Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers

Joseph Conrad

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Heart of Darkness questions.

How is Kurtz an example of spiritual degeneration?

In Heart of Darkness, Mr. Kurtz is a symbol of how colonialism changes the colonizers as well as the colonized. It is an illustration of the law of compensation which Ralph Waldo Emerson deals with in what is one of his best-known and most profound essays.

Perhaps Kurtz is so often called Mister in order to remind everyone, including the reader, that he was once a civilized European gentleman. The battle between civilization and animal savagery goes on inside every one of us. We all have only a thin veneer of civilization.

Shortly before he dies, Kurtz cries, "The horror! The horror!" Perhaps what horrifies him is that he sees the change that is taking place within himself. He is ruling his little empire by force and terror. He no longer has even a condescending, colonialist sort of good will toward the natives. Kurtz, and the Belgian colonizers operate with sheer brutal exploitation motivated by greed, lust and sadism.

The dark heart of Africa in the depths of the Belgian Congo is symbolic of the darkness in every human heart. Marlow doesn't say as much, but the reader draws more from Marlow's story that the narrator is aware of imparting. 

How is moral complexity explored throughout the story?

The famous phrase uttered by Kurtz as he is dying (“The horror! The horror!) remains one of literature’s great puzzles. The obscurity of this utterance is line with much of the novel’s insistence on obscurity, mystery and metaphysical questioning. Often, not even the questions being posed by the narrative are entirely clear. The answers are even less straight-forward.

As Marlow travels further up the Congo River, he finds a great deal of moral relativity (where one group may think a certain act is immoral another finds the same act to be entirely acceptable) and he finds that the central figure of the novel, Kurtz, is plagued by a sense of the flexibility of morality that might allow him to set himself up as a kind of god, above other men and free to act as he chooses without reprimand or question.

What is Kurtz’ project if not to achieve a new moral structure that makes him the authority on human life (and death)? Having ceased to do the work of the company, Kurtz is pursuing a greatness of a very peculiar order, one that is unclear in its motives and in its exact aims.

In a cultural context where a project of complete exploitation is underway, who can stand as a judge of morality? In a cultural context where foreign societies are interacting, who can arbitrate claims of right and wrong? These are among the many implied questions put forward in Heart of Darkness and they remain open questions to the end. No clear answers are provided by the narrative.