Heart of Darkness is the magnificent novel by Joseph Conrad in which he unfolds the story of Marlow’s search for Kurtz, the company agent whose unlawful soul has gone to the extreme in his exploitation of the heart of darkness and his dealing with the natives of Belgian, Congo. This Kurtz has become the victim and executioner of his actions.
Kurtz comes to Africa with a moral ambition. But he surrenders to the primitive darkness, becomes the slave of his greed. He lacks the restraint in the gratification of his lust. But in the end, he realizes that his life has been built in the wrong way. In the dying moment, the last words of Kurtz, “The horror! The horror!” reveals his realization. Kurtz is judging his performance through these words. It is the realization of Kurtz what he has done in Africa is horror. Kurtz’s last words also reveal the eternal nature of man, the tragic shortcomings of the heart of darkness.
What the white people do in Congo is totally horror. 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 and is pleased with herself for helping to send Marlow to Africa as one of the workers and as an emissary of light. She subscribes entirely to the view that the motive behind colonialism is to civilize the conquered people. Although Marlow’s mission is limited to rescue of Kurtz, there is a sense in which his trip to Congo is a recreation of the colonialist expedition, which enables him to understand its nature. Already on his way out to Africa, he notices that the only settlements seen from the coast are trading places with names out of some “sordid fare” which he thinks there is a torch of insanity about the man of war firing into the continent. Even at this early stage, 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 are engaged in Africa.
Before Marlow actually meets him, Kurtz seems to be a very different type of colonialist since even his detractors acknowledge that he is an idealist and he has come out equipped with moral ideas. “He is a universal genius” yet he turns into a ruthless exploiter in spite of his romantic idealism and his desire to bring the light of white civilization to Africa. His many gifts as a musician, a painter, a journalist, and a politician make him truly representative of a highly sophisticated culture. But 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 little ivory.
It is 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, to hear that he took part in “unspeakable rites.” Thus white civilization has been tested in Kurtz and found wanting.
But even then Kurtz is not common. He is a remarkable person who is involved in a spiritual struggle – of the confrontation with the unconscious. The complete knowledge that he achieves by looking into himself makes him totally destructive because he finds his heart totally empty and barren. And Marlow says, “Kurtz hides in the magnificent fall of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart.”
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. He also rightly asserts that “it had candor, it had conviction…it had the appealing face of a glimpsed truth.” Thus when he steps over the threshold of invisible, Kurtz, at last, achieves awareness of what he is.
The last words reveal the glimpse of eternal truth about the nature of man. Kurtz, starting out like Marlow as an “emissary of night,” 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.