Why is Marlow fascinated by Kurtz in Heart of Darkness?

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Marlow could not help but to be fascinated by the image of and the thought of eventually encountering in person the figure of Kurtz. Soon into his journey into the enormous forbidding jungles of Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , Marlow begins hearing mentions of this...

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Marlow could not help but to be fascinated by the image of and the thought of eventually encountering in person the figure of Kurtz. Soon into his journey into the enormous forbidding jungles of Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow begins hearing mentions of this mysterious figure, some references open and approving, others discrete and conspiratorial. Kurtz is spoken of as an up-and-coming figure in the Company, a man utterly devoted to his responsibilities and certain to move up in the corporate ranks. Before embarking into the jungle, Marlow relates a conversation with an accountant, an important figure in the profitable and rapacious ivory trade that lies at the center of Conrad’s narrative. The accountant explains that Mr. Kurtz is “a first-class agent” and “a very remarkable person.” Kurtz, the accountant notes, is the Company’s most productive agent, operating deep inside the continent’s interior under brutal conditions in the interest of accumulating for shipment home “as much ivory as all the others put together.”

The accountant’s references to Kurtz are not in-and-of themselves sufficient to motivate Marlow to seek out the agent at the risk of his own life. Even the suggestion that Kurtz will certainly rise in the corporate hierarchy is not enough to summon within Marlow an obsession with finding Kurtz. As Marlow’s journey progresses, however, the prospect of encountering Kurtz grows increasingly intriguing. The references to and discussions of Kurtz feed Marlow’s determination to meet the mysterious agent. A discussion of Kurtz with a manager at a way-station makes Marlow view Kurtz as a ubiquitous figure, prompting Marlow to think to himself “hang Kurtz.” Increasing suggestions that something bad has or is happening, however, begins to light a fire in Marlow regarding Kurtz that stokes more interest. Not only are the repeated references to Kurtz increasingly intriguing, but the conditions under which indigenous people are forced to labor on behalf of the Company and the natural harshness of the jungle environment in which they work and are physically abused builds as the boat nears Kurtz’s camp.

Marlow is fascinated by Kurtz by journey’s end because he comes to view the agent as a metaphor for all the ugliness he has witnessed. Kurtz’s dying words, “the horror, the horror,” encapsulate the surrealistic environment in which he, Kurtz, has been functioning. The inhumanity of the Company’s enterprise and his own enormous success at fueling that enterprise have taken a serious toll on Kurtz’s psyche, and Marlow has become the inheritor of Kurtz’s legacy. The journey to Kurtz’s camp deep in the Congo is not only physical, but mental, and Marlow’s growing determination to meet Kurtz and to accept the roll of executor of Kurtz’s memories is only complete with the legendary ivory agent’s death.

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As was mentioned in the previous post, Marlow is fascinated with meeting Kurtz, an extremely successful ivory agent, who has traveled deep into the Congo. Marlow hears many conflicting rumors about Kurtz as he travels towards the Inner Station. Various employees of the Company view Kurtz differently. Some admire and appreciate Kurtz's ability to collect ivory, while others are jealous and hope for his death. As Marlow journeys into Africa, he witnesses the corrupt, despicable nature of colonialism. After reading Kurtz's report for The International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, he is intrigued to find out whether or not Kurtz was able to maintain his morals and civility after living so long in the jungle. Kurtz is an enigmatic figure who is at the center of the Company and the African continent. Marlow is interested in meeting Kurtz in hopes of gaining some sort of supreme knowledge from a man with such unique experiences. When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, he is captivated by his eloquent speech. Marlow connects with Kurtz, who also opposes the Company, and gains valuable insight into the "heart of darkness." 

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When Marlow enters the jungle, he has heard many rumors and stories about Kurtz, who is seen as an almost mythical figure by many. The Accountant seems to worship Kurtz for his production of ivory, while the Station Manager and his uncle speak of Kurtz as though his exploitations are damaging to the Company. Every mention of Kurtz makes Marlow more and more curious, until Marlow is almost desperate to meet with him:

Hadn't I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together?
[...]
 I was cut to the quick at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz.
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness, eNotes eText)

All the people building Kurtz up gave Marlow certain expectations, and he wants to meet Kurtz to see the truth behind all these disparate and contradictory stories. When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, his expectations are so high that for a time he views Kurtz as a seven-foot-tall commanding presence, even though Kurtz is bedridden and invalid. Marlow does not view Kurtz as an opposite figure; instead, Marlow comes to realize that Kurtz is the worst of uninhibited man, released because the jungle has no checks and balances.

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