Themes in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

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8th Feb 2020 English Literature Reference this

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In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an introspective sailor named Marlow–amongst his fellow seamen aboard the Nellie— recounts his time working for the Company in the Congo. Marlow’s tale revolves around his eventual meeting with the chief of the Inner Station: Kurtz, who, despite appearing towards the end of Marlow’s tale, not only plays the most significant role in Marlow’s experiences up the Congo River, but he also functions as the catalyst for the entire story–when he was dead or alive. In this story, Kurtz’ prominent influence on the actions and development of Marlow and other characters highlights the theme that darkness exists in the hearts of men.

The effects Kurtz brings upon the Company–and by extension, its’ employees– becomes evident from the first time Marlow reaches the Outer Station, emphasizing the critical role Kurtz plays in their development. The Company’s chief accountant in the Congos tells Marlow that Kurtz “‘..sends in as much ivory as all the[other stations] put together,’” which alludes to Kurtz’ significance to the Company, because his methods of collecting ivory from the natives significantly increases the monetary gain for the Company(22). Also, Kurtz’ description as an man who will “go far, very far” further demonstrates his significance to the company, as they are willing to promote him–as long as he continues to produce the ivory at the amazing rate he does. However, not all of Kurtz’ effects are positive, as Marlow overhears a conversation between two men that includes them wanting to hang Kurtz’ assistant, because they “will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example,” which illustrates the effects Kurtz has on those men’s developments, as they are so jealous of the success of Kurtz that they hope that by killing the assistant, they would have a chance of diminishing Kurtz’ productions at the Inner Station. This also underscores Kurtz’ significance to the theme, as this proves to be a foreshadow for the darkness that exists in the hearts of men, because their displeasure for Kurtz’ success would allow them to plot on killing an innocent man.

Kurtz’ crucialness to the story only becomes more apparent as Marlow reaches closer and closer to the Inner Station; so much so, in fact, that even the natives that Kurtz robs ivory from are affected by him, highlighting how significant Kurtz is. Marlow’s steamer becomes under siege when the natives attacks him–and to Marlow, it “in its essence was purely protective,” which demonstrates Kurtz’ significant effects on the natives, as they are so enraptured by the man in charge of the “best station” that they “don’t want him to go.” Even when the the attack ceases, Kurtz’ influence is crucial, as when Marlow finally reaches the Inner Station,  a devout follower of Kurtz named the Russian tells Marlow that the talks that he has with Kurtz “enlarged [his] mind,” which illustrates how Kurtz becomes crucial to the development of the Russian, as any type of criticism that Marlow attempts to send Kurtz’ way is vehemently denied by the Russian–as evidenced by when the Russian says ‘“You don’t know how such a life tries a man like Kurtz!’’’ The Russian gets Marlow to promise that he will keep Kurtz good reputation alive even beyond the man’s inevitable death, which cements Kurtz’ place as the most significant person in the story, because even without ever meeting the man face to face, Marlow is willing to uphold reputation, which shows that his influence allows for him to be remembered as an incredible man– even if most of his actions within the Congo has been the juxtaposition of incredible. Once again, however, does the Darkness that exists in the hearts of men rear its ugly head, as when Kurtz is brought aboard the steamer, the General Manager sees how Kurtz is slowly dying, and despite his “best” efforts, he “[neglects] to be consistently sorrowful,”(59), which hints at the continued significance Kurtz has on this particular character’s development in the story, as this man is so overcomed by his childish jealousy of Kurtz’ success that he takes pleasure in the fact that the man whose station produces the most ivory for the Company–and is continuously being promoted because of it– is no longer able to sustain that success due to his slow and painful death from his illness.

With Kurtz now with them, Marlow and the people aboard the steamer go back up the Congo River, and this becomes the opportunity for Marlow to finally talk to Kurtz; and even though the man is dying, Kurtz manages to still play the pivotal role in Marlow’s experience in his journey, demonstrating that despite Kurtz and Marlow’s brief time together on the planet, Kurtz continues to be a significant presence. Despite Marlow’s constant thoughts that the delusional Kurtz was now “a shade of [his former self],” he still remained transfixed by him, which serves as even more evidence for the idea that Kurtz plays a significant role for Marlow in his brief appearance in the novel, because it makes Marlow wistful that he did not have the opportunity to meet the man before he succumbed to the darkness within his own heart. Furthermore, when Marlow witnesses Kurtz’ apparent judgement for his actions–Kurtz cries “‘The Horror! The Horror!’”– he wishes that that moment of perfect clarity would come to people not on their deathbed, but when they need it the most, which alludes to the affects Kurtz’ presence had around Marlow, because being there to bear witness to a man who essentially watched their entire life flash before their eyes made Marlow keen to keep his promise to be loyal “to the last, and even beyond.”

Prior to his death, Kurtz gave Marlow a series of packages that he requests Marlow gives to people when he returns to Europe; one of these packages belong to Kurtz’ Intended, and this final scene symbolizes Kurtz’ role as the significant presence of the story. Even as the Intended uses phrases like “‘It was impossible to know him and not admire him,’”(70) and “‘of all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his nobleness, nothing remains,”’ (71) Marlow refrains from breaking his promise and telling the Intended the truth about Kurtz, cementing Kurtz’ status as the major influence of his character. Furthermore, it shows that Kurtz continues to play a pivotal role beyond the confines of his grave, as the final act that demonstrates the power of his presence occurs when the Intended asks Marlow what were Kurtz’ final words, and Marlow replies “‘[It was] your name.’”

