Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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How is Kurtz an example of spiritual degeneration?

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Ollie Kertzmann, 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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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...

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