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Encounters with people who differ visibly from ourselves often generate reactions of horror, dread, and, in some cases, violent efforts to destroy the other in order to eliminate the perceived threat to one’s own identity. Such encounters are obvious throughout the narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the creature is labeled as a monster, and become more explicit in the colonial context of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the character of Kurtz allows his distaste for the “savage” African population of the Congo turn him into a savage and a monster in his own right.
His eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped (Shelley 35).
Naturally, Victor is not the creature’s biological caregiver and the creature is not even human but the ambiguity of their situation lends their relationship much of its uncanny and ultimately fatal tension.
By nearly any human standard, the creature makes for an unappealing Other, unable, as the episode at the pond reveals, to find validation even in its own gaze. Forced to acknowledge the differences between it and humanity, Victor’s creation finds all of its overtures to peaceful coexistence rejected or ruined by circumstance. Finally, the creature determines that if no one will return its attempts to love, it will return humanity’s instinctive hatred:
I will revenge my injuries: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. Have a care I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your birth (Shelley 105)
In this passage, the creature, acting as the Other, simultaneously surrenders to expectations that its difference predisposes it to a savage nature and vows to punish those who reject it. If no one will acknowledge kinship with it, then everyone else must be forced to share its alienation, starting with Victor himself.
The relationship between creator and creature ends with mutual annihilation. By being denied its original innocence and even a name, “the creature must return to that dark place from which he came” (Lin 50). Likewise, in Heart of Darkness, Kurtz refuses to acknowledge his essential human kinship with the “brutes” native to his Congo station, and so like Victor dooms himself and his Others to humiliation and horror. Conrad does not flinch in his portrayal of a “prodigy” of European civilization; “an emissary of pity and science and progress” and is driven to madness by his own lack of empathy” (Conrad 22).
As Victor Frankenstein’s drama plays out against a Gothic landscape, Kurtz is empowered by the colonial system of race and naked economic exploitation without even “a sentimental pretense” much less an “idea” to ennoble it (Conrad 4). Africa, in this system, exists only to be economically changed; the culture of the local population is at best a mass of “savage customs” to be not understood but, tellingly, suppressed (Conrad 45). Kurtz lacks the excuse of being a failed and juvenile creator of his Others, although he claims a racist perogative that is not merely parental but divine:
The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, “must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings-we approach them with the might of a deity,” and so on, and so on. (Conrad 45)
Far from exerting a civilizing influence, this “white man’s burden” only gives Kurtz license to “gratif[y] his various lusts” in isolation (Conrad 53). Cut off from the only society he recognizes (white Europe) he finds himself absolutely alone, in a wilderness “where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion” (Conrad 45). In short, without realizing it, the polished colonial administrator becomes as much a monster as Frankenstein’s alienated creation and more. Shelley’s creature became a killer in order to level the otherwise insurmountable difference between itself and its creator and so find recognition in the eyes of Victor-as-Other. Kurtz famously dreams of genocide itself as a way to eradicate the Other entirely.
If anything, the real parallel here is between Kurtz and Victor. Confronted with the otherness present in the people entrusted to them by either the colonial system or the accident of scientific experimentation, Kurtz and Frankenstein recoiled in their different ways and are ultimately destroyed. For both of these nominally civilized men, the “horror” is to be revealed as, on the one hand, more “savage” as the Africans themselves, and, on the other, more “wretched” and alone than the rejected creation. For Victor,
seeing perversely nothing but otherness in the monster, [he] is unable to recognize his common humanity. As a result Victor fails to become humanized because he rejects the awareness sympathy brings about (Ã-zdemir 51)
A similar case for Kurtz could be made; doomed to die alienated from humanity for refusing to recognize it in the rich human situations around him. Keeping the Other at arm’s length, fearing the different, only leads to disaster.
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