidy and trim appearance and his capacity to maintain his books of accounts in apple-pie order show his “achievements of character”. Marlow is impressed by the fact that “in the great demoralization of the land he (the accountant) kept up his appearance”. Congo
The Manager; the Brick-Maker; and the Faithless Pilgrims
Soon afterwards Marlow meets the manager of the Company’s Central Station. The manager is another notable figure but not one whom Marlow likes. The chief quality of the manager is his robust health and strong constitution to which he owes his security as the manager in this country where all sorts of diseases play havoc with the white men coming here for exploration or for trade. And the manager is proud of his stamina ,and his powers of endurance though Marlow forms the view that there is “nothing within” this man. Marlow feels appalled by this man’s insensitivity and his empty-headedness. And, if the man is successful in his job, it is partly because of his good health and partly because of his cunning and craftiness. Then Marlow encounters the brick-maker who makes no bricks but acts as the manager’s spy. The brick-maker too has no real merit in him, and Marlow scornfully remarks that “it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, may be”. Nor can we ignore a group of other white men at this station who are the Company’s agents and dealers in ivory and who are described by Marlow ironically as “pilgrims”, or as “faithless pilgrims”.
The Unreality and Emptiness of the White Men’s Lives in the
None of these white men (the manager, the brick-maker, and the pilgrims) strikes Marlow as having any merit whatsoever. Marlow’s whole account of them is contemptuously ironical and sarcastic. None of them does any solid work. And Marlow becomes blunt and censorious in exposing their vicious side:
They beguiled the time by backbiting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way. There was an air of plotting about that station, but nothing came of it, of course. It was as unreal as everything else. The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn their percentages. (Pages 53-4)
Marlow feels upset by the commercial mentality of all these people, and he feels also their “unreality”. “Unreality” is a word which is repeated several times by Marlow who feels disturbed by the foolish emptiness of the existence led by the white persons at the Central Station. In. fact, Marlow connects this unreality or absurdity with the evil which he perceives in these persons. Thus he hears a “fiendish” sound around the station, but it is only the buzzing of the flies. He calls the manager a “devil”, but he is only a “flabby devil”. He regards the brick-maker as Mephistopheles, at the same time describing him as a “papier-mache Mephistopheles”. It is because of this context of greed and boredom that Marlow’s initial interest in Kurtz is aroused. The brick-maker describes Kurtz as “a prodigy, an emissary of pity, science, and progress”; and Marlow begins to see Kurtz as .having a certain symbolic importance: “I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all, and how he would set about his work when there”.
The Theme of Reality and Unreality
At this point Marlow begins to make a distinction between two types of reality, a subject upon which his thoughts have turned since he called the white men at the Central Station “unreal”. There is, first, the reality which he finds in the efficiency of his everyday tasks and which he later describes as the “surface-truth of life”; and then there is the reality of the darkness of the jungle, a darkness which is most powerful and which forces itself on his attention. The distinction between these two! senses of “reality” and their contrast with the unreality of the white men at the Central Station is to be found in the following passage:
I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant……By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life! And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion. (Page 52)
From this point in the story onward, it is the tension between these two types of reality which is of vital interest to the thoughtful reader. There is the reality of daily work and its efficiency;. and there is the metaphysical reality of the darkness of the jungle. And there is, of course, the unreality, the unreality of the white men’s existence.
The Symbolic Journey and the Symbolic Darkness
After three months’ work upon the wrecked ship, Marlow at last begins his voyage up the river to the Inner Station which is in Kurtz’s charge. This voyage is both a literal and a symbolic journey. The “silence” and “stillness” of the jungle along the river-bank have an “implacable force”; and they seem to have an “inscrutable intention” and a “vengeful aspect”. The malignant character of the outward universe here suggests the inner darkness of man or the potential evil in man. The darkness of the jungle symbolizes the darkness in the heart of man. Both have a menacing, evil look. And Marlow also here suggests that his audience is simply not equipped with a depth of experience which is needed properly to understand what he is trying to tell them.
