Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness is not just a suspenseful tale of a mans journey to one of the Earths few remaining frontiers, the African Congo; it is a psychological insight into the
true pits of the human mind, in search of the true heart of darkness, which resides not geographically, but is a part of all of us, living under the restraints of society and civilization.
Conrad explores the idea that under the taboos and societal mandates, there is a potential for actions and beliefs that are shocking to the common individual. Yet, if a man is released to do as
he wills, without society to judge him, he can cross into a state-of-being that we consider primal and non-human. Without civilization, one would become an agent free to do whatever he chooses, and will do it willingly.
Conrad demonstrates and hints at this conclusion using several literary devices, ranging from symbolism to the subtle changes in Marlowe, the narrator, that represent his growing distance
from civilization and reality. The strongest device and example of this phenomenon is the transformation of Mr. Kurtz, the director of the Inner Station. In this essay, I will explain and analyze Kurtzs de-humanity, and how effective it is in achieving Conrads goal. This deconstruction of Kurtz culminates with his utterance of the phrase, The horror! The horror!, as he lay dying. Yet, first we must explain what Kurtz was before he stepped over the edge.
From the moment Marlowe arrives on the coast of Africa, he hears tales of an incredible man, who runs a trading post deep in the Congo. The accountant at the first station said, He Kurtz
is a remarkable person…. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together…. (Conrad 33-34) The bricklayer at the second station calls Kurtz an universal genius (43). Marlowe himself tells us that Kurtz is an educated man, who had originally been commissioned to bring civilization and light into this, one of the darkest and vilest places on the Earth. Furthermore, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs has asked to Kurtz to submit a report, for the future reference of the Society. Marlowe, himself, has reads the report and refers to it as a beautiful piece of writing; yet, through Kurtzs rhetoric on how the superior white man has a responsibility to civilize and help the primitive natives, the report ends with a phrase scrawled in unsteady handwriting and it reads, Exterminate all the brutes! (66) The last entry into his report gives a hint at what has become to the remarkable Mr. Kurtz.
Near the end of the story, we meet Mr. Kurtzs fiance. We learn from her that, once upon a time, Kurtz was a great orator, who could sway any audience to his cause. She tells us that Kurtz had so many things planned, so much to offer to the world (92-93). Earlier in the book, a Russian sailor foreshadows the fiances idealistic view of Kurtz. Apparently, the Russian had befriended Kurtz soon upon his arrival. The Russian speaks of Kurtzs prowess at reciting poetry, which he has written himself. Also, the Russian speaks, repeatedly, of Kurtz enlarging his mind (80).
By the time Marlowe finally meets Kurtz, he is obsessed with this image of a white-clad knight, who is lifting this dark country into the civilized world. Yet, the reality is not what Marlowe or the reader expects. Kurtz is dying and, for all intensive purposes, insane. The Russian, along with his praises, recounts a story of Kurtz threatening to kill him for a small amount of ivory that a chief had given him. Marlowe learns of the methods Kurtz uses to obtain all of his precious ivory. Kurtz had, basically, raided the tribes surrounding his trading post and presented himself as a deity. Kurtz used his oratory skills, his immense height, and his firearms to completing his transformation into a god.
Kurtz had lost all sense of reality and humanity. He lived by no rules, only his will and whim. He allowed the tribes to practice terribly inhuman rituals, which they seemed to offer to Kurtz, himself. The most striking example of Kurtzs complete loss of humanity and his obsession with his image as a deity is presented with Kurtz, who was on his death-bed and unable to walk, literally, crawling on his hands and knees towards the pagan rituals of the natives, which were being offered to him. Marlowe confronts him and we learn that the most shocking part of this man, is that he is aware of what he is doing, and proceeds with it, regardless of his former
In his final words, The horror! The horror!, Kurtz finally comes to the realization of what he has become. He realizes that he has succumbed to the savagery and inhumane acts that he and the
European society had deemed their responsibility to erase. Kurtz sees in his final moments that this place nor the natives are the true heart of darkness, but is is himself and his European
contemporaries. Not only is this a culmination for Kurtz, it is a climax for Marlowe and the reader himself. Marlowe, who had been slipping towards the edge of humanity and his heart of darkness, sees what awaits at the end of that path and steps back from the edge. The reader recognizes that the Congo is not the heart of darkness, but it is actually the heart and soul of every human. One learns that the natives in their primitive and brutal ways are actually more pure and good, than the Europeans and their greed.
Conrad uses Kurtz, an ideal human of remarkable mettle and impervious morals, and demonstrates what lies beneath all men, the evil that is present and waiting in all of us. Marlowe walked down that path, along with all removed from civilizations constant reminders of morality and restraint. The reader even grows numb as we traverse the river with Marlowe, towards Kurtz and the recognition of the heart of darkness; the reader becomes accustomed to the slavery, to the senseless murder, and to the greed. Until that last moment, the moment Kurtz recognizes his and the Europeans fault, and our own. Kurtz lost in the end, and unleashed what lay beneath the
surface of our so-called humanity; but, Conrad achieves his goal of demonstrating that humans are not so far removed from what their society and civilization condemn. The true heart of darkness is not the Congo, the natives, Africa, or even Kurtz, himself; the heart of darkness is not a place, but a part of you and me, a part of all of us, which we all must keep in check or, in the end, lose or humanity.