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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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In Heart of Darkness, look at Marlow’s response to Kurtz. What other motifs in the novel can you connect to Marlow’s emphasis on his lack of restraint, the fact of his eloquence when he is actually “hollow at the core”? Examine Marlow’s feelings about Kurtz and the manager. What changes in attitude is Marlow experiencing? How does he feel about each of these men by the time they begin the journey back down the river and as that journey progresses?

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A lot of the drama of Heart of Darknessdeals with the emotion of fear—not just fear of something external, but fear of what lies inside. As Marlow travels further down the river and draws nearer to Kurtz , most of what he fears could be categorized as things people...

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A lot of the drama of Heart of Darkness deals with the emotion of fear—not just fear of something external, but fear of what lies inside. As Marlow travels further down the river and draws nearer to Kurtz, most of what he fears could be categorized as things people would rather not know.

It's difficult to say if and how Marlow is disappointed when he finally meets Kurtz. He has heard so much about that man over the course of his stay in Africa, a lot of it controversial and contrary. Back in the more "civilized" parts, Marlow thinks of him as just a man. A remarkable man, perhaps, but still. It's possible for him to consider the varying reports and logically conclude that the majority of it is hyperbole, fear, disgust, and awe. At that stage, Kurtz appears to be a powerful character who fascinates him.

The journey down the river has been thoroughly discussed and widely accepted to be a symbol of a decent to madness, of drawing closer to the heart of darkness. The more Marlow sees just how different the world is in the deep jungles of Africa, the more he begins to fear. That fear, however, seems to be as contrary as Kurtz himself.

On one hand, there is the natural fear and disgust at what is actually taking place all around him. Marlow begins to see the cracks in civilization and how easily men can be undone when social order is nigh non-existent. Slowly, the fear that perhaps people live under a pretense of civility creeps into Marlow's mind. It's no wonder, really, that he should be afraid of that. It could be compared to the PTSD soldiers suffer after war when they've seen human nature at its worst, and that is definitely the case in Heart of Darkness. Marlow reevaluates his opinion not only of the manager and later Kurtz, but also himself. The latter comes hardest. Marlow begins to question whether he'd be the same if he spent so much time in the darkness Kurtz lives in, or perhaps whether anyone would be if put in that situation. The question that troubles him is whether Kurtz sinking into madness was an inevitable path.

The other part of his fear walks hand-in-hand with the clear realization that separate parts of the world are not similar at all. What feels right and natural to a person in one culture could completely fall to pieces in another. Marlow experiences that as his every instinct begins to rebel at the reality he doesn't want to accept. During the journey, he becomes more and more disillusioned about people, which inevitably leads to the other fear—that Kurtz really is just a man.

When a person is faced with a deep shock, it's natural to try and find some solid ground again. It's why religious people find strength in community and church at difficult times, and it's why totalitarian regimes rise after a long period of suffering. In times of trouble, human nature looks to something bigger than itself. Marlow, who feels horrified by everything Kurtz does, also begins to hope—just a little—that what he's told is true. Maybe that is consolation. Maybe if he finds Kurtz to be an individual beyond compare, it would help make sense of it all somehow. If Kurtz is extraordinary, then the things happening around him would be miraculous as well. If he's not, though, the first fear must be true—that it's all just men. Men who are capable of terrible things.

What makes Heart of Darkness such a bleak and depressing work of fiction is that Marlow's fears both sort of come true. Kurtz really does turn out to be a unique individual, capable of moving people. But he is no god, or at least he shouldn't be. Marlow is left between reality and myth, seeing the man worshiped and hated by people, the very image of what humans are capable of when they're driven to the edge. The journey back is possibly even worse for Marlow, as he can't find anything remarkable about Kurtz being "hollow at the core." It then turns out that his worst fear was being left without satisfying answers, and that is what happened. Instead of getting some peace of mind, Marlow leaves with the image of madness in the dark.

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One of the most important motifs that can be connected to Kurtz and the fact that he is eventually seen by Marlow to be "hollow at the core" is the role that civilisation plays in the novel as a guiding force that keeps characters on the straight and narrow. Marlow himself experiences the way that, in the heart of Africa, away from the West and so-called "civilisation," there is nothing to prevent him from doing hideous deeds should he feel the need. Even he at various points shows he is losing his grip on sanity. Note how he appeals to the understanding of the other passengers on the boat who are listening to his story:

You can't understand. How could you?--with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums--how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude--utter solitude without a policeman--by the way of silence--utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion?

What prevents people from descending into insanity normally is the threat of the "policeman" and the "gallows and lunatic asylums." When these are removed and are replaced with "utter silence" and "utter solitude," without any "warning voice," humans are left to truly follow their own devices. This is what has turned Kurtz from a man of principles, a respected man who had a future, to, ultimately, a "hollow man," because he is unable to keep his ideals and beliefs untainted by the "utter solitude" into which he is plunged. At the end, Marlow realises that his ideals have been corrupted, and although he still retains an incredible eloquence, there is nothing at its core. This change has occurred because of the way that Kurtz has spent so much time in Africa that he has become unanchored from every aspect of civilisation.

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