Why does Marlow go to the Congo and why is he so obsessed with meeting Kurtz?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
At the beginning of his story, Marlow tells his crew that as a boy he was always fascinated by the mysterious Congo River on the map of Africa. When he grew up, he realized that his country was in need of steamboat captains to help operate trade along the river for the Company. Marlow was fortunate enough to have an influential aunt, who was able to get him the position as skipper of a steamboat for the Company. Interestingly, Marlow is not concerned with profit and simply wants to venture into the unknown. He does not necessarily want to be an emissary of light to civilize the "savages," but does wish to reform the Company after seeing how inefficiently it is run. As Marlow begins his journey to the center of Africa, he hears captivating rumors about Kurtz. Marlow learns that Kurtz is the Company's most successful ivory agent and has been living in the heart of darkness for some time. Marlow also witnesses how various members of the Company perceive Kurtz differently. They acknowledge that Kurtz is successful, but are extremely jealous of him and pray for his death. Marlow becomes fascinated with Kurtz and wants to see if he has maintained his civility. He also wants to see if the rumors surrounding Kurtz are true. Meeting Kurtz becomes Marlow's main focus after he realizes that the Company is full of inefficient, greedy individuals.
mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The purpose of Marlow's trip to the Congo is manifold.  On a literal level, if he does not go there, we have no story.  On a psychological level, Marlow seeks the heart of darkness, or the deepest recesses of his id (place of secret desires).  On a colonial level, Marlow goes there to help the savages.  Like his Aunt, Marlow believes in British Colonialism as a means of the white man's redemption.  So says essayist and critic Roger Moore:

Thus, Marlow's aunt who arranged his commission with the Company proclaims that the white man's purpose in Africa is to wean the continent's ignorant savages from their ‘‘horrid ways.’’ Marlow himself says that modern efficiency and the ‘‘unselfish idea’’ of conquering the earth, rather than some ‘‘sentimental pretense,’’ is what "redeems’’ the colonial enterprise in which he has been enlisted.

Once there, Marlow's focus shifts on all levels.  What once was white (good) is now black (evil).  He is awakened to the Empire's and the white man's capacity for evil--even his own.  Indeed, he fears soon becoming like Kurtz, who seems to have crossed over to his inner demons entirely.