Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale-mystery, exotic setting, and suspense. But as judged from an allegorical point of view, it is a journey within a journey into the darkness of the human heart. Marlow, Conrad’s representative in the novel, makes a double journey – one on the surface leading him to the deepest jungles of the Congo; the other is a moral journey which takes him to the inner recesses of the human mind and reveals to him the infinite capability of doing evil by the human beings. Mr. Kurtz, the German idealist-turned-agent, is the goal of both these journeys. Marlow goes to the inner station to rescue the sick Kurtz. This is also a moral quest that brings Marlow face to face with the darkest of villains on earth. Kurtz is a study in the utmost limit of human villainy or man’s susceptibility to evil. Conrad’s moral vision concerning Kurtz is a grim one; Marlow unfolds a depressingly pessimistic tale of human corruption and moral diseases.
The journey has moral implications for Marlow as well because of his journey and his ultimate meeting with Kurtz changes his life forever. Mr. Kurtz dies with the words “The horror! The horror!” He, at the end of a degenerated life, faces a void of eternity. The tragic irony of Kurtz’s life is that he came to Congo with some kind of moral idealism. He had thought that he would have been able to educate the savage people of Africa. But he did not know the evil propensities lurking in his soul will find a fertile soil for growth. The primitive surrounding of the jungles, the stark realities of existence far away from civilization change Kurtz from an idealist into a self-centered, greedy, cruel ivory hunter. He loses all his moral values that he had acquired in civilized Europe because those values no longer hold well in the darkest region of this Dark Continent. Kurtz turns into a monster, a reprobate, a killer of the natives. He has stripped of his Christianity also as he indulges in primitive rituals. At the end of such a life, Kurtz meets his death, and standing on the precipice of death, he looks down into the immense eternity and finds nothing but horror. This horror is the result of his self-realization or self-evaluation. Marlow’s story about Kurtz implies that the kind of war that man makes for themselves and for others largely results from the character of individual behavior.
At the same time, we must remember that Marlow, not Kurtz, is the main character of the novel. It is not just a moral tale about Kurtz; we are concerned with Marlow’s moral quest also. His journey into the deepest part of Congo is the symbol of his descent into the hell of his own psyche. Conrad is not merely narrating an event, he is dealing with a significant moral conflict. Marlow’s trip from Europe to the outer, then to the central station tests his capacity to discriminate between good and evil. He witnesses such action as the futile firing of a man-of-war into the African continent and the genocide at the grove of death.
All these experiences excite moral reactions from him. His European veneer of civilization and his complacent moral attitudes are sharply challenged by these brutalities of man. He shows his compassion for victims of colonialism. When he finally meets Kurtz, he finds himself in the center of his moral dilemma and here lies the real trial of Marlow, his capacity for self-control. Kurtz had lost his self-control and was completely devoured by the evil of the plays. Kurtz is repeatedly described as a shadow and once with him, Marlow feels he has been “transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors.” Marlow fights against the spells that Kurtz casts on him; “If anybody ever struggled with his soul,” he says, “I am the man.” Marlow’s involvement with Kurtz plunges him into the depth of this self.
Mr. Kurtz comes to a moral vision at the end of his life; he comes to realize the horror of his existence. Kurtz faces the horror of his moral degradation with a final glimpse of the truth. It is this moral struggle which is the main theme of the novel, Heart of darkness.