Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a fascinating novel about colonialism. Its two main characters – Charlie Marlow and Mr Kurtz – are colonialists encountering the wilderness of the Africa. Both of them are Europeans, and thus the reader expects them to embody the values asserted by civilization. However, while Marlow appears to be exemplary for a man with moral conscience, Mr Kurtz’s meanness is horrifying.
The difference between the characters is provoking because they share a lot of characteristics: both are intelligent, good-speakers, independent and exceptional man that are ready to take risks in order to achieve their goals. As Conrad creates Mr Kurtz and Marlow as characters that are “doubles” and at the same time makes them significantly different in their morality, he demonstrates how a man with qualities but without restraints may turn into a brute.
In Heart of Darkness Marlow is a sailor who tells the story of his experiences in Africa, where he has met Mr Kurtz. The narrator in the novel is one of the men who listen to Marlow’s tale. Thus, the narrator makes a direct characteristic of Marlow. The first quality presented to the reader is Marlow’s uniqueness: “The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent his class” (Conrad p.7).
The character is distinguished from the other sailors at the very beginning of the novel. As the narrative proceeds, the narrator adds up to this image: “Marlow was not typical (…)” (Conrad p.8). Similar to the first impression the reader gets of Marlow is the first characteristic Marlow hears about Kurtz: “He is a very remarkable person” (Conrad p.27). Further in the novel, Marlow will conclude: ” Whatever he was, he was not common” (Conrad p.72). Both Mr Kurtz and Marlow are presented as exceptional men.
An element of this notion is their ability to talk exceptionally well. According to the narrator, Marlow knows how to tell a story, so that to intrigue the audience. Marlow is an experienced storyteller: ” ‘I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,’ he began, showing in his remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seen so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear” (Conrad p.10).
When he talks, the others are silent: “It was accepted in silence” (Conrad p.8). That not only proves that Marlow keeps his listeners’ interest, but he also won their respect. The situation is the same when Mr Kurtz talks. As the Russian notes: ” You don’t talk to that man – you listen to him (…)” (Conrad p. 76). Both Marlow and Mr Kurtz are good orators, and this is significant not only because it is an evidence for their mental qualities, but also because it is a sign that they are civilized.
Oratory is symbolical in Heart of Darkness – it is a tool for manipulation used by civilized man. As Marlow tells his tale, the others perceive him as a voice: “For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more than a voice” (Conrad, p.39). However, Marlow does not use his ability to talk to manipulate the sailors. Mr Kurtz is also presented as a voice: “He was little more than a voice” (Conrad p.69). Still, Mr Kurtz’s voice is amazingly influential. The Russian, a 25-years old man, is captured by Kurtz’s ability to talk. He is devoted to the ill chief of the station and does not realize Kurtz’s ability to manipulate him.
Kurtz’s words have an effect on Marlow as well. The experience of meeting “the old chap” throws “a kind of light” in his mind (Conrad p.11). It makes Marlow see the moral decay of an intelligent man and to realize the value of having restraints. Marlow is horrified by Kurtz and still admits that he is “a remarkable man”: “He had something to say. He said it.” (Conrad p. 101). Marlow considered it something worth respect because he himself has nothing to say. Earlier in the novel Marlow has declared: ” I have a voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced” (Conrad p.52). It turns out that at the end of his experience his speech is either silenced or does not match the truth, as in the case with the Intended. The only one in the novel who summarizes the situation and tells the truth is Kurtz in his last words: “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad p.100).
Another feature of civilized men that characterizes Marlow and Mr Kurtz is their independence. They are people who are used to work on their own and do not want the help of others. As Marlow reveals: ” I always went my own road on my own legs where I had a mind to go” (Conrad, p.12). Kurtz could have said the same thing because he behaves as a man who always follows his will: (…) Kurtz had apparently intended to return himself, the station being by that time bare of goods and stores, but after coming three hundred miles, had suddenly decided to go back, which he started to do alone in a small dugout with four paddlers, leaving half-caste to continue down the river with the ivory. The two fellows there seemed astounded at anybody attempting such a thing.
An expression of Marlow’s and Kurtz’s independence is the exploration of Africa. The two characters are alike even if the fact that the same people have recommended them for that expedition. They have a common motive for taking such a step – they both want rivets: ” (…) but what I wanted was a certain quantity of rivets – and rivets were what really Mr Kurtz wanted”(Conrad p.41). Marlow and Kurtz do not mean to bring civilization to the new continent; they want to benefit from it, to be consumers. They feel as if they have right to do so, since they are the colonists.
It seems that the only difference between those two characters is the emotional and moral hollowness of Kurtz, which allows for his moral decay. However, at the end Marlow assists Kurtz. He leaves his moral values behind to remain loyal to a person who is remarkable. He even goes as far as to lie because of Kurtz. At the end of the novel Kurtz is the last one that tells the truth and Marlow is the one that lies. So, the two characters have interacted and they have come closer to each other even in their degree of morality.
What makes Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad a fascinating novel are its intriguing characters. Marlow and Kurtz are provoking because of the idea of darkness they overspread. They are “doubles”, meaning that they have the same characteristics, but one of them is fiercely cruel and the other is not. That fact implies the idea that the abyss that divides civilization from barbarity may become insignificant if one has no conscience. And the result of lack of conscience is always one: darkness.