My primary reaction to this story was that it is a timeless narrative. While the specific context of the colonial era and the technology of travel by steamship certainly places this within a tight time frame, the themes at work will never grow old. The notion that unlimited and unchecked power leads to unimaginable corruption is as old as King Herod and as recent as the era of apartheid in South Africa. The idea that, ultimately, people will do evil, if left to their own devices, is as old as Cain and Abel and as new as the young man who shot up the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Who is to say that, without any structure, any of us would not turn out as Kurtz did in his time with the natives? When he left Europe (and his Intended) behind, he left all of the structures that held his behavior in place, meaning that he could basically live as he pleased, ruling over people who would see him as a god, on the basis of the technology that he could bring to bear, if the situation called for it.
I chose this quotation for discussion: “The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time. . . . I saw the time approaching when I would be left alone of the party of ‘unsound method.’” This quotation comes from the third part of Part 3, as Marlow conveys Kurtz and his ivory back from the inner station. On several levels, the river serves as a figurative descriptor of the journey that Marlow has taken. Even though the river gives Marlow a separate place to exist apart from the jungle, and even though it is his conveyance away from the heart of darkness, it is a “brown” current, redolent of the skin color of the natives behind him. Kurtz has become so closely identified with the darkness that, as he floats away from it, his very life force runs out more and more quickly. Even though Marlow is leaving the darkness behind, though, the brown liquid below indelibly marks him as part of the colonial party that, with Kurtz, lost its moral identity. This brown stain appears to have worked its way into Marlow's very soul.
The notion of darkness takes on several different levels. One is, of course, the literal level; the farther that Marlow travels into the jungle, along the winding river, the darker everything becomes, as the jungle blocks out more and more of the sun. In itself, this change does not have a moral dynamic. However, there are other levels that have more of a figurative meaning for the reader. One of these would be the moral darkness that would spread itself out over any power that dabbled in colonial empire. While Africa is described as a gloomy place, so is Brussels and England – two seats of colonies. While the Belgian holdings in the colonial world were small, the primary territory was the Congo – the very center of Africa. England's holdings, of course, were much more vast, comprising the empire on which the sun never set. The cruelty that subjugating native peoples involved put blood on the hands of every power that established colonies on the other side of the world, and so all of the colonial powers – and the lands that they dominated – were covered in this darkness. Finally, darkness also involves an inability to see clearly. Again, this is fairly simple on a literal level; however, on a moral level, blindness can lead to tragic consequences. Marlow enters the situation morally blind to the damage that colonialism is wreaking on the natives and on their land. By the time he realizes the “horror” that is at the center of the building of empires, and that nestles into the heart of anyone who is given unlimited power and control over others, he is tainted – and he senses it. However, having that blindness earlier in the story keeps him from being able to build a sympathetic connection with any of the people whom Kurtz has brought under his control.
Marlow is a bridge between the reader and the dichotomy that serves as the relationship between the Company and Kurtz. Because he is still moderate in terms of his feelings about empire, the reader can identify with Marlow on a limited level. However, Marlow is fairly open to suggestion, which means that he can also identify with the outer limits of both Kurtz's and the official Company's perspective. Marlow's contamination by that world is shown by his severe illness; the fact that he eventually recovers, though, indicates that he has returned from it, still somewhere on the continuum between the reader and the total loss of morality. Kurtz, on the other hand, is more a collection of images than a round character. He is closer to Captain Ahab and the Green Goblin (from Spider-Man) than he is to a real person. With Kurtz, everything is about style, rather than actual substance. This is one of the things that renders Kurtz so hollow; ultimately, though, it is is hollowness that makes him such a riddle for Marlow to solve. Because Marlow, ultimately, cannot access the same sort of motivation that drives Kurtz, Kurtz remains an object of fascination: the eloquence of Kurtz's words, flowing late into the night, bewitches Marlow in a way, and overshadows the terrible truth bubbling inside Kurtz. To further establish the notion that there is no real Kurtz, that he is instead a series of surfaces, one only needs to revisit what Marlow gleans from his talks with Kurtz's cousin, Kurtz's fiancee and the Belgian journalist. To each of them, Kurtz was something different: the Intended considers Kurtz a genius – and a philanthropist; the journalist raves about Kurtz's brilliant leadership abilities; the cousin remembers Kurtz's immense skill with music. Marlow did not see any of these facets of Kurtz, and ultimately he brings his own memories into question. However, even though he seems to be nothing more than a series of facades, Kurtz remains in the mind of the reader long after Marlow has slunk of into the drains of memory. The relationship between the two is not exactly mentor and protege; however, it is also not exactly villain and hero, either. The closer Marlow gets to Kurtz, the more tainted his own character becomes.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Dover Publications, c1990. Print.
Topham, James. “'Heart of Darkness' Review.”