Heart of Darkness

The Lure of Kurtz

Marlow’s journey up the Congo, into ‘the heart of darkness,’ becomes for the narrator a journey ‘toward Kurtz – exclusively.’ In this way, Conrad makes Kurtz central to the narrative as the character becomes almost the obsession of his narrator. The early narrative’s clues to the character of Kurtz are few and ambiguous and the lack of certainty, the creation of mystery, comes to fascinate the reader as well as the narrator.

It is significant that Kurtz is one of the very few characters in the novel who are named. Most are nominated only by their profession, whether Marlow’s auditors on the Nellie – the Director of Companies, Lawyer and Accountant, or in the Congo – the Chief Accountant or the brickmaker. Kurtz’s name therefore gives him status in the novel, and he is often further elevated by being referred to by name and title, Mr Kurtz. As the narrative is Marlow’s, ‘I’ and ‘Kurtz’ recur repeatedly, often in conjunction, creating a link between them.

In the first half of the novel, Kurtz is only a name, however. He only exists in Marlow’s thoughts and in other characters’ conversations. His name goes before him, quite literally. Marlow ‘heard the name of Kurtz’, ‘had heard Mr Kurtz was in there’, overhears others who ‘had been talking about Kurtz’, asks ‘who is this Mr Kurtz?’ and is fascinated just by ‘the prospect of meeting Mr Kurtz very soon.’ These repeated references, where ‘Kurtz’ is just a name, a word, without clear identification or substance, create the sense of mystery for the reader.


When Marlow does find information about Kurtz from others, it is still on the level of reputation and rumour and even this lacks any certainty. The Chief Accountant’s first description is that Kurtz ‘is a very remarkable person’, which implies a complimentary view, though this lacks any support. The first hard information suggests that Kurtz is the ideal agent in the Belgians’ mercenary hold of the Congo, his apparent claim to fame being that he acquires ‘as much ivory as all the others put together’. However, further information presents an alternative view of Kurtz. The General Manager presents Kurtz as a rising star in Belgium’s colonial enterprise in the Congo, not just for his success in obtaining ivory, but because he is linked with Belgium’s supposed civilisation and enlightenment of the Congo. The brickmaker links him with Marlow disparagingly as part of the ‘new gang – the gang of virtue.’ This chimes with the Chief Accountant’s assertion that Kurtz ‘will be a somebody in the Administration’ and is marked for advancement. Conrad’s use of these characters’ conflicting views of Kurtz, his success and position, create uncertainty for Marlow and the reader.

These ideas are furthered when the Manager reveals his concern that Kurtz may be ill, commenting that he is ‘an exceptional man’, an adjective with a similar function to ‘remarkable’. The brickmaker goes further however, at first apparently echoing ‘exceptional’ and ‘remarkable’ by his use of ‘prodigy’, with its suggestions of extraordinary and unprecedented abilities. His next sentence is even more revealing, however: ‘He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else.’ The list of what should be attributes has a tone of scorn, emphasised by the grammatically unnecessary commas in the syndetic list, an impression confirmed by the dismissive quality of the final phrase.

It is perhaps that very ambiguity which fascinates Marlow, seeing in Kurtz a coloniser who is able to work productively, a clear contrast with the absurd levels of colonial inefficiency and waste he describes when first landing in the Congo and which reflect Conrad’s own experience of the Belgian colonial regime. Marlow even uses the authority of Kurtz’s name in his demand for rivets to mend his steamboat, and in this urge for purposeful work, Conrad creates a link between Marlow and Kurtz.

Kurtz and Colonisers

Conrad takes the technique of introducing Kurtz through conversation a stage further at the opening of Chapter 2, when uncertainty is doubled through not just dialogue, but snatches of dialogue, incomplete sentences which Marlow drowsily overhears. From the fragments of conversation, the reader can discern another view of Kurtz. Success with ivory is clear, but so is resentment, with disbelief in the level of Kurtz’s ‘influence’, which is ‘frightful’, and Kurtz’s ‘impudence’. Interestingly, this is a section where the name of Kurtz is absent, as he is referred to only as ‘that man’, strikingly different from ‘exceptional’ and ‘remarkable’ ‘Mr Kurtz’. Here too is an image which strikes Marlow, a tale of Kurtz’s return upriver alone in a canoe with ‘four paddling savages’, clearly something considered extraordinary by the speakers.

Conrad’s presentation of the colonial officers throughout is unattractive, again drawn from his own experience in the Congo, and it is clear from Marlow’s ironic responses to them, whether their ‘starched collars’ and ‘vast cuffs’, their reading of Company correspondence or his reference to the ‘pilgrims’ aboard his steamer, that he too is highly critical of them. As Kurtz is presented as an alternative to them, Conrad creates another subtle link between Marlow and Kurtz.


There are other small clues about Kurtz in the novel’s first stage which add to the mystery. One is the painting, ‘representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch.’ It seems to be an allegorical painting and evidently executed with some skill, as it ‘arrested’ Marlow. Kurtz the artist is another source of fascination. Conrad also includes a teasing foreshadowing, as Marlow tells his listeners that he commits ‘near enough to a lie’ for Kurtz, even though he ‘can’t bear a lie’.

It through these teasing and ambiguous clues that Conrad creates Kurtz as a large and powerful presence in the first half of the novel, but a presence with no substance. It is to give substance to that presence which drives Marlow’s fascination as he, and the novel, ‘crept on, towards Kurtz.’

Read more…

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