Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Heart of Darkness" and Western Imperialism

The evil, fallen figure of Kurtz has haunted the Western imagination since Joseph Conrad first serialized his classic short novel Heart of Darkness in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. In 1927, T.S. Eliot opened his poem “The Hollow Men” with the epigraph: "Mistah Kurtz, he dead,” a direct quotation from Conrad’s masterwork. In 1940, Orson Welles wanted to make his first film an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, but instead made another film about a tragic, fallen genius destroyed by his own corruption and ambition, Citizen Kane. On November 6, 1958, fascinatingly enough, the renowned Fifties TV drama series Playhouse 90 telecast a live performance of Heart of Darkness starring the magnificent Boris Karloff as Kurtz (perfect casting, and a shame this program isn’t available on DVD or videotape).

Contemporary audiences, of course, know Heart of Darkness primarily from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 landmark film Apocalypse Now, possibly the greatest film of the Seventies, where screenwriter John Milius had the brilliant idea of setting Heart of Darkness during the Vietnam War. Marlon Brando disturbed audiences around the world with his tormented performance as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, and Martin Sheen was equally impressive as Marlow.

In 1993, the cable network TNT broadcast Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of Heart of Darkness, this time in its original nineteenth-century Congo setting, with John Malkovich as Kurtz and Tim Roth as Marlow.

And as recently as 2005, director Peter Jackson injected several references to Heart of Darkness into his revisionist remake of King Kong to add a literary dimension to Merian C. Coopers’ retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fable.

In 1975, the esteemed African novelist Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease) delivered a lecture entitled An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," in which he called Conrad "a bloody racist" and accused him of viewing the Africans in the story as inferior to the Europeans. With all due respect to Mr. Achebe—who well may be the greatest African novelist of the twentieth century—I disagree, and I believe that readers who follow my essay’s line of argument might find grounds for agreeing with me.

Heart of Darkness has had a lasting influence on Western literature as well, by establishing a paradigm of “secret sharer” (alter ego) relationships between a passive narrator, the man of contemplation, and a dashing, romantic protagonist, the man of action, who acts out the dreams that the narrator can never dare to undertake. Hemingway clearly read Conrad before writing The Sun Also Rises in 1925 (maybe the greatest first novel in American literature), where Jake Barnes, the passive narrator, envies the idealism of Robert Cohn, the only character in the book unscarred by World War I, who is also his alter ego. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), narrator Nick Carraway clearly plays the man of contemplation to Jake Gatsby, the man of action and a classic Conradian “secret sharer.” Graham Greene’s The Third Man (1949) is a retelling of Heart of Darkness, with postwar racketeer Harry Lime as Kurtz, embodying Greene’s vision of a new kind of insidious evil crawling out of the burnt-out ashes of World War II. In Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park (1955), in my opinion the best novel written by an American after World War Two, the narrator Sergius O’Shaughnessy’s fascination with the film director Charles Eitel (based on Elia Kazan) is directly inspired by the “secret sharer” relationships of The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby, but it also harkens back to Heart of Darkness.

I originally wrote this essay in the spring of 1976 as my second semester Junior Paper at Princeton. In the mid-Seventies, Princeton was notable for having possibly the most rigorous undergraduate education of any university in the United States. To graduate, you not only had to write a senior thesis (a book); as a junior, on top of your normal courseload of four classes per semester (with 2,000 pages of required reading per week), you had to write three junior papers in preparation for your senior thesis, two short papers your first semester, one long paper your second semester. In my second semester junior year, my junior paper advisor was Prof. Dudley Johnson, the highly regarded Victorian scholar, and he was kind enough to praise this essay. My fascination with Heart of Darkness, and my love of Conrad, clearly shine through.

I wrote this essay three years before the release of Apocalypse Now, and Vietnam was very much on my mind. Now, thirty years later, we are in Iraq, for much the same reasons. Now the darkness lies not in the jungle but in the desert, and for some reason, the most disturbing impulses are coming out of America, post-9/11, in the desert sands of Iraq: blatant sexual sadism at Abu Gharib, horrifying torture sanctioned by the White House, and the darkest impulses imaginable excused by the “war on terrorism.” Vietnam was pretty hideous, but even in Vietnam, the weirdness wasn’t this much out in the open—much of it overt sexual sadism, with a heavy overlayer of homoeroticism (the raping of male prisoners, etc.). We are using Iraq and the war on terror to excuse the most monstrous desires inside ourselves. In Iraq, America has discovered a new heart of darkness.

