Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a story about the adventures of Marlow, the story’s protagonist, on the Congo River where he meets Kurtz, an agent that works for the Company, providing them with ivory supplies. Although Marlow and Kurtz are not by any means “best friends” Their relationship is highlighted in the novella.
Even before the two are able to meet, Marlow feels some sort of connection towards the enigmatic Kurtz. On his way to meet Kurtz, Marlow ponders on Kurtz‘s character. Marlow realizes that the things that Kurtz has done is brought about only because of Kurtz’s exposure to Africa. Marlow’s understanding of Kurtz lead him to see Kurt as an alter ego. And finally, the two main protagonists’ relationship does end even after Kurtz’s death. Marlow still plays a role in Kurtz’s life that he left behind in Brussels.
Marlow’s Initial Thought of Kurtz.
Marlow is not aware of Kurtz’s character before he decided to take the job in the Congo. He just became fascinated by Kurtz’s character after hearing stories about the famous ivory provider of the Company. Frankly, Marlow’s curiosity to Kurtz is because the rivets that he needed to build the ship would not come, and thus giving him more free time to think. “I had plenty of time for meditation, and now and then I would give some thought to Kurtz” (Conrad, 1898, p.68-69).
Kurtz was a mystery for Marlow, he based his initial assessment of Kurtz just through what he hears from others, including eavesdropped testimonies about Kurtz. There is an instance when Marlow “overhears” a conversation between the manager and his uncle. Despite the slanderous claims that the manager says, Marlow was deeply intrigued by Kurtz. “I was then rather excited on the prospect of meeting Kurtz very soon” (Conrad, 1898, p.73). His excitement in meeting Kurtz is brought about by the latter’s success, especially in the pursuit of ivory. Marlow sees Kurtz like a hero because of all his adventures and success in ivory collecting.
Much of what Marlow’s picture of Kurtz is based on his conversations with the Russian trader. Apparently, the Russian trader has spent some time with Kurtz and has become his relative companion. The Russian claims that Kurtz has “enlarged” his mind “’Ah! I’ll never, never meet such a man again. You ought to have heard him recite poetry–his own too it was, he told me. Poetry!” (Conrad, 1898, p. 108). Marlow initially thinks of Kurtz as a good person, unlike other members of the Company, like the manager, who is driven by profit.
Marlow’s Judgement on Kurtz’s Actions
It would not be surprising to hear Marlow be biased on passing judgment on Marlow’s actions. He is only second to the Russian trader for being an ultimate fan of Kurtz. Marlow states reasons for why his “idol” was not as successful as he thought he would be. Almost like the semi-crazed Russian trader, Marlow defends Kurtz even if he provides a sense of threat to him. Perhaps this is because of their agreement that they would keep the name of Kurtz clean, at least to those in Europe.
For Marlow, Kurtz’s tragic flaw is that he immersed himself too much in the African culture that he turned his back on European ideals. “He had kicked himself loose of the earth” (Conrad, 1898, p.112). Marlow blames Africa for causing the downfall of Kurtz and not directly blame Kurt for his actions. He claims that the Dark Continent has driven Kurtz into madness because he is unable to adapt fully to a world outside of modern civilization.
Marlow’s Viewing of Kurtz as an Alter Ego
Because of Marlow’s strong feelings of association towards Kurtz, it is inevitable for him to see similarities with his “hero” or at least reflect his life in line with Kurtz. The Russian trader claims that Kurtz is a man whom people listens to. “’You don’t talk with that man—you listen to him,’ he exclaimed with severe exaltation” (Conrad, 1898, p.96). It’s the same as Marlow’s ability to captivate the audience through his narration. This could mean that Marlow may be fascinated with Kurtz’s darkness because Marlow himself has some internal darkness in him.
Near the end of the story, Kurtz seemingly had absolute power in Africa. Marlow and Kurtz both realized of the former’s power. Marlow enlightened by this knowledge, claims that Kurtz’s own realization of this power lead to his madness. Marlow becomes also aware that Kurtz himself knows this power and thus associating the realization to himself. Marlow sees Kurtz’s wickedness in relation to his own potential for evil, providing yet another link between the two protagonists. And thus, when Marlow was contemplating on killing Kurtz he held back because he knows it would be like killing himself since he sees Kurtz as somewhat of an alter ego of himself. “I did not want to have the throttling of him, you understand” (Conrad, 1898 p. 111).
Marlow’s Final Role as Kurtz’s Trustee
Even after Kurtz’s Death Marlow still played a major role in Kurtz’s life, or whatever he left behind back in civilized Europe. It was up to Marlow to deal with the relatives and friends that Kurtz left behind, specifically someone who claims to be Kurtz’s cousin, a journalist and more importantly Kurtz’s intended, or fiancé.
Marlow became Kurtz’s trustee, it was up to him to keep the reputation of Kurtz after his death. He became Kurtz’s trustee because he was the last person that Kurtz saw before he took his last breath, and of course he feels a profound connection to Marlow. Kurtz wants Marlow to keep his spirit alive by giving him documents about his exploits. Kurtz is afraid that the Manager would soil the reputation that he would leave behind so he gives Marlow a bundle of paper, along with his intended’s portrait, so that Marlow could put it out for the public.
After giving a limited version of the papers that were entrusted to him by Kurtz to a man who claims to be Kurtz’s cousin. A reporter retrieves the papers, or whatever is left with it, for publication. With Kurtz’s legacy now secured on the hands of a reporter, Kurtz’s reputation is no longer in danger. The only thing left to do is to visit the intended that Kurtz was supposed to marry if he hadn’t had died.
Marlow visits the intended of Kurtz but he isn’t really sure why he came in the first place.
I had no clear perception of what it was I really
wanted. Perhaps it was an impulse of unconscious loyalty, or the
fulfillment of one of these ironic necessities that lurk in the facts of
human existence. I don’t know. I can’t tell. But I went (Conrad, 1898, p. 119).
Marlow played the role of comforter to the poor intended, Marlow listens to her patiently despite being annoyed at one point. In the end, he feels nothing but pity for the intended. When he was asked by the intended what the last words of Kurtz were, he could not bear to tell heat the truth that it was “The horror…the horror.” To preserve her perfect image of Kurtz’s and Kurtz’s reputation as well, Marlow just says that Kurtz’s last words were her name.
Marlow and Kurtz, despite not knowing each other for a long time had a good relationship. It was so good in fact that Kurtz entrusted Marlow with very important and personal papers. Who would have thought that Marlow who was just a curious man about Kurtz would end up being Kurtz’s trustee? Since they are “friends” Marlow does not judge Kurtz’s actions, instead, Marlow explains Kurtz’s condition that lead to his madness. This protection that Marlow is doing is because he associates himself with Kurtz’s he sees him like his alter ego.
Conrad, J. (1898). Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction. New York. Barnes and Noble Books.