Do you think Marlow's admiration and envy are justified in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness?

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iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Though Kurtz is clearly morally reprehensible (at least by the time we the readers meet him), there is a sense that Marlow's admiration and envy of the man is, in fact, justified. This justification has little to do with the terrible things Kurtz does; rather, it relies on the hypnotic and powerful things Kurtz says.

Conrad often describes Kurtz as a terribly powerful voice capable of exerting control over all who hear it. The sheer power of this voice, and by extension Kurtz himself, can clearly be seen in the way that all of the ivory traders in the company admire and envy Kurtz, even if they also fear him. Indeed, even the people who don't even seem to like Kurtz that much cannot help but fall under the man's spell, especially once he starts talking about all of his grand "plans." Thus, Conrad suggests Kurtz is something of a personified black hole; he pulls in all objects around him with a terrible and irresistible force. In that case, Marlow's envy and admiration would appear to be justified, as he seems to have almost no choice in the matter. Since Kurtz is incredibly charismatic, Marlow has little choice but to envy and admire the man. Indeed, toward the end of the novella, Marlow even seems to be disgusted by his own envy and admiration of Kurtz once he sees Kurtz's degradation. As such, it's possible for Marlow's envy and admiration of Kurtz to be justified, even though Kurtz is not an honorable man.  

jfranczyk | Student

We typically exhibit admiration and envy when we perceive positive traits exhibited by another individual. For example, we might admire a person's altruism, and we might envy a person's strength and fortitude that exceed our own. Joseph Conrad reverses the paradigm when he depicts Marlow's admiration of Kurtz for his ruthlessness, and envying him for having the amoral capacity to conduct an ivory trade with no regard for the human lives he is obliterating. This envy and admiration reflect similar themes examined by Hermann Hesse in Demian, in which Hesse suggested that the mark of Cain could be viewed as a badge of honor as it could be perceived as a symbol of shame. 

Marlow's admiration and envy of Kurtz are justified only if we are able to remove any sense of morality from the equation. With no consideration of objective morality or moral relativism, we can admire an individual who does whatever is necessary to get ahead regardless of who or what that individual might harm in the process of getting ahead. Extending the analogy, we can admire a corporation that does everything necessary to generate profits for its owners, regardless of environmental damage or utilization of sweat shop labor.

Admiration and envy are therefore confined to positive attributes only when morality is also considered. These emotions can be extended to negative attributes when morality is disregarded. In telling Kurtz's story, Conrad's Marlow perhaps sees some of the amoral darkness in his own heart when he intimates his own envy and admiration for Kurtz. 

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Heart of Darkness

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