"Full of Desolation and Sympathy": The Relationship of Marlow and Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

"I don't want to bother you much with what happened to me personally," he began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear; "yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the poor chap." (1)

In the quotation above, Charlie Marlow is referring to the journey he took into the heart of the Congo to meet Kurtz. At the core of Joseph Conrad's short novel, Heart of Darkness, is the complex relationship between Marlow and Kurtz. Marlow himself makes this point quite explicitly: "Where the pilgrims imagined it—the Congo—crawled to I don't know. To some place where they expected to get something. I bet! For me it crawled towards Kurtz—exclusively" (p. 53).

What is the source of his fascination for this man he has never met? "...I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all and how he would set about his work when there" (p. 532). Marlow asks his listeners: "Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream" (p. 526). "Of course in this you fellows see more than I could" (p. 527). This is true, for Conrad has Marlow supply a rich fund of clues to help the reader understand this unusual relationship, which is the key to the tale. Like the secretary who makes Marlow sign the company contract in Brussels, Marlow's relationship with Kurtz is "full of desolation and sympathy" (p. 501).

The significance of their relationship grows out of the moral resonance with which Conrad invests each character. But before developing their personalities, Conrad places their destinies in a clear historical and cultural context—for more than anything else, Heart of Darkness is concerned with the decline and fall of the West. As Lionel Trilling has remarked, Conrad's short novel "appeared, with some appropriateness, in the next to last year of the nineteenth century. This troubling work has no manifest polemical intention but it contains in sum the whole of the radical critique of European civilization that has been made by literature in the years since its publication." (2)

Marlow begins his tale with a synopsis of the history of European imperialism, the process by which Western civilization has spread around the globe since its inception. "'I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here to Britain nineteen hundred years ago—'" at the beginning of the Christian era, significantly enough (p. 494). Describing the hardships of the Roman troops struggling against the hostile wilderness, he wonders how it would be if a Roman would

in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forests, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate. (p. 495)

The above is a foreshadowing of the process Kurtz undergoes in the Congo. But Marlow, who, being human, is in many ways an obtuse narrator, misses the point: that human nature, when exposed to the temptations of brutality, never changes. He admits of the Romans that

their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force.... It was just robbery with violence, you know, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. (p. 495)

This is a perfect description of Belgian imperialism in general and Kurtz's methods in particular, but again Marlow misses the point. He admits as well that imperialism is based on racism, since, as we all know, heathens have no souls: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much" (p. 495).

The problem is that Marlow does not want to look into it too much; besides serving in the Congo, he has a problem with racism himself. He calls one native a boy, "but you know with them it's hard to tell" (p. 511). Also he does not want to apply the moral standards he uses in judging the Romans to the imperialism of his own day, which he absolves with this rationalization:

What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency.... What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.... (p. 496)

The horrible irony of this passage is that it is another of Conrad's foreshadowings of Kurtz—for Kurtz was an idol. For the natives, he was precisely "something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to," and grisly sacrifices they were indeed. Kurtz served as an idol to Marlow as well. Marlow compares him to "an enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle" (p. 550); and fearing Kurtz's death before having a chance to meet him, he says, "I couldn't have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life...." (p. 557).

As an apologist for European imperialism, Marlow, even after his experience with Kurtz, fails to see that any enterprise based on "brute force" will inevitably corrupt its officers. The ideal of efficiency will only serve to streamline the brutality; hence Kurtz takes over the outlying villages with "two shotguns, a heavy rifle, and a light revolver carbine—the thunderbolts of that pitiful Jupiter" (p. 576).

The anonymous British narrator shares Marlow's fallacy in his nationalistic praise for "all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and unfilled—the great knights-errant of the sea" (p. 492) who sailed into the Atlantic from the Thames, the setting of the telling of the story. But these men were mostly buccaneers. (By having the narrator refer to them as "knights all," Conrad suggests that modern imperialism is a direct outgrowth of the expansion of medieval Europe.) The narrator describes them as

Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness,... The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empire. (p. 492)

But all the narrator's romantic overtones aside, most of these men were no better than the infamous Eldorado Exploring Expedition (whose name asks us to compare it to "the great knights-errant of the sea"), of which Marlow says:

Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers; it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is of burglars breaking into a safe. (pp. 531-2)

In the same fashion, Kurtz loots the Congo of ivory ("mostly fossil," p. 559), looting Africa of its prehistoric past, which makes all the more ludicrous his plea to Marlow: "This lot of ivory now is really mine. The company did not pay for it. I collected it myself at a very great personal risk. I am afraid they will try to claim it as theirs though.... I want no more than justice" (pp. 597).

Yet Marlow feels obliged to fulfill a debt to Kurtz; at the doorbell of the home of Kurtz's Intended, Marlow thinks, "He wanted no more than justice—no more than justice" (p. 59). Why? Why does Marlow feel obliged towards Kurtz? Why, indeed, does Marlow look up to him?