Marlow’s Resistance to Darkness; Kurtz’s surrender to it
As the journey proceeds, the darkness of the jungle and the darkness within Marlow himself become an increasing threat to his mental equilibrium. The sights which meet Marlow’s eyes during the voyage give rise to philosophical speculations in his mind. He thinks of the reactions of the fool and of the sensible man to these sights. The fool will not heed the call of the savages dwelling within the jungle because he is not aware of the “truth” of that call. The sensible man, on the other hand, is aware of the “common humanity” linking him with the black frenzy of the darkness, with the savage and primitive forces within himself. Furthermore, Marlow thinks of the differing reactions of even the sensible category of men. One kind of sensible man, perceiving the appeal and the meaning of the darkness of the jungle, would resist it as evil; but the other kind of sensible man would succumb to it. Kurtz succumbs to the darkness, and identifies himself with the savages, though he manages also to retain his own identity. But Marlow himself resists the darkness; he overcomes the temptation; he rises above the call to savagery; he understands the danger of yielding to primitive instincts and avoids the danger. And to overcome this danger one needs not principles but beliefs. “Principles won’t do.... you want a deliberate belief”, says Marlow. (The distinction between a principle and a belief we may not be able to understand). But there is something more. Marlow finds his security not only in the “surface-truth” of his daily duties, but he also makes use of his “inborn inner strength”. Either a man possesses this inner strength, or he does not possess it. Hollow men like the manager, the brick-maker, the faithless pilgrims, and even Kurtz do not have it; while Marlow has it and his cannibal crew have it too. In Marlow’s opinion even the accountant has this quality him. The inborn inner strength is the one solid quality that a man needs to face starvation, to face disease, to face the danger from the darkness of the jungle, to overcome the temptation of yielding to the call of the savages, and to conquer all kinds of lust.
The Russian Explorer’s View of Kurtz
Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz’s Russian devotee has its own special importance in the story. The Russian, described by Marlow as a harlequin, regards Kurtz as a noble-minded, lofty being worthy of adoration. In the Russian’s view, Kurtz is not a man to be judged by ordinary standards. This view naturally stimulates. Marlow’s desire to meet Kurtz and find out how that man is to be judged. Marlow has already learnt that Kurtz is a remarkable man, an emissary of progress and pity, a great collector of ivory, and so on: Subsequently Marlow sees the human skulls hung upon poles outside Kurtz’s residence. The skulls have the colour of ivory. The association of ivory with these skulls suggests the essence of Kurtz himself when Marlow gives us his first description of the man on personally seeing him from a distance:
I saw him open his mouth wide––it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him. (Page 99)
However, we are never told the secret of Kurtz’s degradation or the nature of the “abominable satisfactions” which he has been enjoying.
Marlow’s Admiration for Kurtz Despite the Evil in Kurtz
In the long run, Marlow himself becomes an admirer of Kurtz. Not that Marlow has failed to see the evil in Kurtz. On the contrary, Marlow has found the evil in that man to be almost palpable. Marlow has penetrated to the devilry in Kurtz while the Russian had failed to perceive it. And yet Marlow finds something irresistible in Kurtz. He discovers some mysterious quality in Kurtz which binds him to that man and which forces him to remain loyal to him even after he has died. That Marlow should become a faithful friend of Kurtz even after having come to know the vast evil in him, is one of the paradoxes of this story. Marlow’s devotion to Kurtz is next only to that of the natives and next also to that of the Russian. But it is not a blind devotion like the devotion of the natives and that of the Russian. It is a devotion conscious of itself and by no means ashamed of itself. Marlow leaves us in no doubt at all of his undying devotion and loyalty even though at one point in the novel he has described Kurtz as “hollow at the core”. Marlow sides with Kurtz against the manager and the pilgrims. The manager describes Kurtz’s method of handling the ivory trade as unsound, but Marlow is not inclined to agree with this view. Marlow has to choose between two nightmares, the nightmare represented by Kurtz and the nightmare represented by the manager and his white followers (the pilgrims); and Marlow chooses Kurtz.
