Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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What is Marlow's realization in Heart of Darkness?

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Thanh Munoz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Marlow does not come to any single, absolute realization or epiphany in the course of the story, in my view. It is more a matter of cumulative learning on different levels about Kurtz and about the whole business of colonialism. When we finally do get to the revelation, Conrad presents it ambiguously—or at least the conclusions we are to draw from it are implied rather than stated unequivocally. More is conveyed through suggestion than through direct statements.

Marlow finds things in seeming disarray upon arrival at the colonial outpost. Men are sick and mistreated; equipment is lying about unused. The trip to the interior to retrieve Kurtz is filled with mishaps. In the meantime, we hear a fragmented account of Kurtz himself, as if he's a figure of myth, mysterious and powerful. The actual truth—that Kurtz has gone mad and set himself up as a crazed god over the natives—does not come as that much of a surprise to us, with our perspective from over a century in the future. The circumstances of Kurtz's megalomania became a trope of colonial literature, not only in the revamping seen in Apocalypse Now but in Hollywood films from the 1930s such as Kongo.

The deeper meaning is that Kurtz is a metaphor for all that is wrong and perverted in the imperialist agenda. Marlow does come to understand this, but it's not stated openly. It's as if he recognizes it as a subtext, though this is undeniably Conrad's message, but his writing is layered and complex to the point that we cannot be sure what other themes may be intended to supersede this one. Unfortunately, one gets the impression that for Marlow—and for Conrad as well—it is Kurtz who is supposed to be the main victim of the story, not the people Kurtz has imposed himself upon.

Even in European literature of this period and later by authors of a progressive tendency, there is generally an ambivalent implication about colonialism, as if they were unable to express directly the ultimate truth of its wrongness.

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Before embarking on his journey down the Congo River deep into the heart of the African bush, Marlow endorses the colonial principles of bringing "civilization" to the Natives, which will benefit humanity while simultaneously enabling the Company to amass wealth. As Marlow's journey progresses and he gets closer to meeting the enigmatic Kurtz, he begins to witness the inefficiency and corruption involved in the imperialist endeavor. Marlow holds onto the hope of mankind's inherent civility and goodness as he approaches the Inner Station and desperately desires to meet a civilized, benevolent Kurtz.

However, Marlow finally arrives at the Inner Station and witnesses the completely maniacal tyrant, Kurtz, who ransacked the surrounding villages and countryside in search of ivory. Upon meeting Kurtz, Marlow describes him as an intelligent man whose soul is completely corrupted. Marlow describes Kurtz by saying,

But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so...

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