The answer lies deep in the personalities of the two men. Conrad only supplies us with a few hints as to the motivation of their characters, but what he hints at is highly suggestive. Charlie Marlow is a sailor. Of him the anonymous narrator says, "He was the only one of us who still 'followed the sea.'.... He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life" (p. 493). He is restless; it is no coincidence Conrad entitled one collection of his short stories Tales of Unrest. He has no family, few friends, no roots.

As he begins his story, we learn he set off on his adventure in the Congo after six years of sailing; and following a rest, he became quite bored (p. 496). He allows traveling to define his existence. He is a true isolato, in the classic Melvillian fashion. As he later says on the Congo, "my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact...seemed to keep me away from the truth of things" (p. 505). Since he is a man completely alone, his imagination is ripe for captivation by a charismatic personality such as Kurtz's.

Marlow says of life, "The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself" (p. 592). For him the journey into the jungle becomes a journey of self-discovery. He goes to the Congo for the simple reason of fulfilling a romantic childhood dream of traveling to faraway places; but by comparing the Congo River to a snake, he relates his decision to go there to the Fall. "The snake had charmed me," he says. "I felt somehow I must get there by hook or by crook" (p. 49). As a child the Congo intrigued him because it was a "blank spot" on the map, but only on the completion of his experience will he understand how blank it is, will he recognize the moral blankness it can evoke in men.

He comes to use the ubiquitous term "darkness" as an objective correlative for the fearful unknown, especially for man's unknown self. In many ways Kurtz is his alter ego—his "secret sharer," in Conradian terms—the romantic, dynamic self that he dares not be. More importantly, Kurtz embodies the West; he is the genius of European civilization and the upholder of its ideals. What shocks Marlow so in the course of the story is that he recognizes that the Congo is the proving-ground of Western principles, and his civilization is found desperately wanting.

Marlow receives his first dose of Western principles—the idealized rationalization Europe employs to excuse imperialism—from his aunt, who secured him his job, just before he embarks for Africa. His aunt tells him he is

Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about 'weaning those millions from their horrid ways,' till upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the company was run for profit. (p. 504)

Marlow recognizes the hypocrisy of these sentiments; he thinks, "Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of a two-penny-half-penny river steamboat with a penny whistle attached!" (p. 504). Of the international consortium that employs him, he remarks, "They were going to run an overseas empire, and make no end of coin by trade" (p. 500). Yet he adds that. "In the street—I don't know why—a queer feeling came to me that I was an imposter" (p. 504). He senses his own unease because he recognizes that in participating in this sham, he is furthering it. What he does not yet realize is that this is more than simple self-deception Europe is practicing; by assuming the mission of spreading its own brand of civilization to other parts of the world, the West indulging in brutal hubris. Kurtz is proof of how self-destructive this self-deception is.

In the Congo, Marlow sees the difference between the unself-conscious authenticity of the natural and uncivilized world as opposed to the rapacious impulses justified by civilization. Of the surf he remarks, "It was something natural, that had its reason, that had its meaning" (p. 506). Of a canoeful of natives who paddle past, he says, "they had bone, muscle, wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along the coast. They wanted no excuse for being there" (p. 506), as opposed to the Europeans, who feel it necessary to rationalize their presence with hypocritical ideals because they are greedy marauders. "For a time I would feel I belong still to a world of straightforward facts," he tells us; "but the feeling would not last long" (p. 506). For him the peace and order of the natural world is shattered by the destructive, irrational absurdity of civilization when the French man-o-war appears, shelling the jungle, "firing into the continent," to annihilate invisible natives.

The West has come to conquer Africa, but Africa is fighting back. When Marlow arrives at the company station, he finds Africa resisting, indeed conquering, the Europeans. Although the colonists are blasting the side of a cliff to make way for a railway, "No change appeared on the face of the rock." Marlow sights "an undersized railway truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal" (p. 508). The Europeans may be plundering the jungle's natural resources—Kurtz most directly with his looting of fossil ivory—but the jungle is retaliating by inculcating "the heart of darkness," the capacity for evil, that lies dormant in every man.

Marlow may wonder of Africa, "What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn't talk, and perhaps was deaf as well" (pp. 525-6); but it is not the jungle, or Africa, that is responsible for the evil that emerges from the Europeans. It was present all along in their hearts; they have only willfully entered a situation in which their brutality and greed are given an opportunity to have full rein. In the jungle they are allowed to thrive.

The moral corruption Africa has fostered in the Europeans becomes readily apparent to Marlow. With their machines in disrepair, the imperialists set about to converting the natives into robots. Marlow says of a file of emaciated natives who pass him chained together. "They passed me within six inches, without a glance" (p. 509). Marlow quickly understands that this is the fruit of imperialism; the black overseer grins at him because, "After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings" (p. 509). It is not the light of civilization that the Europeans have brought to Africa but the darkness of subjugation.

