Kurtz’s Madness In The Heart of Darkness
The Nature of “The Horror” in Heart of Darkness
It seems Joseph Conrad wanted readers to pity Kurtz. Here was a man described as “a prodigy”, an “emissary of pity, science, and progress”, who allowed himself to be consumed by his lust for power (Conrad 25). The author creates this pity most profoundly during Marlow’s meeting of Kurtz’s Intended. Unlike Marlow, Kurtz’s fiancee is only aware of one aspect of Kurtz, the one who had the “generous mind” and “noble heart” (75). There is a sharp contrast between the Kurtz described by the brickmaker (the Kurtz as an “emissary of pity, science, and progress” (25), the Kurtz described by Kurtz’s fiancee, and the Kurtz Marlow comes to discover attempting to evade capture deep within the Congo, and it is within these contrasts between these different aspects of Kurtz that I came to understand what Kurtz meant by “the horror” (59; 69). The horror is not, as I had previously thought, a demonstration to the extent of Kurtz’s madness. The horror is not an act of repentance on behalf of the sins committed in one’s life. The horror is not found in the labors of a painful, laborious death, or is it a supernatural entity bent on eternal punishment. The horror Kurtz spoke of was found in that sudden recognition where one realizes the act of dying itself ( “I am lying here in the dark waiting for death” (69). The recognition of the act of dying is not the same as the realization of mortality. Mortality seems to be focused on the state of being subjected to death and not so much on experiencing death. For Kurtz, the horror was found in the recognition that one was dying, and with that knowledge it brings a sudden awareness of how close one is knowing what was once unknowable, including the possibility that the efforts put into one’s life may be inherently meaningless. For a man like Kurtz, someone who has devoted himself completely to the Imperialist cause, these contemplations are devastating. After all, Kurtz wanted to meet “kings at railroad stations” days before death (68). Prior to that, Kurtz lived within the Inner Station like some sort of demigod where the natives obeyed his commands (56-60). After Kurtz escaped the steamboat in an attempt to return to the Inner Station, he spoke of having “had immense plans” which deepened the context of the pamphlet Marlow read where Kurtz wrote “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 if a deity” (65;50). To go to such a length just for sake of ivory seems to be a bit unnecessary to me; however, the lengths Kurtz is willing to go in order to ensure his success in his endeavors demonstrates why “the horror” would have such an immense impact on a man like Kurtz.
Still, I find it interesting how Marlow was impacted by “the horror”. To Marlow, Kurtz’s words demonstrated exactly why he thought he thought Kurtz to be a remarkable man (“I have wrestled with death, and it is the most unexciting contest you can imagine…He (Kurtz) had summed it up—He had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man…It was an affirmation, a moral victory” (70). The horror Kurtz experienced did not cause Marlow to endure a strong sense of dread or futility in his life; instead, it seems to have been a comparison between how the two experienced death. “The Horror” to Marlow seemed to have been a rallying cry, a phrase uttered to prove that one had something to offer besides wandering in an “atmosphere of tepid scepticism” (70). For Marlow, as long as one had something to say in the face of death, no matter what it is, proves that one’s life is notable. I am not sure if I can completely agree with Marlow’s view. Kurtz may have been a “remarkable man” to Marlow simply because he had something to say; however, Kurtz lived a life so saturated in indulgence that it ruined the lives of the people around him—-People like the Harlequin who seemed to pay little mind to Kurtz wanting to kill him, and Kurtz’s fiancee who was so distraught in her mourning over Kurtz that Marlow felt he needed to lie about Kurtz’s final words (70,56;77). Personally, I found Marlow’s flirtation with death more preferable even if it is “the most unexciting contest you can imagine” (70). Kurtz may have had something to say, but look at the lengths he took to say it, the circumstances he had to live through in order to sum up his life as “The horror! The horror!” (69). It does not seem worth the suffering.
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