Kurtz’s Victory Over the Call of the Wilderness and its Savagery
It is because of his admiration for Kurtz and his devotion, to the man that Marlow plunges into the jungle to search for Kurtz after Kurtz has slipped away from the ship’s cabin to join his native followers. When Marlow has found Kurtz, the latter insists on going to join the savages but Marlow urges him to go back with him to the ship. There is here a conflict of wills between the two men. Marlow wins though Kurtz too uses his better sense to resist the call of the wilderness. Kurtz is then brought back to the ship by Marlow, back to civilization. Kurtz has acquiesced in Marlow’s wish as expressed by Marlow in emphatic terms. Marlow has succeeded in breaking the spell of the wilderness which seemed to draw Kurtz to itself by awakening his brutal instincts. This is a crucial stage in the story of Kurtz. Bringing him back to civilization was no easy task for Marlow. Marlow was convinced that, in wanting to join the savages, Kurtz was not behaving like a madman. No, Marlow was not dealing with a lunatic. Kurtz’s intelligence at the time was perfectly clear. It was Kurtz’s soul that was mad. Marlow thus describes Kurtz’s state of mind at that time:
He (Kurtz) struggled with himself, too. I saw it, I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. (Page 108)
Anyhow, Kurtz does allow himself to be led back to civilization; and in doing so he wins a victory over his primitive, brutal instincts which were driving him into the wilderness to join the savages with whom he had found a kinship and an affinity, and with whom he had established a close relationship too.
The Germinal Idea of Kurtz’s Story
As a critic tells us, Kurtz cannot be taken simply as a symbol of transcendental evil, though he is certainly associated with evil. His fate is of interest to us because it is a consequence of his isolation from civilized society and because of the absolute freedom which he has been enjoying at his remote station situated in a wilderness, in the heart of darkness. He had become a fully autonomous man, trying to generate and enact his own moral truth. The germinal idea of Kurtz’s story emerges from these facts about him; and this may be stated in the following words: “safety” and “value” are illusions that can only be generated .and preserved within a given society, while any attempt to place oneself outside these artificial, though necessary, moral structures will drive any man into a perilous condition of “excited imagination”. The manager of the Central Station and the other fools of the story can never descend to the “heart of darkness” because they have no imagination. What makes Kurtz remarkable is not only that he has lived in the darkness, but also chosen to leave it. (Thus “heart of darkness” symbolically means the evil which lies within a man and which only needs certain kinds of stimuli and incentives to be aroused and assert itself).
The Mysterious Nature of Kurtz’s Victory
We are not told the grounds on which Kurtz makes his final choice, though Marlow’s contribution to Kurtz’s decision cannot be ignored. We therefore keep wondering how Kurtz, who had been described by Marlow as “hollow at the core”, could suddenly rise to the occasion and win his final victory. Perhaps, Marlow’s exhortations have lighted the spark of goodness which still remained in Kurtz’s nature. Or, ‘perhaps Kurtz’s victory is intended to remain a mystery which we cannot solve. But a victory he surely wins.
Kurtz’s Pamphlet, and the Words Scrawled at Its End
Kurtz’s pamphlet, written at the request of the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs describes in eloquent words the role of the white man in raising the natives to a civilized state:
We whites, from the point of development we have arrived at, must necessarily appear to them (savages) in the nature of supernatural beings––we approach them with the might as of a deity, and so on, and so on. By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded. (Page 86)
In other words, the white man can, by taking advantage of the conditions which allow him to assume the role of the benevolent deity, exercise his unlimited power towards good. Yet the assumption, that a man in a state of absolute freedom will necessarily do good, is false. At the very heart of darkness, every man desires, like Kurtz, to take “a high seat among the devils of the land.” Hence we have Kurtz’s final scrawl at the bottom of his pamphlet: “exterminate all the brutes”. (page 87). Kurtz’s fate is that of any man who strives to take upon himself the entire structure of morality.
Kurtz’s Egoistical Desire for Domination Over the Savages
A sympathy for those who are miserable may turn out to be merely egoistical self-glorification. A man who pities another always has a certain sense of superiority over the one who is pitied. This latent feeling of self-congratulation may ultimately lead either to self-pity or to an assertion of the will to power. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz’s assumption of the “white man’s burden” is merely the pretext for an overwhelming desire for domination over the savages.