Marlow most clearly sees this among the hellish congregation of skeletal natives starving under a grove of trees. He notices that one dying native has "tied a bit of white worsted around his neck" (p. 511); "this bit of white thread from beyond the seas" represents the European colonialism that is literally strangling him. "I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my good Swede's ship's biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed slowly on it and held—there was no other movement and no other glance" (p. 511). It is a little late.

The implications of this evil are not lost on Marlow, however. For as he explains:

I've seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men—men, I tell you. But as I stood on the hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. (pp. 509-10)

By Marlow's definition, a flabby devil is one guilty of the sin of omission, whereas a fiery devil is guilty of the sin of commission. Flabby devils are marked by pettiness, mean ambition, and a general stupidity. Marlow says of the "faithless pilgrims" of the cause of European imperialism, "They beguiled the time by backbiting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way" (p. 522). They are men like the accountant, who shuts out the horrors of the company station by simply ignoring it; he dresses impeccably and carries a green-lined parasol.

His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt fronts were achievements of character.... And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order.

Everything else in the station was in a muddle—heads, things, buildings. Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed.... (pp. 512-3)

The brutal irony is obvious. The accountant's head is in a muddle too. His character consists of his starched collars and "got-up" shirt fronts, signs of artificiality. He is a hairdresser's dummy—all facade and no substance. He keeps the account books in "apple-pie order," while all around him, the station festers into a living hell. His flabby-devilhood is confirmed when a sick agent from upriver is placed in his office on a stretcher; he is utterly oblivious to the man's suffering. "'The groans of a sick person,' he said, 'distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate’" (p. 513). Africa has proved him to be a hollow man.

The other notable flabby devil that Marlow encounters is the manager of the Central Station. It is worthwhile reproducing Marlow's description of him, for he is presented as an important counterpoint to Kurtz.

My first interview with the manager was curious. He did not ask me to sit down after my twenty-mile walk that morning. He was commonplace in complexion, in feature, in manners, and in voice... He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness.... He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that's all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. (pp. 517-8)

The manager is the penultimate flabby devil. He has no personality, only a gray facade. As such he makes a perfect administrator in the bureaucratic hierarchy.

And yet the emptiness of the flabby devils is not enough to explain Marlow’s devotion to Kurtz. If the manager inspires uneasiness, what does Kurtz inspire? What qualities does Kurtz possess that so attract Marlow?

Marlow is drawn to Kurtz because Kurtz is a fiery devil, characterized by violence, passion, greed, all forms of vitality. Totally isolated in the Congo, and profoundly disturbed by the horrors of European imperialism, Marlow turns to Kurtz as the only existing alternative to the flabby devils. Even after he learns of Kurtz's atrocities, Marlow continues to feel a bond with him—partially because of his atrocities, in fact. After the steamboat has landed at Kurtz's compound, the manager objects to Kurtz, not because he was a monster, but because his methods were "unsound." He says:

"'But there is no disguising the fact, Mr. Kurtz has done more harm than good to the Company. He did not see the time was not yet ripe for vigorous action. Cautiously, cautiously—that’s my principle. We must be cautious yet. The district is closed to us for a time. Deplorable! Upon the whole, the trade will suffer.'" (p. 579)

As Marlow remarks. "It seemed to me I had never breathed an atmosphere so vile, and I turned to Kurtz for relief—positively for relief.... Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares" (p. 580).

Marlow explains the violence of his reaction elsewhere:

There is something after all in the world for allowing a man to steal a horse while another must not look at a halter. Steal a horse straight out. Very well. He has done it. Perhaps he can ride. But there is a way of looking at a halter that would provoke the most charitable of saints into a kick. (p. 522)

What enrages Marlow so about flabby devils is their duplicity. They are, after all, "flabby, pretending [emphasis added], weak-eyed devils." From his statement it is quite clear that the manager only objects to Kurtz's wholesale slaughter because "the trade will suffer!" "'He did not see the time was not yet ripe for vigorous action.'" Perhaps a time will come for "vigorous action" in the manager's eyes; but when it comes, Marlow knows it will be masked by that bland euphemism.

