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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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In Heart of Darkness, what is the topic of Kurtz's paper?

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Marlow recalls reading Kurtz's report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs and begins by commenting on the paper's eloquence. As Marlow reiterates the first paragraph, he mentions that in hindsight the paper strikes him as ominous. Kurtz begins by writing that the white Europeans should appear to the Natives as "supernatural beings" and approach the Natives as mighty deities. Kurtz then continues to write about how once the European colonists attain authority they can begin to exert their power for the good of the native Africans by civilizing the region. At the end of the "altruistic sentiment," Kurtz concludes the paper by writing, "Exterminate all the brutes!"

Essentially, the paper is Kurtz's blueprint for establishing colonial authority among the natives in the Congo, introducing them to civilization, and exterminating them in the region. While Kurtz's original intention for writing the paper was to focus on altruistic forms of imperialism, his true beliefs and natural inclination are emphasized in the final statement regarding the extermination of the Natives. Kurtz follows this blueprint and rules as a maniacal tyrant, who is perceived as a deity in the eyes of the native Africans. While his original intentions may have been altruistic, the authority and distance from civilization corrupt Kurtz to the point that he becomes an unscrupulous, brutal ivory trader, who is both revered and feared by the native Africans.

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Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad's novella The Heart of Darkness, writes that Kurtz had made a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. The title of this organization implies that its intent was benevolence but that it was perhaps sinister in its practices. 

Marlow writes of this report:

"...It was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings--we approach them with the might as of a deity'" (page 111 of Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction, Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003).

In other words, Kurtz's report recommends that whites appear to the Congolese as gods, and he follows this practice by establishing himself as a kind of god to the local people, only for the purposes of exploiting them. 

Marlow also writes of Kurtz's report: "at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!' (page 111). In a paper that is supposedly altruistic, or intended to help the local people, Kurtz seems to forget himself in the end, and his true nature comes out when he writes that all the natives should be killed. This paper reveals that Kurtz is like the devil, as he covers his evil intent with eloquence. 



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Kurtz’s report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs is about Kurtz' belief that all natives, or "brutes" as he calls them, should be "exterminated". Kurtz eloquently expresses his belief racial inequality, with the blacks looking at the whites “in the nature of supernatural beings.” Ironically, Kurtz becomes a savage while reporting for their suppression. Marlow does not say whether he approves of Kurtz’s ideas, even if he admires the “unbounded power of eloquence” of the words. Confused by the contradicting images of Kurtz, Marlow thinks that “whatever he was, he was not common.”

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