In Heart of Darkness, what does it mean about Kurtz that "he had something to say," why is it a victory, and how does it contrast with Marlow?Heart of Darkness, Part 3: I have wrestled with death....

In Heart of Darkness, what does it mean about Kurtz that "he had something to say," why is it a victory, and how does it contrast with Marlow?

Heart of Darkness, Part 3:

I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be. I was within a hair's breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. 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 the appalling face of a glimpsed truth -- the strange commingling of desire and hate...

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Part III of Heart of Darkness, Marlowe compares his "extremity," or experience of coming to the brink of death, to Kurtz's "extremity." Marlowe confesses that in his extremity, if it had proceeded as far as Kurtz's had (to death), he probably would have found that, unlike Kurtz, he would have had nothing to say: in the all-important last "pronouncement" of a lifetime, Marlowe thought he would be without remark. He indirectly (and therefore ambiguously) explains the meaning of this by discussing the meaning of Kurtz's last words: "The horror!"

Marlowe explains that in the last moments, with his eyes wide open, Kurtz took in the aspect of the "whole universe" and, in that moment, had the courage to pronounce a judgement upon what he perceived. His judgement was that it was "horror!" In this analysis, made by Marlowe, the horrors of the ideas and activities of the colonial trading stations become equated with the ideas and activities of the "whole universe," the whole of civilized humankind's ideas and activities, and Kurtz judges them with his last breath to all be "horror," ironically including himself in his pronouncement. The ambiguity arises because it may be that Marlowe is dramatizing, if he has been found to have any tendencies toward being an unreliable character and narrator, and that Kurtz didn't mean the whole world but only the part of the world represented by the colonial trading station and the ideas and activities forming its foundation, ideas and activities such as Kurtz himself demonstrated.

In either case, Marlowe states without ambiguity that the wonder is that Kurtz was able to perceive and to judge: his judgement was unequivocal condemnation: "The horror!" It is this that Marlowe suggests he would have been unable to do had his extremity taken him to the final step over "the edge." Marlowe would not have been able to judge: He would have had nothing to say about the value and truth of what he perceived. Kurtz could--did. Marlowe couldn't--wouldn't--wouldn't have any judgement to pass like Kurtz's "The horror!" More ambiguity enters because Marlowe doesn't indicate whether his silence would stem from a lack of moral vision and values, a lack of courage, a lack or understanding, or an unwillingness to pass judgement lest judgement be passed on him likewise. He doesn't leave a clue as to his revelation of cause behind his expected silence.

Compared to Marlowe, Kurtz's ability to make a moral judgement was a victory of goodness over evil, of light over darkness. On the other hand, Marlowe's expected silence in his last breath would be a defeat of moral judgement or vision or courage or willingness or purity; a defeat of light by darkness.

Read the study guide:
Heart of Darkness

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question