With fiery devils like Kurtz, at least one can deal directly; one knows they are evil. It is evident from the nature of their acts, for they commit bold outrages that, however awful, are clearly discernable. With flabby devils, however, one can never be sure; their very elusive rhetoric obscures the issues (they would say "obfuscate"). As one critic has written of Kurtz, "The hero of Conrad's Heart of Darkness enjoys an advantage over the hollow men, not least in the fact that he is dead and they only deadened." (3)

But Kurtz's greatest attraction to Marlow is the fact that by his example, he proves the existence of moral standards, which Marlow was beginning to doubt in the suffocating presence of the flabby devils. Kurtz's allure originates from the fact he presents "a choice of nightmares"—he provides Marlow with spiritual liberation. Kurtz shows Marlow there is an alternative to being either a fiery or a flabby devil; Marlow learns he can make moral judgments, of which all the other people he encounters are incapable. Marlow was growing to fear that the flabby devils were right, that there was no black or white in morality, only amoral blankness; but by his example of indisputable evil, Kurtz shows that moral standards do, indeed must, exist. And where darkness exists, there must be light.

Yet there is another reason that makes Kurtz important to Marlow, and that has to do with the essence of Kurtz's identity. For Kurtz is not only a fiery devil; he is a daimon; he serves as the repository of the genius, or guiding spirit, of Western civilization. Kurtz is Europe.

Conrad makes this quite explicit. "The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and—as he was good enough to say himself—his sympathies were in the right place. His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz" (p. 561). "...and to this day I am unable to say what was Kurtz's profession, whether he had any—which was the greatest of his talents. I had taken him for a painter who wrote for the papers, or else a journalist who wrote for the papers, or else a journalist who could paint—.... He was a universal genius" (p. 595). Not only was Kurtz a great musician, according to his cousin, a violinist, but according to a journalist who knew him, Kurtz's place was politics “'on the popular side.’" He adds:

‘but heavens! how that man could talk. He electrified large meetings. He had faith—don't you see—he had the faith. He could get himself to believe anything—anything.

He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.’ 'What party?" I asked. 'Any party." replied the other. 'He was an—an—extremist.' (pp. 595-6)

Kurtz's painting, which Marlow sees in the company station, is especially portentous; it is described as "representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister" (p. 523). The woman is the West, carrying the light of civilization into the "darkness" of the colonial world. But she is blindfolded with the hubris of her mission, and so, like the Romans, she is "going at it blind—as it very proper for those who tackle a darkness" (p. 495). The woman is also Kurtz’s Intended, who will be discussed later.

The history of Kurtz is the history of European imperialism. According to the Intended: "He had given me some reason to infer that it was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there" (p. 600). In the nineteenth century, with the spiritual exhaustion of the aristocracy, it was the bourgeois and the petit bourgeois that swarmed to the colonies to prove themselves. As Kurtz told Marlow shortly before his deaths, "'You show them you have in you something that is really profitable, and then there will be no limits to the recognition of your ability" (p. 589).

Kurtz began his career in the Congo with great promise. As the accountant tells Marlow, "'Oh, he will go very, very far,' he began again. 'He will be a somebody in the administration before long. They above—the council in Europe, you know—mean him to be" (p. 514). The brickmaker informs Marlow not only of Kurtz's bright future but also of his status as a cultural representative of Europe.

'He is a prodigy,' he said at last. 'He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,’" he began to declaim suddenly, 'for the guidance of the cause intrusted us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wider sympathies, a singleness of purpose.' 'Who says that?’ I asked. 'Lots of them,' he replied. 'Some of them even write that; and so he comes here, a special being as you ought to know.... Yes. Today he is chief of the best station, next year he will be assistant manager, two years more and...but I daresay you know what he will be in two years’ time. You are of the new gang—the gang of virtue.' (pp. 523-4)

Kurtz comes to the Congo with sincere ideals accompanying his imperialism. When he first arrives, he tells the station managers: "'Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing’” (p. 535).

But once Kurtz is cut off from society, his ideals fall away as he finds himself placed in a situation where his darker self emerges. As a civilized man, he finds he lacks restraint, the cardinal virtue that Marlow noticed in the voracious cannibal crewmen that prevented them from devouring the whites (pp. 548-9). Marlow is amazed at the self-control of these "savages”: "I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield," (p. 549)—but the cannibals are able to practice restraint because, like the other natives, "They wanted no excuse for being there" (p. 506). As a result they have no facade of rationalization masking their true desires, whereas Kurtz, a product of civilization, has no self-constructed barrier of discipline to sustain him when the facade collapses under pressure and he is confronted with his naked id. Marlow says as much when he first comes upon the heads adorning the pikes in Kurtz's compound:

They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core. (p. 573)

Here, by using terms like "the wilderness," "the silence," "the jungle," and "the darkness" in reference to Kurtz's corruption, Conrad is not stating that Africa is the source of Kurtz's fall. Like Melville’s use of Moby Dick, Conrad is employing symbols from the natural world as objective correlatives of interior states of mind. The wilderness that Kurtz faced was the wilderness of his own soul, and the darkness that defeated him was the darkness of his own heart.

