Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a kind of quest narrative in which the main narrator, Charley Marlow, takes on the job of pursuing and attempting to return the rogue agent Kurtz from Central Africa to Europe. What is odd about the object of the quest is that, as Marlow confesses late in the book, Kurtz is morally superior to the other agents of the company because he is clearly not just in it for the money but because he has come to respect the Africans he chooses to live among (in that sense, Kurtz is much like Marlow the narrator, at least in the sense that his prime motive is not earning money, as Marlow repeatedly suggests to us). No matter what evil Kurtz may have done, Marlow seems, like the Russian he meets just outside of Kurtz’ station, to be intent on celebrating Kurtz here as a better man than the other company operatives in Africa who are, by and large, unconcerned about the the fate of the Africans they force to work for them and simply in it for the money they can make from ivory sales. Focus on the scene immediately after the death of Kurtz is announced on board the steamer Marlow is piloting downriver (69):
“I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. 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 candour, 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 hate.”
Look closely at Marlow’s words here. What is he actually celebrating about Kurtz? His ability to form and use words or his ability to form and use words that convey the truth? His insight into some fundamental truth about life or simply his ability and willingness to say something, anything. His willingness to believe something worth believing or his willingness to believe — anything? What kind of insight into the nature of human life is conveyed by Kurtz’s judgment — “The horror, the horror”? Is it profound or banal, tragic wisdom or a “deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness”? Is it a judgment about Africa or Europe or a judgment about Kurtz or is it applicable to all three?
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