The most corrupt villains are those who understand the evil they commit yet pay no heed. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one would assume that Kurtz plays the role of this nefarious character, but those who think so disregard the idea of what being in the Congo will no doubt do to you. Kurtz is unable to suppress the darkness inside of him because in the Congo there is only the law of the wild. He is powered by the knowledge of freedom the Congo has implemented in his life. Nobody can enter the heart of darkness and make it out level headed.
Marlow has been intrigued by this character since the beginning of his journey, and had his heart set on finding out who he truly was. Marlow displayed a certain loyalty towards Kurtz and this lead Marlow to follow closely in Kurtz footsteps deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. Long before Marlow came into human contact with Kurtz, Marlow felt as though he already knew him. Marlow was a wanderer who “followed the sea” (Conrad, 5), someone who found meaning in the way things were told rather than in the story themselves.
Marlow’s nature impacted what he thought about Kurtz; He does what seems right to him rather than what seems right to everyone else. Marlow’s encounter with the Company’s chief accountant was the first time he was introduced to Kurtz, who described him as “a first-class agent”(22) and “a remarkable person” (22) who was sure to go far in the Company. Marlow’s picture of Kurtz remained the same as he met with the Central Station Manager who once again assured Marlow that Kurtz was “of the greatest importance to the Company” (27).
Marlow had later met with the brick maker in the Central Station who showed Marlow a glimpse of Kurtz’s personality before he entered the Congo: the oil painting. The brick maker described Kurtz as a “prodigy”(30), “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress”(30), a man who is chief of the best station, and who knows where he will be in a year’s time. It’s safe to say that Marlow was convinced Kurtz was a valuable man, until he overheard the conversation between the Central Station Manager and his uncle. They made it clear that they wanted to “clear this poor devil out of the country” and wanted “the climate to do away” with him (38).
Marlow mentioned that he “seemed to see Kurtz for the first time” but because of the way the story is told he didn’t realize this when it was actually happening. His doubt is shown when he questions how someone could be in the heart of darkness and still be the best ivory trader in the Company. To everyone else Kurtz seemed like quite an intriguing character, a character who has a secret that Marlow wants to find more about. Marlow doesn’t understand why those who don’t know Kurtz think so highly of him, but those in the Company who strive to make money despise him for his power.
He heard so much about Kurtz as an ivory trader he felt as though he knew everything about him, but Marlow knew there was something more and desired to find out what it was. Marlow continued his journey and arrived at the Inner Station not knowing what to expect but left as an idealized image of Kurtz. The last person Marlow came into contact with before meeting Kurtz was the Harlequin, whose mind was enlarged by Kurtz in a profound way (67). The Harlequin was the only character who admits that Kurtz is different; that you can’t treat him like you would an ordinary man.
He shows Marlow that Kurtz, although ill, remains acting as a brutal and cruel leader that behaves as a god towards the natives. Up until this point Marlow has been oblivious to the world around him; he was so caught up in the journey that he didn’t realize his boat was floating deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. Marlow came into contact with Kurtz’s dark side when he first saw the “ornamental knobs” on the gate around Kurtz’s house; but what was significant is that they were facing towards the house rather than away from it.
Marlow saw that Kurtz “lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts- that there was something wanting in him” and at this point Marlow’s desire to understand Kurtz could not have been stronger. Even though Marlow had been informed many times that Kurtz was quite ill, seeing it in person still came as a shock. Throughout his whole journey he was told of how strong, powerful, successful and influential Kurtz was, that to see him lying in a stretcher surrounded by natives gave Marlow almost a feeling of intimacy and importance.
Marlow described Kurtz as “an animated image of death” but was not turned off by this, rather was more abhorred after meeting Kurtz’s native mistress. Perhaps this is to be expected because of how much Marlow values honesty versus how much he was alike Kurtz. Before Kurtz died, Marlow was able to share an intimate moment with him while he was attempting an escape. Marlow sees that Kurtz was anything but a lunatic in this time of complete desperation that would have looked completely bizarre to anyone else. Kurtz was an intelligent and concentrated man with a mad soul (83).
He struggled with himself too. I saw it- I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear” (83) and conceivably this was all Marlow needed to see before he understood his curious obsession with Kurtz. By the time of Kurtz’s death, Marlow was aware of the similarities they shared. From day one Marlow was attracted to the blank spaces; the unexplored territory. It’s what drove him to explore the Congo and what prompted his curiosity towards Kurtz. Upon first entering the mouth of the Congo river, Marlow states his view on lying and those who lie.
He vows to never tell a lie in his life, but because of the way the story is told we find out that this is not a promise he keeps. “You know, I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie”, “but I went for him near enough to lie. ” (32). There was a time where Kurtz lied in writing his progress reports and because of this Marlow lost his respect for Kurtz, but doesn’t stop on his journey. Honesty was everything to Marlow but the impact the Congo had on him evidently changed that. Kurtz lying was something Marlow could quickly get over. The Congo was changing Marlow in the same way it changed Kurtz, but Marlow escaped before it took his soul.
Kurtz has made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. ” Kurtz entered the Congo with the same sanity that Marlow did. They both had lives outside the Congo, talents, and people who cared about them. Marlow saw how alike they were and was remarked by Kurtz for having the ability to give into the darkness that Marlow resisted. Kurtz explored the deepest and darkest side of himself, a blank space of unexplored territory. Both characters shared in this passion of being where nobody else has been before. Although Marlow valued honesty, it’s shown that he valued exploration more.
He lied for Kurtz because of how much Marlow admired his ability to explore the dark. Marlow displayed a certain loyalty towards Kurtz and this lead him to follow closely in Kurtz footsteps deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. The key idea is that although Marlow followed Kurtz closely, he didn’t follow right behind him. If he had, Marlow would be just as insane as Kurtz. Marlow left enough room to be able to see what Kurtz was doing and admire him for it but not do things the same way. The Congo has this way of bringing out the darkness inside of everyone, but perhaps it brought out some good in Marlow.
Before journeying the heart of darkness it’s safe to say that Marlow would not have lied if his life depended on it. But by the end of his trip he realized that some lies are justifiable, it all depends on which values you hold closest to your heart. What made Marlow’s story a tragedy was not that he was a victim of the Congo, it was his curiosity towards it. As Joseph Conrad said, “To be part of the animal kingdom under the condition of this earth is very well- but as soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife- the tragedy begins. ”