The (literal) turning-point in Kurtz's self-corruption is the incident in which, three hundred miles from his jungle camp, he turns back from the dugout filled with the ivory he has collected to return to the jungle, "setting his face towards the depths of the wilderness" (p. 534). As Marlow comments, "Evidently the appetite for more ivory had got the better of the—what shall I say?—less material aspirations" (p. 572).

Conrad plainly shows that after Kurtz gave himself over to isolation and the satisfaction of his desires, he suffered two breakdowns as the result of his detachment from society and devoted himself the more to the jungle—to the call of the id. Marlow reports from the conversation he held with the Russian, Kurtz's disciple, "He had, as he informed me proudly, managed to nurse Kurtz through two illnesses (he alluded to it as you would to some risky feat), but as a rule Kurtz wandered alone, far in the depths of the forest" (p. 570).

It is at this point that Kurtz's egotism expands into psychosis. This becomes clear in his report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, a symbol for the professed humanitarianism that is motivating European imperialism, but which is actually producing agents like Kurtz who do not suppress the savage customs of the natives as much as cultivate savage customs of their own. Following his bouts of insanity, Kurtz took to marauding the neighboring villages and setting himself up as a deity through applied terror.

However, Kurtz's version, as described in his report, differs somewhat from the reality. Reading it, Marlow says:

He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to them (savages) in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity,' and so on, and so on. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' etc., etc. (p. 561)

Conrad's irony is in full play here, but its intention is perfectly serious. The above passage illustrates everything wrong with imperialism. Kurtz believes that since whites have arrived at a superior "point of development" (whatever that is), they will have the ability to uplift the lesser breeds. It never enters his mind that the assumption of godlike power is totally corrupting. (And Kurtz's behavior in the jungle puts the whole matter of the white race's superior "point of development" into question.) Even more ironic is the term, "By the simple exercise of our will," since Kurtz, by his egotism, has shown himself incapable of controlling his will. Yet Kurtz is only doing what the imperialistic West has been doing in its colonies all along: pretending to be a god—only Kurtz is much more open about it.

By focusing on the psychosis that develops in Kurtz as the gap between his professed ideals and his ideas widens, Conrad warns of the self-destructive corruption that will attack the West as a consequence of its imperialism. Marlow notes of the report:

There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note scrawled at the foot of the last page, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as th exposition of a method. It was very simple...: 'Exterminate all the brutes!' (pp. 561-2)

As the journalist said, Kurtz was an extremist.

Kurtz has another such moment of lucid self-recognition on his deathbed, when, realizing his terrible moral lapse, he cries out, "The horror! The horror!" and expires. For this blistering honesty, Marlow admires Kurtz immeasurably. If the traditional epic hero descends into the underworld in order to return with a judgment of his culture, then Heart of Darkness records Marlow's descent into the moral underworld of the Congo where he discovers the moral bankruptcy imperialism has fostered in his civilization.

Yet in Kurtz he sees a beginning on a possible road to cultural redemption, for Kurtz, in the end, despite having "kicked himself loose of the earth" (p. 586), retained the moral standards to pass judgment on his sins. In doing so, Kurtz becomes the rarest of fictional characters, a genuine tragic hero. In this Kurtz reveals himself to be more of the West than is first apparent, for he embodies the Augustinian principle that before one can be a great saint, one must be a great sinner. In other words, one's moral awareness depends on one's moral capacity for evil as well as good. Through the flabby devils, Conrad is saying these men are less criminal than Kurtz merely because they have not been exposed to sufficient temptation.

Kurtz, however lacking in restraint, proved his greatness, because even though he fell from lofty idealism to gross brutality, he fell from a great height. (Throughout the short novel Conrad is obviously setting the groundwork for comparisons between Kurtz and Adam, Lucifer, and Faust.) By being sufficiently self-aware to judge himself, Kurtz lends hope to Marlow, bewildered by the moral void of his civilization, that moral standards do indeed exist and that the void can be filled someday.

In having the manager's "boy" ("an overfed young Negro from the coast," p. 519) announce Kurtz's death to the crew of the steamer "in a note of scathing contempt" ("'Mistah Kurtz—he dead'", p. 591). Conrad is presenting the literal triumph of the flabby devils. But Marlow has learned from Kurtz's death; Conrad assures us that Kurtz did not act and die in vain. Marlow says, "However, I did not eat much. There was a lamp in there—light, don't you know—and outside it was so beastly, beastly dark. I went no more near the remarkable man who had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul upon this earth" (pp. 591-2).

Marlow is in mourning. Yet what is remarkable is his heightened moral sensitivity—"and outside it was so beastly, beastly dark"—and the fact that he believes in the existence of the human soul. Marlow has proven that he is neither a flabby nor a fiery devil. He is a human being.

