The Portrayal of Kurtz, a Riddle
Conrad’s portrayal of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is one of Conrad’s greatest achievements in the field of characterization; and yet Mr. Kurtz remains a mysterious and elusive person whom we are not able to understand fully. The portrayal of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest riddles in the whole range of Conrad’s fiction. While Conrad has certainly delineated Mr. Kurtz in a manner which fascinates us, we cannot claim that we have been able to understand the mind of Mr. Kurtz, and we cannot assert that Conrad has made Mr. Kurtz live before us. We cannot, in the case of this particular character, say that we have met the man and known him well. Mr. Kurtz remains a puzzle, even though most of the individual traits of this man have clearly been brought to our notice.
A Remarkable Man, According to the Accountant
We first hear the name of Mr. Kurtz from the chief accountant of the trading company of which Marlow has become an employee. Here we learn that Mr. Kurtz is, a “remarkable man”, and a first-class agent of the Company. The accountant tells Marlow that Mr. Kurtz is in charge of a very important trading post in the interior of the
. Mr. Kurtz is able to collect as much ivory for export as all the other agents of the Company taken together. The accountant also speaks of the high potential of Mr. Kurtz who, in his opinion, would one day rise to a very high position. Congo
The Manager’s Inward Hostility to Kurtz
Then we hear a good deal about Mr. Kurtz from the manager of the Central Station of the Company. Although the manager also speaks about Mr. Kurtz’s efficiency as an agent of the Company, yet the manager is inwardly hostile to Mr. Kurtz because of his fear that Mr. Kurtz might one day supersede him. While talking to his uncle a little later in the story, the manager clearly states his apprehensions with regard Mr. Kurtz; and his apprehensions are fully shared by his uncle.
The Brick-Maker’s Hypocritical Praise of Kurtz
Later we find the brick-maker at the Central Station talking glibly about Mr. Kurtz. The brick-maker describes Mr. Kurtz as a great apostle of pity, of science, and of progress. In the brick-maker’s view, Mr. Kurtz is a man of high intelligence and wide sympathies. But Marlow can easily see that the brick-maker is talking about Mr. Kurtz in a hypocritical manner, and that actually the brick-maker shares the manager’s antagonism towards Mr. Kurtz.
The Great Hold of the Wilderness Upon Kurtz
Soon afterwards we come to know some more facts about Mr. Kurtz and his way of life at the Inner Station of which he holds the charge. We now learn that Mr. Kurtz has a passion for ivory. Indeed, his main concern as the agent of his Company is to collect ivory. In this respect, he is even more enthusiastic than his employers could have been. The word “ivory” has always been on his lips. Next to ivory, his greatest concern is his intended (or the girl whom he proposes to marry). Even greater than his love for his fiancee, and greater than his passion for ivory is the fascination which the wilderness soon begins to exercise upon Mr. Kurtz. The wilderness seems to have penetrated into the very being of Mr. Kurtz. The wilderness has caressed him, has loved him, has embraced him, has entered his blood, has consumed his flesh, and has taken complete possession of his soul.
Kurtz’s High Seat Among the Devils of the Land
Mr. Kurtz has also developed a strong sense of power in the region in which he lives, and over the natives with whom he has been coming into a close contact. He shows his sense of ownership of things by repeatedly saying: “My ivory, my intended, my station, my river, my–.” From the way in which Mr. Kurtz talks, it would seem that everything belongs to him. At this point, Marlow feels that Mr. Kurtz is an unbalanced kind of man who has lost his sense of proportion. It seems to Marlow at this time that, if the wilderness were to hear Mr. Kurtz talking about his possessions, the wilderness would burst into a mocking laugh. It also seems to Marlow that, if Mr. Kurtz owns everything around him, he himself is owned by the powers of darkness. In other words, Mr. Kurtz seems to Marlow to be a man who has become wholly evil. Marlow feels that eventually the powers of darkness would claim Mr. Kurtz as their own. According to Marlow, Mr. Kurtz has taken a high seat among the devils of the land. In other words, Mr. Kurtz now seems to Marlow to be an embodiment of evil.
