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The two characters from the book Heart of Darkness, Marlow and Kurtz have an interesting relationship. Kurtz is one of the best agents of the Company, who works in Africa, deep inside the undiscovered jungle. Marlow, who is a British seaman, is obsessed with Africa, and this is the reason why he ends up on a steamboat in the middle of Africa. He has the job to travel up on a river to see a man named Mr. Kurtz. Marlow’s relation to Kurtz goes through several evolutions. When he first hears about him, he talks and thinks about the man with apathy. Generally, he is not interested in him. But by the time he hears about the story Kurtz turning back into the jungle, Marlow thinks different about him. This is the first time he sees Kurtz as a solitary white man among black men.
By the time the steamer became ready to start, Marlow was getting more and more excited about seeing and speaking with Kurtz. As Marlow said, the boat “crawled towards Kurtz – exclusively” (page 104. line 11). When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, his adoration turns into hatred. He begins to see him as a helpless selfish man who chases dreams of getting powerful and rich. He even might think about him as barbaric, because he puts heads on sticks. This is when he stops admiring him. Even though, there is a point when he does express a certain admiration for Kurtz again, for the words he uttered on his death bed: “The horror! The horror!”(page 147.). Marlow thinks that these words might be the result of facing himself, when Kurtz finally realised the horrible nature of his own.
Despite his feelings for Kurtz, Marlow still declares that he knew Kurtz “as well as it is possible for one man to know another”(page 154.). There is an interesting part following this, when Marlow is asked whether he admired Kurtz. He starts to answer but gets disrupted, so we never get to know his answer. Another interesting point is, that Marlow and Kurtz are quiet similar, and maybe Marlow recognized this. It made him afraid that he is similar to an insane man, who is greedy for power and richness. Both men come from an upper middleclass white family. Both have powerful connections which establishes them a strong place in the Company. A very important common feature between the two men is that they are described as gods, at least in their own environments. Kurtz is admired by the black natives at his station, and Marlow is kind of a god for the men on the steamer. Conrad even compares Marlow to Buddha: “he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes” (page 69.). Both are obsessed with something: Marlow is obsessed with Africa and finding Kurtz, while Kurtz is obsessed with acquiring as much ivory as possible.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Kurtz was good at his job. His station alone acquired more ivory than the other stations together. This proves – according to his fiancée – that he has all the ambition and charisma to achieve great things. Still, we cannot be sure that – at least at the end when we finally get to know him personally through Marlow – he is perfectly sane. Putting heads on sticks might be enough to say “this man is mad”. But beyond that, we can assume that the illness of Kurtz is the physical realization of his mental deficiency. His last words on his death bed show how hollow and cruel he really was.
Another interesting point is the relation between Kurtz and the natives. As mentioned before, Kurtz was like a god to the black people. On one hand, this is a bit ironic as when the natives heard about the white men coming up the river, they simply attacked their steamer. They knew they were coming for Kurtz, so they attacked the boat to keep him with them. We cannot be sure whether they attacked on Kurtz’s order, but if they attacked on their own, then Kurtz is a prisoner of his own kingdom. He can order mass killings of those who rebel against him, but he can not walk away freely. On the other hand, if Kurtz ordered the attack, this is another example of his madness.
When talking about irony and Kurtz being a god, we have to mention the relation between Kurtz’s height and his name. With a modest German knowledge – and as Marlow tells us – we know that Kurtz means short or little in German. In the story, Mr. Kurtz is described as a tall person. In this point of view, his god-like height is made smaller by his name.
Marlow’s and Kurtz’s relation to the black men is quite different. While Kurtz enjoys being treated like a god, acting like a god and using up the natives, Marlow is different with the blacks. Although he does nothing against the horror scenarios of black slavery he sees, he does some things to show compassion. He treats his own slaves decently. When his helmsman dies on the boat, he throws his body into the water making sure he is not eaten by his cannibals. But why does he feel sorrow for the Africans? At the beginning of the book Marlow says: “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth” (page 67.). We are kindly to forget that once Europe was a dark and uncivilized place too, but Marlow must have known that. Things get more complicated when Marlow is treated like a savage himself. After talking to the manager at the first station, he is not given a seat or any food. His reaction to this was that “I was getting savage” (page 89.) unable to converse as normal cultured man would do. At this point, it seems that rather civilizing the savages, Marlow is starting to become like them.
Last but not least, it is important to mention Marlow’s viewpoint about lying. We get to know him as someone who hates lies. Even though, he does lie two times. Both were for good means and in extraordinary circumstances, still, they are lies. The first lie was that he let the brick maker think he had more influence in the company than he actually had. Marlow thought this would help Kurtz, as we can read on http://www.cyberessays.com/English/48.htm “Some saw him as the next Director of the
Company, and some were trying to find a reason to hang him. If Marlow was considered powerful, he might be able to help Mr. Kurtz. This is an extraordinary reason for telling a lie.” The second time, he lied to Kurtz’s fiancée. His intentions were to keep the image she had in her mind about Kurtz, because in the two years when she was separated from her fiancée, she built up a picture, where Kurtz was a man to be admired. Marlow just simply did not want to destroy this picture. As a conclusion, it is the best to cite the last lines from the above mentioned home page’s article: “Marlow dislikes lies, and only tells them in extraordinary circumstances. When he does lie, it is for the sake of others, not himself. This shows that he is a kind human being.”
Primary Literature: http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=ConDark.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=all
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