So affected is Marlow by his relationship with Kurtz that immediately after his death he has what is clearly a nervous breakdown (he admits, "I daresay I was not very well at that time," p. 594) during which the moral significance of his relationship with Kurtz occurs to him.

This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it.... He had summed up—he had judged. 'The horror!" He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and pain.... Better his cry—much better. It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last.... (pp. 592-3)

While reading the preceding passage, one should bear in mind that it is the thinking of a man undergoing a nervous collapse, who, deeply disillusioned with the horrible hypocrisy of his civilization, is desperate for any experience that smacks of total authenticity. It is all very well to admire Kurtz because, "He had something to say. He said it." But it will not resurrect the owners of the heads that the "remarkable" Mr. Kurtz mounted on pikes.

Kurtz remains a monster. Yet there is some validity to Marlow's sentiments. In his last moment Kurtz did exercise self-restraint; he cut through the "magnificent eloquence" of the idealistic rhetoric of his civilization long enough to view the content of his acts (and its acts). In this sense it certainly is a moral victory, and for Marlow a starting point.

However, Marlow is not loyal to Kurtz the man as much as to the human ideal he represents, the possibility that his diseased civilization will judge, and start to heal, itself; this is what Marlow is considering when he recalls Kurtz's statement, "I want no more than justice" (pp. 597-8). Before going to see Kurtz's Intended, Marlow thinks of Kurtz's destruction as "a moment of triumph for the wilderness, an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to me, I would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul" (p. 597). This other soul is Kurtz's Intended.

The Intended is a highly symbolic figure. For if Kurtz is a god (in addition to being compared to both an angel and a devil), and a representative of the West, then he can be interpreted, very loosely, as a Christ figure; he embodies the mission of his civilization, of which Marlow admits he is "something like a lower sort of apostle." Kurtz has at least one disciple (the Russian), and throughout the story Marlow invests his faith in Kurtz. If we accept Kurtz as a vague sort of Christ figure, then he is the Bridegroom, and as his Bride (to-be), his Intended is not the Church but Western civilization. Marlow says of her, "She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering" (p. 598).

Marlow has just returned from the Congo, where a very important experiment determining the character of the West is in progress, and the Intended, as a symbol of the public of Europe, is eager to learn the truth Marlow has discovered there. Kurtz toiled with the West—his mistress, his Intended—as his ideal, and now that he is dead, the Intended wants to know of the outcome of her emissary's ventures.

To Marlow, as well, the Intended is an ideal to be preserved. In keeping with one of the longest traditions of the West, he invests women with the ideals of his culture. (Dante and Beatrice are only the first examples to come to mind.) For him women embody the sanctity of Western ideals. He says of them, "It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be" (p. 504). He describes her as an island of light in the darkness (p. 598).

But after his shocking experience with Kurtz, Marlow can no longer tolerate these illusory ideals. It quickly becomes evident early in their conversation that the Intended indulges herself concerning her knowledge of Kurtz's true character and of his worth. "'Yes! I am proud to know him better than anyone else on earth—he told me so himself"" (p. 600), she says. "'Men looked up to him—his goodness shone in every act. His example—'" (p. 601). As the irony of her statements increase, so does that of Marlow's replies ("'True,' I said; 'his example, too. Yes, his example. I forgot that'") until Marlow realizes he can bear her insufferable sentimentality no longer; sooner or later he has to tell her the truth about Kurtz's depravity. His tension increases as he fights to come to a decision—should he tell her or not?—and he almost has an anxiety attack. In response to her exuberant remarks as to Kurtz's matchless beauty as a human being, Marlow grows more and more upset.

'"Everything that could be done,' I mumbled." "I felt like a chill grip my chest. 'Don't,' I said, in a muffled voice." "'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words….’ I stopped in a fright." (p. 603)

When she hears this last, she asks Marlow to repeat Kurtz's last words since, as she says, she wants something to live with. At this point Marlow is on the verge of another breakdown; he can clearly hear Kurtz whispering his last words insistently. When she asks him again, telling him how she loved Kurtz, Marlow makes his decision. Despite the fact that from his experience with Kurtz he has learned the destructive power of illusions, Marlow succumbs to his humanity and acts out of accordance with the emotional needs of the situation rather than out of any fidelity to an abstract ideal. He tells the Intended what she wants to hear, that Kurtz died saying her name.

When she shrieks she knew it all along, she is ignorant of the truth of Marlow's irony, for Kurtz did die saying her name; the evil of the civilization she stands for that blossomed in Africa is indeed "The horror! The horror!"

