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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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Many works of literature feature characters who have been given a literal or figurative gift. The gift may be an object, or it may be a quality such as uncommon beauty, significant social position, great mental or imaginative faculties, or extraordinary physical powers. Yet this gift is often also a burden or a handicap. Describe how Kurtz or Marlow from Heart of Darkness has been given a gift that is both an advantage and a problem. Analyze the complex nature of the gift and how the gift contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

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The character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness looms large over the entirety of the story, even though he is not met by Marlow until the third and final section. Instead, Conrad uses the other characters in the story to build Kurtz’s legend as a powerful, enigmatic, and dangerous man. The way in which Kurtz is mythologized throughout the novella illuminates Kurtz’s gift as a charismatic leader who is able to inspire loyalty in his followers.

This gift of charismatic leadership provides Kurtz with advantages: it keeps him safe from the native Africans, who view outsiders as a threat; it enables him to accrue power; and it allows him to build an army of loyal disciples. In short, it allows Kurtz not only to survive in a hostile environment, but to thrive. He uses his gift to establish a cult among the natives, who are fiercely protective of their leader. Kurtz is regarded as a god “in the nature of supernatural beings,” due in part to the “unbounded power of eloquence” of his speaking. The gift, however, is also a burden as it poses an inner conflict within Kurtz about whether to use his gift for good or for evil purposes.

Although Kurtz chooses to embrace his capacity for violence and evil, he is shown to struggle with this moral dilemma. Despite the advantages it affords, his gift is also a problem. This struggle is brought to the surface during his death scene in section 3, in which Marlow recounts:

I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?

Kurtz seems tortured by his inability to reconcile the duality of his nature, a duality exacerbated by his gift, and his inability to shun its power ultimately leads to his demise as he contracts a mortal illness from life in the jungle. The reader is given a glimpse into the complex nature of the gift as Kurtz utters his last words: “The horror! The horror!” The reader is left to presume that Kurtz feels great regret at having used his gift to foster the evil nature within his heart.

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