Kurtz’s Last Words: “The Horror! The Horror”
Kurtz’s last words before dying are: “The horror! The horror!” There is an ambiguity about the meaning of these words. These words may represent Kurtz’s final desire to return to the scene of those abominable satisfactions which he used to experience among the savages. Or, these words may be Kurtz’s judgment on the unworthy end which he is going to meet by dying a death which he had not expected Or, these words may be Kurtz’s description of the human condition. Or, these words may be Kurtz’s vision of his own eternal damnation. Marlow, however, feels certain of his own interpretation. Marlow regards Kurtz’s last words as a confession, and as a final attempt at self-purification. Marlow interprets these words as Kurtz’s “judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth” (page 112). Marlow regards Kurtz’s dying words as his final summing-up of human life in general and of his own life in particular, and he thinks these words as showing Kurtz’s victory. And it is especially because of this victory, because of Kurtz’s “affirmation”, that Marlow has remained loyal to Kurtz. Thus Marlow pays a tribute to Kurtz on the basis of Kurtz’s final utterance which contains Kurtz’s final vision of both the human’ predicament and of his own experience. Accepting Marlow’s interpretation, of Kurtz’s last words, a critic writes:
Kurtz’s last words are a statement of the widest generality. They define one tenable view of man’s situation in an alien universe. Alternatively, they define the only sense of himself that man can bring back from a wholly inward journey: that into the immense darkness, the unmeaning anarchy, of his own psyche.
If Marlow’s final verdict upon Kurtz is glowing praise for the man, then why did Marlow say earlier that Kurtz was “hollow at the core?” It is difficult to answer this question. To our minds, there is a contradiction between Marlow’s earlier judgment of Kurtz’s character and his subsequent verdict. A man who is “hollow at the core” can surely not win the kind of victory which, according to Marlow, the man called Kurtz does surely win. To win such a victory, a man needs the kind of “inner strength” about which also Marlow has earlier spoken and which was lacking in Kurtz. How, then, do we explain this contradiction between Marlow’s earlier statement and his later tribute to Kurtz? We can only say that towards the end Marlow discovers in Kurtz something which he had failed to perceive in the beginning.
Marlow, Back in
, a Different Man Brussels
After Kurtz’s death, Marlow himself falls seriously ill, hovering between life and death perhaps because of the spiritual agony which he undergoes as a consequence of his having witnessed the tragedy of Kurtz. However, he survives the illness: “No, they did not bury me.” He then returns to the sepulchral city, namely
, and finds himself resenting the trivial, everyday concerns of the common people with their vulgar interests, and feels contemptuous of the unthinking complacency of the so-called “civilized” man. He is now a different man from the one he was when he had gone into the African wilderness. He has been initiated into the deepest knowledge, and has had a vision of the taut: In the words of the author of The Ancient Mariner, Marlow is now a wiser and sadder man. Brussels
The Significance of Marlow’s Interview With Kurtz’s Intended
Marlow’s interview with the woman, whom Kurtz would have married if he had lived, is the last episode in the novel, and a significant episode it is. This final incident clarifies the novel’s central theme. As Marlow enters the house of Kurtz’s fiancee, he feels as if the spectre of Kurtz and his savage followers enters with him, seeking admission into the world of commonplace truths and safety. But Marlow is determined not to allow the forces of wilderness and darkness to invade the woman’s mind or soul, especially after he discovers that she still loves Kurtz, that she still clings to her false notions of his worth, and that she still admires him ardently and genuinely. He finds that her false image of that man’s noble-mindedness and his lofty ideals is the sustaining force of her existence. In this situation he faces a serious moral dilemma. He has always hated lies and falsehood of all kinds. On a previous occasion, he had, falsely allowed a man (the brick-maker) to believe a lie about himself, but then he had done so under the pressure of an inner necessity. Now once again he finds it necessary to tell a lie. Kurtz’s beloved has asked him what her lover’s last words were. Now, he remembers vividly that Kurtz’s last words were: “The horror!” But if he tells her these actual words, which Kurtz had uttered before dying, she herself would feel horrified, or at least dismayed and bewildered. Marlow’s telling her Kurtz’s actual last words would deprive this woman of the illusion which is sustaining her. So he quickly invents the lie that the last word spoken by Kurtz had been her own. Thus_ Marlow’s narrative ends with the suggestion that truth is unendurable in the context of everyday life, and that some sort of illusion is necessary for a human being’s peace of mind and happiness.
The Close of the Novel
The novel closes with the first narrator, who remains un-named, looking at the river
Thames and saying that it too “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness”.