It would be intriguing indeed to read an account of the initial colonization of Africa or the Americas by the indigenous peoples instead of viewing events through the ideological filters of the Europeans who landed their ships on these new shores, motivated by God, Gold and/or Glory (and not necessarily in that order). While there are many works that effectively describe the ways in which the entities in power had complete control over those in the new colonies, the story of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may be the most compelling portrait in all of literature of the ways in which total power corrodes the soul. Like Marlow, and many of the other young men who headed to Africa and the Americas during the colonial era, the call of adventure was a powerful siren. However, the power that he found in Africa, the idealistic façade that was slapped up in cheap paint to hide the motivations that really inspired the creation of colonies, and the considerable amount of greed at work render Kurtz incapable of anything more than a startling revelation of the state of his own soul when he laments, “The horror! The horror!” just before his death. Rather than being a madman, though, Kurtz is just a symbol of the depravity of humanity and the contradictions of imperial colonialism. These are the horrors that appear in Kurtz's soul, leading to his fever at the end of his life.
In Kurtz’s first report to the Company, he indicates that he wants to accomplish deeds of “humanizing, improving, instructing” (Conrad) as part of his great colonial adventure. However, once he was installed as a station chief, he found that the indigenous people in the jungle saw his access to technology (and his different appearance) as signs of divinity. Because of this, he decided to establish himself as a god at the Inner Station. His higher sense of calling, of course, manifests itself in such traits as his painting; it is clear that, at some point, finding out the very best way to civilize the Congo was a priority to him. However, the fact that he believes, at the end, that the Company should just “exterminate all the brutes” (Conrad) shows how his idealism has eroded over time. The specific cause for Kurtz’s moral decay is that he has no limits on the force that he can use on his men, to “motivate” them to bring in ivory. It is the heads on the posts that surround the Inner Station that both horrify Marlow and testify to the brutality that Kurtz has used with his men. Indeed, the Manager frets about Kurtz’s methods, but Kurtz also brings in results, with the highest ivory totals each period – in fact, his men bring in more ivory than all of the other stations combined. It is true that Kurtz is taking the corporate mandate of the Company – the draining of all of the resources of the Congo, with no respect for the indigenous peoples or environment – and applies it on an individual basis. Marlow is ultimately sent to bring in Kurtz, but the power that has been given to him has already been put to the most evil of uses.
Marlow comments that “[a]ll Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” and he is correct in that assumption. Kurtz refers to Brussels (the capital of Belgium, the country that established the colony in the Congo) as a “whited sepulcher” of hypocritical greed, and it is true that all of the colonial powers basically leveled the cultures that were present in the land before the Europeans arrived. Whether it was the widespread death of the Native Americans from diseases that had only been found in Europe before the settlers came to the New World, followed by the forced relocation of many of those tribes to reservations far from the native habitat of their cultures; the capture, enslavement, and sale of native tribe people (often by their own leaders) to the settlers; or the swift consumption, or outright destruction, of natural resources that had been part of the native habitat for centuries, the agenda of the colonizing power was never merciful or beneficent, no matter how loudly the conquering government spoke of “God, Gold and Glory.” The lures of having a captive market for their economies’ goods, controlling a workforce that could be compelled either into slavery or into extremely low-paying drudgery, and boasting the ownership of land around the globe were what motivated the colonial movement. These urges also become the driving forces in Kurtz’s own personal morality, and so the “whited sepulcher” also ends up containing his own soul.
One of the sneakiest effects of greed is that it can paralyze the human will. Greed can become a self-perpetuating cycle, as one becomes convinced that one only needs to get a little more money, or a little more power, to feel satisfied. That satisfaction never comes. Despite the fact that Kurtz can (and does) blame his feeding frenzy at the troughs of cruelty and power on the institutions that placed him in control of the Inner Station, his own ultimate disgust with himself reveals that he feels a crushing sense of guilt – as a result of his greed. He attempts to get rid of this guilt by making himself feel even better through more greed and cruelty, but the fact that he leaves his painting behind, and the fact that he lets the notion of a more conventional life with this “Intended” just vanish combine to eat him alive from within. By the time his life comes to a close, all he has left to say about himself is “The horror! The horror!” All of his dreams have been tarnished by the filth of his soul’s moral condition. Even though he has merely taken on, as an individual, the traits of his society, those traits have marred him beyond all recognition, beyond all redemption.
Ultimately, Kurtz is not a madman. He has been driven beyond what might be considered rational levels of human behavior, but only because of the mandates of the institution that placed him in power. While the levels of death and violence are higher, the treachery that he practices on his fellow man is not more significant than that done by the Bernie Madoffs of our own time – instead of taking literal lives, the great villains of our own time simply take away people’s security. Ultimately, greed is nothing more, and nothing less, than a worthless attempt to fill the vacuum inside each one of us with material possessions, and material control. The end result may differ, but the inner darkness is the same.