It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz the justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I couldn't tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether.... (p. 603)

Marlow feels terrific guilt for not having lived up to the standards Kurtz practiced on his deathbed, those of total honesty. He cannot know that actually he did give Kurtz his justice; the Intended does represent "The horror!" (In his egotism Kurtz would refer to all the artifacts of his civilization as his: "My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas," p. 509.) But on a literal level, Marlow's lie is justified, for he believes that if we are to repair the damage the Kurtzes have wrought, we must act out of our love for our fellow man, out of our instincts of light, rather than our impulses of darkness.

In retrospect, Marlow can be severely criticized for sustaining the Intended's illusion of Kurtz. Now the import of Kurtz's life is lost. Who knows the truth about him but Marlow? However, one must remember that at the time of his conversation with the Intended, Marlow was just recovering from a nervous breakdown and was operating under mental strain. He was not wholly responsible for his actions. And as we can see, ever since, he has been under a compulsion to relate this amazing tale, with its full moral impact, to others.

With the framework gained from the perspective presented in this essay, one can go back to the beginning of the story and pick up the many ominous hints Conrad is dropping concerning the fate of the West. The anonymous narrator describes "the gloom to the west" as the sun sinks (p. 491), suggesting that the action of the Kurtzes have doomed our civilization. It may already be too late. The narrator says of the Thames (which represents the flow of Western history): "We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs forever, but in the august light of abiding memories" (p. 492).

The sun of the West may well be setting; it is an old civilization that has run its course, which, suffering now from cultural exhaustion, has no recourse but to expand and poison other cultures. Marlow himself, discussing the advent of civilization in Britain under the auspices of the Romans, says: "Light came out of this river since— you say knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!" (p. 494).

This is Marlow's hope. But if his experience with Kurtz, the "genius" of the West, was true—if human evil runs that deeply under the veneer of civilization in even the best-intentioned men—then his hope may be a short-lived one. "'And this also," Marlow said suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the earth'" (p. 493). Thus Marlow begins his tale, with a reminder that Kurtz's heart of darkness originated in Europe, in the Thames, not in the Congo. At the end of the tale, the anonymous narrator has come to realize this too—"and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness" (p. 603).

The implication of Heart of Darkness is that presently Western civilization is expanding its influence around the globe and becoming corrupted unto damnation by its assumption of godlike power. The inescapable presence of darkness in the story—which is not external but internal—almost seems to be standing poised to overwhelm any chance man has overcoming the devil, whether flabby or fiery, within himself. Yet through his relationship with Kurtz, Marlow is able to find liberation in making moral judgment—in demanding humane and just behavior from himself as well as others.

We can do the same. Few of us may have the moral self-awareness of Kurtz, to enable us to pronounce judgment upon the adventures of our souls upon this earth. But it is better than a choice of nightmares.

Afterword: Mistah Kurtz—He Dead?

When Marlow sees the French man-o-war shelling the impervious jungle, he is informed that the French are fighting "the enemy"—the natives. In the company station, when Marlow comes upon the emaciated natives lingering under the trees, he thinks, "They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation" (p. 511). When he encounters the Russian, the latter justifies Kurtz's murder of the men whose head occupy the stakes.

I had no idea of the conditions he said; the heads were the heads of rebels. I shocked him excessively by laughing. Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear?

There had been enemies, criminals, workers—and these were rebels. Those rebellious heads looked very subdued to me on their sticks. (p. 574)

In Conrad's day, the Kurtzes of the world left their indelible mark. "'Oh, but I will wring your heart yet!' he cried to the invisible wilderness" (p. 590). We are the inheritors of the world they rent asunder. Flabby devils and fiery devils continue to dominate the affairs of men. The only problem is, no fiery devil has yet been heard to utter Kurtz's cry on his deathbed. Instead, imperialism flourishes still; "vigorous action" continues to be deployed around the world, in the name of "pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else." The most recent such adventure we know as Vietnam [and now Iraq]. There we called them "rebels." At present we Americans are certain there shall be no other such ventures. We are mistaken. But we have been warned.


  1. Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness," The Portable Conrad, ed. by Morton Dauwen Zabel, revised ed. by Frederick R. Karl (New York, 1969), p. 496. All further references to "Heart of Darkness" are drawn from this text.
  2. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, 1972), p. 106.
  3. George Williamson, A Reader's Guide to T.S. Eliot (New York, 1966). p. 155.


Conrad. Joseph. Heart of Darknesss: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. by Robert Kimbrough. New York, 1971.

Conrad, Joseph. "Heart of Darkness." The Portable Conrad, ed. by Morton Dauwen Zabel, revised edition ed. by Frederick R. Karl. New York, 1969.

Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge, 1972.

Williamson, George. A Reader's Guide to T.S. Eliot. New York, 1966.

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