Heart of Darkness is a magnificent novel by Joseph Conrad in which he unfolds the story of Marlow’s search for Kurtz, the company agent, and ends it with Kurtz’s apprehensive realization, “The horror! The horror!”
Marlow discovers how Kurtz’s unlawful soul has gone to the extreme in exploiting the heart of darkness and his dealing with the natives of Belgian Congo. He has become the victim and executioner of his actions.
Kurtz comes to Africa with a moral ambition. However, he surrenders to the primitive darkness, becoming the slave of his greed. He lacks restraint in the gratification of his lust. In the end, he realizes that he has built his life in the wrong way.
Kurtz is judging his performance through these words, “The horror! The horror!” It is the realization of Kurtz what he has done in Africa is horror. Kurtz’s last words also reveal man’s eternal nature, the tragic shortcomings of the heart of darkness.
The White Colonialism in Africa And Its Fake Civilization
What the white people do in Congo is horrible. Their behavior becomes worse than the cannibalism of Blackman. They become hollow men, empty of humanity and unnaturally savage. Marlow’s aunt, like the anonymous narrator, has an idealistic view of colonialism. She pleases herself by helping to send Marlow to Africa as one of the workers and as an emissary of light.
His aunt subscribes entirely to the view that the motive behind colonialism is to civilize the conquered people. Although Marlow’s mission is limited to the rescue of Kurtz, there is a sense in which his trip to Congo is a recreation of the colonialist expedition. This expedition enables him to understand its nature.
The Settlers’ Insanity in Destroying The African Continent
Already on his way out to Africa, he notices that the only settlements seen from the coast are trading places named “sordid fare.” He believes there is a torch of insanity about the man of war firing into the continent.
Even earlier, the colonial expedition strikes as a “merry dance of death and trade” or as a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares. Not until he comes to the “grove of death,” however, does he realize the full extent of the destructive process in which the whites have engaged themselves in Africa.
Kurtz’s Idealism And His Versatile Gifts
Before Marlow actually meets him, Kurtz seems to be a very different type of colonialist. Even his detractors acknowledge him as an idealist and that he has come out equipped with moral ideas. “He is a universal genius,” yet he turns into a ruthless exploiter despite his romantic idealism. Kurtz desires to bring the light of white civilization to Africa.
Kurtz’s many gifts as a musician, a painter, a journalist, and a politician make him truly representative of a highly sophisticated culture. Nonetheless, he becomes a slave of darkness, a new Doctor Faustus who sells himself to the power of materialism. He even prepares to kill the Harlequin, who served his life once for a bit of ivory.
Marlow’s Realization of Kurtz’s True Color
Only when Marlow sees the shrunken heads on poles that his farmer image of Kurtz suddenly collapses. He is appalled to discover human heads on the fence surrounding Kurtz’s station and to hear that he took part in “unspeakable rites.” Thus white civilization has been tested in Kurtz and found wanting.
Even then, Kurtz is not a typical figure. He is a remarkable person who involves himself in a spiritual struggle— confrontation with the unconscious. The complete knowledge that he achieves introspectively makes him destructive as he finds his heart empty and barren.
Like Marlow says,
“Kurtz hides in the magnificent fall of eloquence, the barren darkness of his heart.”Marlow, Heart of Darkness.
Marlow understands Kurtz’s spiritual struggle, his voyage of self-discovery. So, when he witnesses Kurtz’s confrontation with death and hears him exclaim, “The horror! The horror!” he realizes what Kurtz tries to say. Therefore he is right in interpreting this exclamation as a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on earth.
Marlow also rightly asserts by saying,
“It had candor, it had conviction…it had the appealing face of a glimpsed truth.”Marlow, Heart of Darkness.
Thus when he steps over the threshold of invisible, Kurtz, at last, achieves awareness of what he is.
The last words of Kurtz reveal a glimpse of eternal truth about the nature of man. Starting like Marlow as an “emissary of light,” Kurtz cannot conquer the potential for the evil within himself. His final message, “The horror! The horror!” ironically becomes a judgment and warning about the universal weakness of man.