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In Heart of Darkness it is the white invaders for instance, who are,
almost without exception, embodiments of blindness, selfishness, and
cruelty; and even in the cognitive domain, where such positive
phrases as "to enlighten," for instance, are conventionally opposed
to negative ones such as "to be in the dark," the traditional
expectations are reversed. In Kurtz's painting, as we have seen,
"the effect of the torch light on the face was sinister" (Watt 332).
Ian Watt, author of "Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness,"
discusses about the destruction set upon the Congo by Europeans. The
destruction set upon the Congo by Europeans led to the cry of Kurtz's last
words, "The horror! The horror!" The horror in Heart of Darkness has been
critiqued to represent different aspects of situations in the book. However,
Kurtz's last words "The horror! The horror!" refer, to me, to magnify only
three major aspects. The horror magnifies Kurtz not being able to restrain
himself, the colonizers' greed, and Europe's darkness.
Kurtz comes to the Congo with noble intentions. He thought that each
ivory station should stand like a beacon light, offering a better way of life
to the natives. He was considered to be a "universal genius": he was an orator,
writer, poet, musician, artist, politician, ivory producer, and chief agent of
the ivory company's Inner Station. yet, he was also a "hollow man," a man
without basic integrity or any sense of social responsibility. "Kurtz issues
the feeble cry, 'The horror! The horror!' and the man of vision, of poetry, the
'emissary of pity, and science, and progress' is gone. The jungle closes'
round" (Labrasca 290). Kurtz being cut off from civilization reveals his dark
side. Once he entered within his "heart of darkness" he was shielded from the
light. Kurtz turned into a thief, murderer, raider, persecutor, and to climax
all of his other shady practices, he allows himself to be worshipped as a god.
E. N. Dorall, author of "Conrad and Coppola: Different Centres of Darkness,"
explains Kurtz's loss of his identity.
Daring to face the consequences of his nature, he loses his identity;
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unable to be totally beast and never able to be fully human, he
alternates between trying to return to the jungle and recalling in
grotesque terms his former idealism. Kurtz discovered, A voice!
A voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength
to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of
his heart.... But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of
the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that
soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying, fame, of sham
distinction, of all the appearances of success and power. Inevitably
Kurtz collapses, his last words epitomizing his experience,
The horror! The horror! (Dorall 306).
The horror to Kurtz is about self realization; about the mistakes he committed
while in Africa.
The colonizers' cruelty towards the natives and their lust for ivory
also is spotlighted in Kurtz's horror. The white men who came to the Congo
professing to bring progress and light to "darkest Africa" have themselves been
deprived of the sanctions of their European social orders. The supposed
purpose of the colonizers' traveling into Africa was to civilize the natives.
Instead the Europeans took the natives' land away from them by force. They
burned their towns, stole their property, and enslaved them. "Enveloping the
horror of Kurtz is the Congo Free State of Leopold II, totally corrupt though
to all appearances established to last for a long time" (Dorall 309). The
conditions described in Heart of Darkness reflect the horror of Kurtz's words:
the chain gangs, the grove of death, the payment in brass rods, the cannibalism
and the human skulls on the fence posts.
Africans bound with thongs that contracted in the rain and cut to
the bone, had their swollen hands beaten with rifle butts until they
fell off. Chained slaves were forced to drink the white man's
defecation, hands and feet were chopped off for their rings, men
were lined up behind each other and shot with one cartridge,
wounded prisoners were eaten by maggots till they died and were then
thrown to starving dogs or devoured by cannibal tribes (Meyers 100).
The colonizers enslaved the natives to do their biding; the cruelty practiced on
the black workers were of the white man's mad and greedy rush for ivory. "The
unredeemable horror in the tale is the duplicity, cruelty, and venality of
Europeans officialdom" (Levenson 401).
Civilization is only preserved by maintaining illusions. Juliet
Mclauchlan, author of "The Value and Significance of Heart of Darkness," stated
that every colonizer in Africa is to blame for the horror which took place
Kurtz's moral judgment applies supremely to his own soul, but his
final insight is all encompassing; looking upon humanity in full
awareness of his own degradation, he projects his debasement, failure,
and hatred universally. Realizing that any human soul may be
fascinated, held irresistible, by what it rightly hates, his stare is
"wide enough to embrace the whole universe," wide and immense....
embracing, condemning, loathing all the universe (Mclauchlan 384).
The darkness of Africa collides with the evils of Europe upon Kurtz's last words.
Kurtz realized that all he had been taught to believe in, to operate from, was
a mass of horror and greed standardized by the colonizers. As you recall in
Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Kurtz painted a painting releasing his knowledge of
the horror and what is to come. A painting of a blindfolded woman carrying a
lighted torch was discussed in the book. The background was dark, and the
effect of the torch light on her face was sinister. The oil painting suggests
the blind and stupid ivory company, fraudulently letting people believe that
besides the ivory they were taking out of the jungle, they were, at the same
time, bringing light and progress to the jungle.
Kurtz, stripped away of his culture by the greed of other Europeans,
stands both literally and figuratively naked. He has lost all restraint in
himself and has lived off the land like an animal. He has been exposed to
desire, yet cannot comprehend it. His horror tells us his mistakes and that of
Europe's. His mistakes of greed for ivory, his mistakes of lust for a mistress
and his mistakes of assault on other villages, were all established when he was
cut off from civilization. When Conrad wrote what Kurtz's last words were to be,
he did not exaggerate or invent the horrors that provided the political and
humanitarian basis for his attack on colonialism.
Conrad's Kurtz mouths his last words, "The horror! The horror!" as a
message to himself and, through Marlow, to the world. However, he did not
really explain the meaning of his words to Marlow before his exit. Through
Marlow's summary and moral reactions, we come to realize the possibilities of
the meaning rather than a definite meaning. "The message means more to Marlow
and the readers than it does to Kurtz," says William M. Hagen, in "Heart of
Darkness and the Process of Apocalypse Now." "The horror" to Kurtz became the
nightmare between Europe and Africa. To Marlow, Kurtz's last words came
through what he saw and experienced along the way into the Inner Station. To
me, Kurtz's horror shadows every human, who has some form of darkness deep
within their heart, waiting to be unleashed. "The horror that has been
perpetrated, the horror that descends as judgment, either in this pitiless and
empty death or in whatever domination there could be to come" (Stewart 366).
Once the horror was unleashed, there was no way of again restraining it.
Dorall, E. N. [Conrad and Coppola: Different Centres of Darkness.] Heart of
Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton
Critical 1988. 306, 309.
LaBrasca, Robert. [Two Visions of "The Horror!".] Heart of Darkness. By
Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton Critical 1988.
Levenson, Michael. [The Value of Facts in the Heart of Darkness.] Heart of
Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton
Critical 1988. 401.
McLauchlan, Juliet. [The "Value" and "significance" of Heart of Darkness.]
Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York:
Norton Critical 1988. 384.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991.
Stewart, Garrett. [Lying as Dying in Heart of Darkness.] Heart of Darkness.
By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton Critical
Watt, Ian. [Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness.] Heart of
Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton
Critical 1988. 332.