The Degeneracy of Kurtz, From Civilization to Barbarism
In his early life, Mr. Kurtz had been a man of sound views and an enlightened outlook upon life. All
Europe had contributed to the making of him. On one occasion he had written a pamphlet in which he had argued that the white man had a great responsibility towards the savages who recognized his superior abilities and gifts. In the eyes of the savages, the white man was a kind of god; and, therefore, according to Mr. Kurtz’s original way of thinking, the white man could do a lot to improve the conditions of life for the savages. The white man could exercise unlimited powers of benevolence for the good of the backward peoples of the world. Such had been Mr. Kurtz’s views before coming to the . However, at the end of that pamphlet, Mr. Kurtz had also jotted down the following words: “Exterminate all the brutes.” Now, this injunction seemed to contradict all the preceding arguments in that pamphlet. On one hand, Mr. Kurtz had wanted the white man to confer all kinds of benefits upon the brutes; and, on the other hand, he wanted all the brutes to be annihilated. Perhaps his injunction to exterminate all the brutes might only have meant that the brutal part of the savages should be exterminated and that they should be transformed into civilized human beings. In any case, Mr. Kurtz’s ideas had, in those days, been highly progressive, and he had really been an apostle of pity enlightenment. But subsequently, after his prolonged stay among the savages, Mr. Kurtz had himself become a savage. What puzzles us most about this man is the great change which takes place in his character and his outlook after he has lived in the interior of the Congo for a fairly long time. Instead of civilizing the savages, he himself becomes almost a savage. Having lived in the midst of savages, he falls a prey to the influence of these men and begins to share their way of life and their customs. He identifies himself with them to such an extent that they begin to regard him as one of themselves. Not only that, they began to worship and admire him because of his eloquence in speech and because of his spellbinding speeches to them. He has been presiding over their dances which always end with unspeakable rites. In other words, he has been participating in their custom of offering human sacrifice to their gods, and perhaps even in their cannibalism. Having lived among them, he has lapsed into primitivism and has been giving full outlet to the primitive instincts which have gained an ascendancy in his mind. He has been seeking abominable satisfactions and he has been gratifying the monstrous passions which had begun to rage in his breast. He has been satisfying all the primitive appetites and lusts which had emerged in his heart. The monstrous passions, and their gratification include all kinds of sex perversions such as collective sex orgies, gang-rape, homosexuality, sadistic and masochistic practices, and so on. Congo
A Double Life, Being Led By Kurtz
This change in Mr. Kurtz does not mean that he has entirely forgotten his European heritage or that all the marks of civilization have been extinguished in him. The strange thing is that he retains his identity as a civilized man, while at the same time succumbing to his primitive instincts at times. In other words, whenever he mingles with the savages, he becomes a savage like them; and on such occasions he fully shares and participates in their rites and customs, including the offering of human sacrifice and cannibalism, and including also the satisfaction of certain monstrous passions and lusts. But he becomes his civilized self when he returns to his residence at the Company’s station and resumes his activities as a trader in ivory on behalf of the Company of which he is the employee. Thus he leads a double life. He is a civilized man, striving to serve the Company to his utmost by collecting the maximum possible quantities of ivory; and, at the same time, he pays frequent visits to the interior of the wilderness in order to participate in the primitive rites and customs of the savages. He has also managed to subdue the savages in order to be able to rule over them as their chief of chiefs, so that all the chiefs, of the native tribes come crawling to pay their homage to him.
The Image of Kurtz, Exalted By the Russian’s Eulogy
The Russian explorer and traveller who has studied the ways of Mr. Kurtz and who has come into intimate contact with him has high praise for Mr. Kurtz. In fact, the Russian’s praise of Mr. Kurtz greatly exalts Mr. Kurtz’s image in our eyes; and even Marlow cannot help being influenced by the Russian’s eulogy of Mr. Kurtz. The Russian says that Mr. Kurtz had taught him much and that Mr. Kurtz had enabled him to see into the life of things. The Russian had become a devoted admirer and disciple of Mr. Kurtz, and had even nursed him during his illnesses. The Russian had felt greatly impressed by Mr. Kurtz’s poetic talent also, and had often listened to Mr. Kurtz’s recitation of his poems. At the same time, the Russian bears witness to Mr. Kurtz’s passion for power, his passion for ivory, his passion for his fiancee, and his passion to own things.
Marlow’s Attitude Towards Kurtz
Marlow too begins to admire Mr. Kurtz after having come into personal contact with him. Marlow cannot exactly define the positive qualities of Mr. Kurtz except his magnificent eloquence but Marlow does fall under that man’s spell. Marlow had found Mr. Kurtz to be “hollow at the core”, and yet subsequently Marlow becomes a devotee of that man. Marlow pursues Mr. Kurtz into the wilderness when Mr. Kurtz has slipped away from his cabin on the ship in order to rejoin the savages in response to the beating of their drums; and Marlow brings Mr. Kurtz back, though he has to use all his powers of persuasion to make him agree to come back. Thus Mr. Kurtz has found the call of the wilderness to be irresistible even after having decided to accompany the white men who have come especially to take him away and send him to
Europe for medical treatment. This means that Mr. Kurtz finds it difficult even at this stage to tear himself away form the wilderness and from the savages environment in which he has been living. Marlow finds the native woman’s devotion to Mr. Kurtz also to be evidence of Mr. Kurtz’s influence over the savages. This native woman has been Mr. Kurtz’s housekeeper and, most probably, also a mistress of his. Then Marlow feels deeply impressed by Mr. Kurtz’s dying words: “The horror! the horror!” Marlow takes these words to mean that, while dying, Mr. Kurtz has been able to recognize the evil within himself. To Marlow, it seems that Mr. Kurtz has, at the end, partially redeemed himself by realizing the horror of the evil which had been dominating his mind, and which had taken possession of his heart and soul. Marlow regards Mr. Kurtz’s last words as an “affirmation” and as a “victory”. After having heard these last words of Mr. Kurtz, Marlow becomes further confirmed in his friendship and his admiration for Mr. Kurtz; and it is because of this feeling of friendship for the dead man that Marlow tells a lie to Mr. Kurtz’s fiancee when, in response to a question by her, he says that the last word spoken by Mr. Kurtz before his death was her own name.
The Symbolic Significance of Kurtz’s Character
Mr. Kurtz is not an ordinary character in an ordinary novel. Heart of Darkness is an extraordinary work of fiction-cum-facts, and Mr. Kurtz is an extraordinary person. In addition to what he seems to be or what he apparently is, he has also to be viewed as a symbolic figure. He represents the western man’s commercial mentality and the western man’s greed. Secondly, he represents the hypocrisy of the white man’s claims of civilizing the savages. Thirdly, he represents the western man’s love of power and his desire to subjugate and rule over the backward races of the world even at the sacrifice of the fundamental principles of ethics and morality. Finally, Mr. Kurtz symbolizes the power and force of the primitive human instincts which may seem to have been brought under control by the civilized people but which manage the rise to the surface if a civilized man has to remain in an environment of savagery and brutality for a long time.