Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers
by Joseph Conrad

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How is Kurtz an example of spiritual degeneration?

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Lauren Willson, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Kurtz is an example of spiritual degeneration because he has slowly gone crazy deep in the African jungle. His spirit was tested by what he found out there—and what he found within himself—and he was unable to pull himself back together.

By all accounts, Kurtz was once a regular and intelligent man. Many people speak highly of him to Marlow as Marlow travels onward to meet the man. He discovers that Kurtz was talented in many things including painting and music. Some thought that he would become a politician. The person Kurtz was appears to be someone whose spirit was whole and who had a happy, fulfilling life.

The man that Marlow meets in the jungle isn't a man whose spirit is whole. It's fragmented, and the man himself has descended into insanity. When Marlow thinks back on the writings of Kurtz's that he had read beforehand, he can see the seeds of that degeneration in the way he speaks about white people appearing as gods to those in the Congo. Those ideas overtook the man and did away with the good of his spirit. By the time Marlow reaches him, he is sick, dying, and insane.

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Felicita Burton eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Heart of Darkness, Marlow finds that Kurtz has succumbed to hubris: excessive pride. He not only thinks of himself as the embodiment of the Company, but he also seeks and accepts the adulation of the indigenous African people around him. Although Kurtz entered the ivory trade primarily as an economic venture, he has come to identify success in that area with personal achievement. Kurtz has crossed moral boundaries in promoting inter-tribal conflicts as a way to obtain more ivory. Making a fortune by selling ivory and heading a monopoly on the ivory trade have both become secondary to his thirst for power and blood. This degeneration is primarily symbolized by the human heads displayed around his camp, expressed in his comment to “exterminate all the brutes.”

Marlow expresses this spiritual decline as a question of belonging. Kurtz claims that everything belongs to him: “My ivory,” and so on. Marlow then implies that Kurtz did not truly own anything—rather, he had given up everything valuable out of his lust for power. The place he now occupied was “a high seat among the devils of the land.”

Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.

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Kurtz is an enigmatic, maniacal individual, whose spirit was corrupted after spending a considerable time in the depths of the Congolese jungle removed from any semblance of civilization. On Marlow's journey into the Congolese jungle, he discovers several interesting pieces of information regarding Kurtz and his original intentions for his mission. He witnesses Kurtz's oil painting of a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch, which symbolically represents the European goal of spreading civilization to "dark" areas on the map. He also reads Kurtz's report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, where Marlow mentions that Kurtz made every possible "moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment" regarding his mission into the Congolese jungle. However, Kurtz ominously ended the report by writing, "'Exterminate all the brutes!"

Essentially, Kurtz entered the Congolese jungle with admirable intentions of spreading European civilization while simultaneously extracting rare ivory from the region. However, Kurtz developed into a maniacal, tyrannical leader in the wilderness, which corrupted his soul. Marlow discovers that Kurtz was viewed as a deity by the Natives and was responsible for organizing brutal raids on neighboring villages to attain more ivory. As a revered figure in the jungle, Kurtz satisfied his inherently wicked desires and completely corrupted soul. Marlow's journey into the depths of the Congolese jungle metaphorically represents his journey into mankind's soul, which he discovers is inherently corrupt and wicked. Kurtz's final words reveal his tortured, corrupted soul when he shouts, "The horror! The horror!" (Conrad, 65).

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Heart of Darkness, Mr. Kurtz is a symbol of how colonialism changes the colonizers as well as the colonized. It is an illustration of the law of compensation which Ralph Waldo Emerson deals with in what is one of his best-known and most profound essays.

Perhaps Kurtz is so often called Mister in order to remind everyone, including the reader, that he was once a civilized European gentleman. The battle between civilization and animal savagery goes on inside every one of us. We all have only a thin veneer of civilization.

Shortly before he dies, Kurtz cries, "The horror! The horror!" Perhaps what horrifies him is that he sees the change that is taking place within himself. He is ruling his little empire by force and terror. He no longer has even a condescending, colonialist sort of good will toward the natives. Kurtz, and the Belgian colonizers operate with sheer brutal exploitation motivated by greed, lust and sadism.

The dark heart of Africa in the depths of the Belgian Congo is symbolic of the darkness in every human heart. Marlow doesn't say as much, but the reader draws more from Marlow's story that the narrator is aware of imparting.

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