Black and white illustration of the outline of the upper part of a body with a river and boat in the background

Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
Start Free Trial

In Heart of Darkness, how are Marlow and Kurtz similar or different?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Both Marlow and Kurtz are symbols of the mechanism by which colonization took place and was sustained. A trope of much colonialist literature and of representations of the European experience in Asia and Africa is an attraction-repulsion the white man feels toward "the natives" and their cultures. In George Orwell's ...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Both Marlow and Kurtz are symbols of the mechanism by which colonization took place and was sustained. A trope of much colonialist literature and of representations of the European experience in Asia and Africa is an attraction-repulsion the white man feels toward "the natives" and their cultures. In George Orwell's Burmese Days, for example, there are constant allusions to Flory's sense of how alien, how disturbing, the Burmese culture is to him personally. Yet he has come to see Burma as his "home" and does not want to go back to England. In Heart of Darkness the scenario is a more spectacular (and horrifying) manifestation of the same thing. Kurtz has gone mad, merging himself with the "native's" culture so completely that he has set himself up as a god over the people.

Marlow, fortunately, retains his sanity but arguably the same mystical and pathological connection with the colonized country is affecting him as well. Something drives him on into the interior to uncover the terrifying mystery of Kurtz that is lurking there. Marlow knows from the start that the whole project of European imperialism is wrong. The dysfunctional situation he sees upon arrival in Africa is described in detail. The constant obstacles and dangers of travel to the interior to find Kurtz would, one would think, deter any sensible man from continuing this journey. Marlow is driven on by an inner demon similar to, but a mere shadow of, the one that has animated Kurtz and plunged him into psychosis.

If the two are both manifesting a disturbed mental state of whatever degree, Conrad's ultimate message is that European colonization is, in some way, a form of psychosis. The mindset behind it is a detachment from reality and the delusion that one people have a right to "take over" or control another. Kurtz's self- deification is an exaggerated, distorted and bizarre version of the belief-system underlying imperialism.

It is interesting that although this is the "moral" of the story, it is never stated openly and unequivocally by Marlow. The whole intricate style of Conrad's prose is an analogue to the mysteries and complications of the meaning of this tale. It is as if the characters are existing in some fog-like opium dream in which reality and illusion are merged. For all the intelligence with which Marlow views the situation, his ultimate reaction is a puzzled horror which shows both his distinctness from Kurtz's actions, and paradoxically his resemblance somehow to the inner soul of Kurtz.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Marlow and Kurtz are both similar in that they are adventurous individuals, who are fascinated by the idea of experiencing Africa. Both individuals also begin their journeys with the seemingly (at the time) morally upright intention of bringing civilization to the tribal inhabitants of Africa. Marlow and Kurtz initially perceive themselves as bastions of civility bearing the torch of justice, truth, and authority into the enigmatic regions of the dark jungle. Both characters also represent Western civilization and are products of European society.

Despite their many similarities, Marlow and Kurtz's differences are dramatically revealed when Marlow arrives at Kurtz's Inner Station. Marlow discovers that Kurtz has become a maniacal tyrant, who manipulates the Natives into conducting brutal raids into other tribes in order to accumulate more ivory. Kurtz is perceived as a god by the Natives and uses his elevated status to attain wealth for himself and the Company. Since he arrived in the Congolese jungle, Kurtz has become corrupted by greed and power, which decays his soul. Unlike Kurtz, Marlow has not yet become corrupted and chooses to leave the Company after experiencing the true nature of European imperialism. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The two characters of Kurtz and Marlow are curiously interlinked in this book. Marlow is shown to have a somewhat supernatural fascination with Kurtz from the first moment he hears about him, and his sense of anticipation at finally meeting the man he has heard so many different conflicting rumours about is palpable as he makes his way up the river into the "heart of darkness." In a sense, the two characters could be said to be doubles, or doppelgangers, in that they share a strange link that allows them to be compared and contrasted. In Kurtz, Marlow sees the fate of the colonial endeavour as Kurtz, a white man, went to Africa with such hopes of doing good, but in the end descended in to pure evil. This is something Marlow is well aware of as he gets to know him. Note how he describes Kurtz in the following quote:

His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines.

The way that Kurtz is consistently associated with darkness indicates his moral degradation. Yet at the same time Marlow finds himself enraptured by his words and the power of his rhetoric. The crucial difference between them however is that Marlow is able to cling on to his sense of moral goodness, whereas the "impenetrable darkness" of Kurtz is something that shows his character is so steeped in evil that he has lost the ability to distinguish between good and evil any more. His final words, "The horror! The horror!", act as a condemnation of both his life and acts and also the colonial enterprise. Marlow of course shows that he is not completely untainted at the end of the story, as his lie to the Intended shows, yet the fact that he is described as a "buddha" as he shares his tale indiates that there is some kind of goodness that remains uncorrupted. The characters are linked through their difference to colonialism.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team