Kurtz was the most significant presence in the story, despite making his actual appearance–not people simply talking about him– until the recount of Marlow’s tale in the Congo had reached its end. One thing is certain, however: that man –who the Intended loved, the Russian gave unidentifiable amounts of loyalty to, and the natives worshiped like a god– had a “heart [of] immense darkness.”

In Joseph Conrad’s dark novel Heart of Darkness, the protagonist Charles Marlow, and his fellow sailors on the Nellie recounts working for the Company that travels to the Congo.  Marlow’s job was revolving around the meeting of the leader of the Inner Station, Kurtz.  Even though Marlow actual meets Kurtz shortly at the end of his recounting, Kurtz not only is one of the most significant roles in Marlow’s journey up the Congo River but also functions as fuel for the whole story.  Kurtz’ prominent influence on the actions and development of Marlow and the other characters highlights the theme that darkness exists in the hearts of all men. 

When Marlow first reaches the first station in the Congo, the Outer Station, the effects Kurtz has on the Company becomes obvious, emphasizing the important role Kurtz plays in their development.  When Marlow begins to find information about Kurtz, he learns from the Company’s chief accountant that Kurtz “‘… sends in as much ivory as all the [other] [stations],’” which alludes to Kurtz’ importance to the Company, because Kurtz’ methods of collecting ivory significantly increase the revenue that the Company is gaining (22).  This also demonstrates the obstacles that the Company willing to go through to make sure that Kurtz is safe because he continues to produce ivory at an amazing rate.  However, not all of Kurtz effects are positive, as shown when Marlow hears a conversation between two men.  The men are willing to kill Kurtz’ assistant because they “will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example,” which illustrates the effect Kurtz’ has on these men’s development, which is of jealousy and envy because of Kurtz’ success.  The intoxicating effect of the envy caused by Kurtz’ success leads the men to believe that killing Kurtz’ assistant would cause Kurtz’ productions at the Inner station to diminish.  This also connects Kurtz’ significance to the theme, that all men have darkness in their hearts, because of Kurtz’ success the men of the other station would plot on killing an innocent man because of greed and jealousy.

Kurtz’ significance to Marlow’s recount that it becomes more and more apparent as Marlow reaches closer and closer to the Inner Station because the natives that Kurtz’ stole ivory from are being affected by him.  Marlow’s steamer becomes the receiving end of a storm of arrows and spears when the natives attacked and Marlow saw it as “purely protective,” which demonstrates Kurtz’ significant role to the natives because they are so impressed by the man in charge of the largest flow of ivory and do not wish to see him leave (44).  Kurtz’ significance to the natives conveys the idea that the natives are dependent on Kurtz’ in one way or another, because of the ferocity of the way they try to protect him.  Even when the attack ends, Kurtz’ influence is critical, because when Marlow reaches the Inner Station, a follower of Kurtz named the Russian explains to Marlow that the interactions he has had with Kurtz has “enlarged [his] mind,” which illuminates how Kurtz becomes crucial to the development of the Russian, because of all the information he has learned from Kurtz (52).  This is demonstrated when Marlow attempts to criticize Kurtz, but the Russian defends Kurtz by saying “‘You don’t know how such a life tries a man like Kurtz,’” which highlights Kurtz’ influence on some of the people around him to believe that he is right and a just man (57).  The Russian then has Marlow promise to keep Kurtz’ good reputation alive even past his inevitable death, which cements Kurtz’ as the most significant and influential person in the novel, because Marlow has not even met the man yet, but Marlow is willing to uphold his reputation even though all the dark and evil actions Kurtz’ committed. 

Now that Kurtz is now with Marlow and they are heading out of the Congo, this is Marlow’s chance to finally speak to the man he has heard so much about– even if the man is on his deathbed. Even though Marlow sees Kurtz as “a shade of his former self,” he is still interested by Kurtz, which serves as even more evidence for the idea that Kurtz is a significant role for Marlow in his short appearance in the novel, because Marlow then wishes to have met Kurtz before he was consumed by the darkness inside of his heart.  Then, Marlow witnesses Kurtz’ apparent relation for his actions; Kurtz screams “‘ The horror! The horror,’” because he now sees what the darkness of his heart has caused him to do, which alludes to the affects Kurtz had on Marlow, because witnessing a man watch his entire life go by his blind eyes makes Marlow keep the promise he made to the Russian that he will uphold Kurtz’ reputation.

Kurtz’ character was the most important presence in the whole novel, even if he made only a short appearance, has a significant impact upon the people of the Company, people of the Congo, and the most impact on Marlow.  Ultimately, the man who traveled to the Congo to find a fortune for himself so he can marry his Intended, the man the Company idolized because of the production of ivory he produced, the man that other men envied to the point of wanting to murder an innocent man, the natives that worshiped him as a god, and the man that mesmerized Marlow was consumed by his greed from inside of his own heart… had a “heart [of] immense darkness” (72).

Works Cited

  • Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Delaware, Prestwic House Inc., 2005

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