What do Kurtz's last words (The horror! The horror!) mean in Heart of Darkness?

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ccairney's profile pic

ccairney | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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First of all, the statement is 'beautifully ambiguous.' That means that it can mean a number of things, all at the same time. Professors love that kind of thing! So you can intrpret 'The horror! The horror!' as a comment by Kurtz on the ultimate frustration of a man who had 'great plans' but can not live to accomplish them. His soul 'encompases all things' but his flesh is weak. It can also be interpreted as his last words on the colonial enterprise in Africa, which Heart of Darkness is clearly critical of. But mostly it is an existential comment by an ubermunch, or 'superman' of Nietzsche, on being intellectually brave, bold and strong enough to travel to the 'inner station' of the mind: the physical journey of Marlow up the Congo River becomes a metaphor for this existential journey. Consider this quote from the end of the story, in which Marlow discusses 'The horror': This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a
remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped
over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that
could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace
the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that
beat in the darkness. He had summed up--he had judged. 'The horror!' He
was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of
revolt in its whisper, it had...'

Hope that helps

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gbeatty's profile pic

gbeatty | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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It is not completely clear, and must be interpreted from context. Either he, as the preceding paragraphs suggest, relived his life and realized how awful it had been and much darkness he'd experienced, or he had some vision of the afterlife, and realized he was essentially going to hell.

In either case, whether it refers to past life or future treatment, it refers to his fate and evaluation of it.

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user890483 | Student, Kindergarten | (Level 1) eNoter

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it refers to his dull life which he has wasted in struggle to find more and more while losing that he was having.e.g.his fiancee,his world,his home ...

he want to become the god of his own world,in which he can practice his ideas....but that experience was dreadful.That's why he was saying 'the horror'

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hidrofilnavata | Student, Graduate | (Level 1) Honors

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By striving to become a god, Kurtz lost his humanity and ended up being less than human. He finaly understood how much he had abased himself but it was too late. His life was horrific.

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weloiavala | High School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

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Marlow desperately wants Kurtz's final words to demonstarted horror or disgust at the man's violent and destructive efforts in the Congo.  Despite insisting that he hates a lie, Marlow is quite happy to lie to himself as he returns to civilization and walks away with a comforting "Christian" interpretation of Kurtz's death.

However, there's nothing to indicate that kind of regret on Kurtz's part.  In fact, his "horror" may simply be rooted in his failure at being unable to finish the job--or that he was too weak to exploit even more from the jungle and its people.

Perhaps Kurtz's gazed into the darkness and saw, instead of divine judgement, nothing.  Perhaps he glimpsed forward and saw the coming atrocities of the 20th century, their roots already in place due to EUropean colonial efforts.  (For example, the first concentration camps were established as part of the German colonial effort to eliminate difficult locals.)

Or maybe Kurtz does regret what he's done, or become.

Conrad makes Kurtz's words deliberately ambiguous.

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charlatan | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) eNoter

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I chose to reply to this question ("What do Kurtz's last words (The horror! The horror!) mean in Heart of Darkness?") instead of the other one found here at enotes:
"In Heart of Darkness Kurtz says the horror, what did he mean?"

— Because there is an importance to the phrase being repeated, where the first utterance refers to something different than the second utterance. As to their meaning, I can not tell you. It would be "too dark—too dark altogether...." and to give you an idea of just how dark, Conrad himself (or even Marlow) couldn't tell you. For the last words that Kurtz actually pronounced weren't even "The horror! The horror!"

BUT consider that you are yet asking the wrong question. In essence you are asking for a key to understand the real question:

What was the idea that first drove Kurtz out there and enabled him to pertake in such extreme cruelities?

Conrad, through Marlow, sets this question up while concluding his commentary about the first Romans that came to England:

"What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to...."

What was that idea?

Marlow had also submitted (while speaking of the Romans):
"think of a decent young citizen in a toga—perhaps too much dice, you know—coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes."

And Marlow mentions in the final scene with Kurtz's Intended:
"I had heard that her engagement with Kurtz had been disapproved by her people. He wasn't rich enough or something."

So, please understand my resistance in sharing what Kurtz was really saying (I fear this comment would be deleted). And you probably wouldn't believe me anyway...

"And, by Jove! the impression was so powerful that for me, too, he seemed to have died only yesterday—nay, this very minute. I saw her and him in the same instant of time—his death and her sorrow—I saw her sorrow in the very moment of his death. Do you understand? I saw them together—I heard them together."

 

 

 

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qaiskhraisat13 | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

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Maybe he realized how corrupted the Europeans are, and how the Eropeans are the uncivilazed ones, not the Africans.

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nicah35 | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) eNoter

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Kurtz is reflecting on his life, since he is about to die, and the way he describe his trip down memory lane was "The horror! the horror." He realizes that his life at the Congo started out really nice with good intentions but it turned him into something horrible.

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hj33 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Honors

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 The life of Mr. kurtz was full of horrible adventures. His career which was at the peak due to his passion of ivory was the result of his evil deeds which he performed in the company of the savages.The words 'The horror!' were the reflection of his awareness of the devilish acts he performed throughout life.While dying Mr. Kurtz didn't find anything to be proud of which was painful for him.He was repenting for his sins and evidently visualising the horror of the hell. This kind of realization cannot come in a hardcore sinner,it can only come to those who have some spark of goodness left in them.

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wdemedio | (Level 1) eNoter

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Kurtz has a severe aversion to safe home life. When he says, the horror, the horror, while dying, he is referring to his home life and wife. He uses hidden military life to escape reality. The same is true of its movie remake, apocalypse now, except that horror is the irony of a safe American home in the 1960's during the atomic age.

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aouninou | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) eNoter

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Krutz, as an example of the european colonialism, his words " the horror the horror ", may reflect the real picture of the europeans in Africa. thus, he admitted that the real darkness was in the whites' minds. At the end of the story he realized this contradiction knowing that something very bad was waiting for him after his natural life...

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basil1000 | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

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The horor of what he had done. The horror of the crimes he had committed.

orchidsunset's profile pic

orchidsunset | Student, College Freshman | (Level 1) eNoter

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When Kurtz says "The Horror! The Horror!" he is reflecting on his own life and feeling remorse at what he's done.

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cipiripi | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) eNoter

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i think the title refers to the a man's heart, therefore, Kurtz had touched that kind of darkness, doing all the bad things, and in the end he realized that, and then said ' horror, horror'.

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