Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1337
Essential Passage 1: Chapter 1
One day he remarked, without lifting his head, "In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz." On my asking who Mr. Kurtz was, he said he was a first-class agent; and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly, laying down his pen, "He is a very remarkable person." Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of a trading-post, a very important one, in the true ivory-country, at "the very bottom of there. Sends in as much ivory as all the other put together....”
Marlow has come to the Congo to recover the body of a Company captain, Fresleven, who was killed in an argument over two black hens. At the Outer Station, Marlow meets the Company’s chief accountant, who is impeccably dressed and keeps the accounts in immaculate order. While Marlow is waiting to journey further up the river, he visits the accountant, who tells him about Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is an agent at the Inner Station and most likely the best agent in the Company. It is assumed that he will rise far in business, so great is his promise. Working at a trading post, Kurtz ships out more ivory than all the other agents combined, thus becoming an invaluable financial asset. The accountant, who epitomizes order and civilization in the midst of the chaos of the jungle, elevates Kurtz to a god-like status, one in whom all the hopes of colonialism and civilization reside.
Essential Passage 2: Chapter 2
...You should have heard him say, "My ivory." Oh, yes, I heard him. "My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—" everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible—it was not good for one either—trying to imagine it. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land—I mean literally. You can’t understand.
Marlow continues the tale of his travels up the river, occasionally stopping to ponder on the significance of the journey and of the man who was Kurtz. He recalls that Kurtz, in the delirium preceding his death, called out to those things that meant the most to him, things that were “his”—his Intended (fiancée), his ivory, his station, his river. It all belonged to him: he was the god of all he surveyed. Yet Marlow points out that Kurtz himself belonged to the darkness, the evil, that he found in Africa. Kurtz had been absorbed into the heart of darkness. Marlow reflects that this is impossible to fully comprehend for those who have not traveled into such dark regions.
Essential Passage 3: Chapter 3
...Soul! If anybody ever struggled with a soul, I am the man. And I wasn't arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance—barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn't so good, on account of unavoidable noise. 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 withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. I kept my head pretty well; but when I had him at last stretched on the couch, I wiped my forehead, while my legs shook under me as though I had carried half a ton on my back down that hill. And yet I had only supported him, his bony arm clasped round my neck—and he was not much heavier than a child.
Marlow has arrived at the Outer Station and found Kurtz ill and surrounded by his native “worshippers.” Despite the resistance he knows he will encounter, Marlow intends to carry Kurtz back home to civilization. Initially, Kurtz does not want to leave, because he has become a god to the people in the region. He had even sabotaged Marlow’s boat in order to prevent Marlow from coming to rescue him. Therefore, it is not just the native people with whom Marlow must battle but Kurtz himself. As Marlow finally carries Kurtz to the boat and cares for him there, he sees that the station manager is waging a battle of the soul, a battle between the dark and the light.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Kurtz represents an enigma in the philosophy of nineteenth-century colonialism. For colonizing nations, Great Britain in particular, entering third-world countries was ostensibly considered an act of rescue, an act of "saving" native people from the darkness of ignorance and backwardness. Their mission was to be a light to the world.
Yet the character of Kurtz presents a different picture. Because he is a trader in the Congo for financial benefits, it is only Kurtz's secondary mission to bring “light” to the people. His success garners him many enemies among the other traders, yet his reputation among the native population grows to phenomenal heights. He becomes something akin to a god, a living idol to be worshipped.
Marlow recounts that Kurtz is drawn into the darkness that lies at the heart of the wilderness. Rather than changing Africa for the better, Kurtz allows Africa to change him for the worse. Historically, many colonial officials were reported to “go native,” taking a native mistress and immersing themselves in the culture. Yet Kurtz went beyond that. He did not just delve deep into the darkness: he took the native people with him as well.
Marlow presents an interesting insight, however, into the nature of the darkness. Rather than giving a prejudicial portrayal of an “uncivilized” Africa as the source of the darkness, he posits that it is within the human heart that darkness is found. Kurtz, in his isolation, is forced to look deep within his soul, and there he discovers that “spark of darkness” that lives within every human heart. Thus, when Marlow speaks of Kurtz’s madness of soul rather than madness of mind, he presents both his own journey and that of Kurtz as an investigation into “original sin,” the propensity of a person to do that which is self-serving and self-glorifying.
By centering his world on himself, Kurtz thus makes the choice to, in a sense, sell his soul in exchange for worldly power in the jungles of the Congo. While he was increasingly gaining influence and prestige in Europe for his excellence as a trader, Kurtz evidently found that he wanted more. By establishing himself on a smaller scale to the native peoples as a god, he reveals that his choice was to claim power by right rather than by effort.
Conrad, through Marlow’s depiction of Kurtz, presents the fatal flaw in the philosophy of mercantile colonialism that was present in the nineteenth century. It was not for money but for power that European nations established trading relations with the countries they colonized. The hubris that underlies colonialism was always very close to the surface, and Kurtz is a depiction of the dangers of hubris unrestrained. It is an open wound, allowing the disease of darkness to enter and fatally infect. With Kurtz’s dying words—“The horror! The horror!”—he at last looked deeply into, and truly understood, his own heart of darkness.
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