What do Kurtz's last words (The horror! The horror!) mean in Heart of Darkness?
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The first impression the reader gets is that Kurtz is alarmed, even repulsed, by the “primitive” behavior of the natives, their rituals (there are hints of cannibalism), their society—a primordial tribe without knowledge or benefit of “civilization.” But Conrad is going much deeper—he is letting the reader find out that Kurtz’ real discovery is the primitiveness of so-called civilized colonizing western cultures, the barbarism of humanity itself, the “horror” of being a human; therein lies the greatest literary irony: when Kurtz’ very proper and “civilized” fiancée asks about him, Marlow says “His last words were of you.” The power of this novel-long, beautifully conceived allegory, a condemnation of Western Hegemony, is in his cry, “The horror! The horror!” We think of ourselves as being so dignified, so enlightened, compared to "backward" societies, and yet we have capital punishment, World Wars that must be numbered, indifference to world poverty, weapons capable of annihilating whole cities--Conrad's admonishment from another world echoes today like Kurtz' cry.
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