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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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In Heart of Darkness, how are Marlow and Kurtz similar or different?

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Both Marlow and Kurtz are symbols of the mechanism by which colonization took place and was sustained. A trope of much colonialist literature and of representations of the European experience in Asia and Africa is an attraction-repulsion the white man feels toward "the natives" and their cultures. In George Orwell's Burmese Days, for example, there are constant allusions to Flory's sense of how alien, how disturbing, the Burmese culture is to him personally. Yet he has come to see Burma as his "home" and does not want to go back to England. In Heart of Darkness the scenario is a more spectacular (and horrifying) manifestation of the same thing. Kurtz has gone mad, merging himself with the "native's" culture so completely that he has set himself up as a god over the people.

Marlow, fortunately, retains his sanity but arguably the same mystical and pathological connection with the colonized country is affecting him as well. Something drives him on into the interior to uncover the terrifying mystery of Kurtz that is lurking there. Marlow knows from the start that the whole project of European imperialism is wrong. The dysfunctional situation he sees upon arrival in Africa is described in detail. The constant obstacles and dangers of travel to the interior to find Kurtz would, one would think, deter any sensible man from continuing this journey. Marlow is driven on by an inner demon similar to, but a mere shadow of, the one that has animated Kurtz and plunged him into psychosis.

If the two are both manifesting a disturbed mental state of whatever degree, Conrad's ultimate message is that European colonization is, in some way, a form of psychosis. The mindset behind it is a detachment from reality and the delusion that one people have a right to "take over" or control another. Kurtz's self- deification is an exaggerated, distorted and bizarre version of the belief-system underlying imperialism.

It is interesting that although this is the "moral" of the story, it is never stated openly and unequivocally by Marlow. The whole intricate style of Conrad's prose is an analogue to the mysteries and complications of the meaning of this tale. It is as if the characters are existing in some fog-like opium dream in which reality and illusion are merged. For all the intelligence with which Marlow views the situation, his ultimate reaction is a puzzled horror which shows both his distinctness from Kurtz's actions, and paradoxically his resemblance somehow to the inner soul of Kurtz.

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Marlow and Kurtz are both similar in that they are adventurous individuals, who are fascinated by the idea of experiencing Africa. Both individuals also begin their journeys with the seemingly (at the time) morally upright intention of bringing civilization to the tribal inhabitants of Africa. Marlow and Kurtz initially perceive themselves as bastions of civility bearing the torch of justice, truth, and authority into the enigmatic regions of the dark jungle. Both characters also represent Western civilization and are products of European society.

Despite their many similarities, Marlow and Kurtz's differences are dramatically revealed when Marlow arrives at Kurtz's Inner Station. Marlow discovers that Kurtz has become a maniacal tyrant, who manipulates the Natives into conducting brutal raids into other tribes in order to accumulate more ivory. Kurtz is perceived as a god by the Natives and uses his elevated status to attain wealth for himself and the Company. Since he arrived in the Congolese jungle, Kurtz has become corrupted by greed and power, which decays his soul. Unlike Kurtz, Marlow has not yet become corrupted and chooses to leave the Company after experiencing the true nature of European imperialism. 

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The two characters of Kurtz and Marlow are curiously interlinked in this book. Marlow is shown to have a somewhat supernatural fascination with Kurtz from the first moment he hears about him, and his sense of anticipation at finally meeting the man he has heard so many different conflicting rumours about is palpable as he makes his way up the river into the "heart of darkness." In a sense, the two characters could be said to be doubles, or doppelgangers, in that they share a strange link that allows them to be compared and contrasted. In Kurtz, Marlow sees the fate of the colonial endeavour as Kurtz, a white man, went to Africa with such hopes of doing good, but in the end descended in to pure evil. This is something Marlow is well aware of as he gets to know him. Note how he describes Kurtz in the following quote:

His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines.

The way that Kurtz is consistently associated with darkness indicates his moral degradation. Yet at the same time Marlow finds himself enraptured by his words and the power of his rhetoric. The crucial difference between them however is that Marlow is able to cling on to his sense of moral goodness, whereas the "impenetrable darkness" of Kurtz is something that shows his character is so steeped in evil that he has lost the ability to distinguish between good and evil any more. His final words, "The horror! The horror!", act as a condemnation of both his life and acts and also the colonial enterprise. Marlow of course shows that he is not completely untainted at the end of the story, as his lie to the Intended shows, yet the fact that he is described as a "buddha" as he shares his tale indiates that there is some kind of goodness that remains uncorrupted. The characters are linked through their difference to colonialism.

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What are differences between Kurtz and Marlow in Conrad's Heart of Darkness?

There are a great deal of differences between Kurtz and Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, most of which stem from the fact that Marlow functions primarily as a narrator, while Kurtz often serves as the true focus of Marlow's narrative. As such, we learn much about the development of Kurtz as a character, while we learn much less about Marlow.

Though Marlow is not without his own complexities, his primary duty in the story is to relate the tale to the sailors waiting on the Nellie. While Marlow has intriguing personality quirks of his own (he quickly reveals himself to be an intellectual but cynical individual), the reader is given little insight into Marlow's deeper being, as he exists in the story mainly to observe and comment on the actions of others. 

Kurtz, on the other hand, is the definition of charisma. Originally a principled and idealistic individual, Kurtz quickly becomes drunk with power, and his grim descent into madness is one of the main points of the novella. As such, while Marlow tends to avoid the spotlight, Kurtz is notable for commanding attention with his hypnotic voice and infectious ideas. As such, the primary difference between Kurtz and Marlow is that, while Marlow is relatively nondescript and undeveloped (in general terms), Kurtz is a vividly drawn character with immense depth who largely commands the main arc of the narrative.  

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In Heart of Darkness, how is Kurtz a representation of Marlow?

In Joseph Conrad's novel, it is implied that Kurtz is an example of what happens to people who live in the jungle. Though Kurtz gained fame, glory and riches through his travels into the jungle in search of ivory, his success was not long lived. Marlow, when he originally left London, wanted the same things as Kurtz. He too wished to be successful in the new ivory trade and to provide for himself with gained wealth. The parallels between Kurtz's and Marlow's intentions are clear in the beginning of the novel.

However, Kurtz went too deep into the jungle, too close to the native people, and stayed for too long - madness and death resulted from his stay! Marlow learned from Kurtz and from his death. Marlow turned back from the heart of the jungle and fought the darkness that threatened him. The characters' similarities start to disappear when Kurtz dies, for Marlow changes his goals and goes on to live a much longer life. Both men realise the great capacity for evil in the world, which is an important lesson that affects them in different ways.

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