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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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What major decisions do the characters make and why?

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In Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, Kurtz, an ivory trader in the Congo (then known as the Congo Free State), makes the decision to turn the native population who live around his station into people who worship him. Marlow, the narrator, says of Kurtz, "He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honor" (page 112 in the Barnes and Noble Classics edition). Kurtz had written in an earlier paper that he thought it wise to "exterminate all the brutes!" (page 111). Kurtz makes the decision to treat the native people as objects who worship him and do his work until he dies. This is perhaps because he is mad or perhaps because he does not recognize the humanity in himself and others.

Marlow, the narrator, on the other hand, makes the decision to treat the native people as people, not as objects or slaves. He writes of the death of the helmsman of his boat, "Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara" (page 112). In other words, many Europeans, including them Marlow's audience, regard the lives of the Congolese as they would carelessly regard grains of sand. However, Marlow says of this man, "I had to look after him" (page 112). Marlow cares for this man and says that he shares a bond with him. Unlike Kurtz, Marlow makes the decision that the lives of the Congolese around him are valuable because he recognizes their humanity and his connections to them.

Nonetheless, Marlow decides to protects Kurtz's legacy after Kurtz dies. He says, "I did not betray Mr. Kurtz...it was written that I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice" (page 132). In other words, even though Marlow knows that Kurtz and the other members of the ivory trading company have decided to treat the natives' lives with little regard, Marlow decides to keep alive the legend of Kurtz. Marlow is loyal to the memory of Kurtz, perhaps because he cannot bear to let the people who worship Kurtz down. 

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