1. What is "'The horror!
Literally, "The horror! The
horror!'" are Kurtz's dying words. They are spoken to Marlow in private
as the steamboat makes its return journey to the Central Station. Of
course, the most important question, generally the most frequently asked
question related to the novel, concerns what Kurtz means by the
statement. One interpretation is that the horror is a great emptiness, a
profound nothingness that lies at the heart of everything.
Marlow believes that Kurtz's
immersion in the wilderness has fundamentally changed him. Living deep in
the Congo, among the "savages" and far from the structured life of society,
Kurtz has learned some deep, dark secret about the nature of life. It is
a secret that most people either cannot or will not hear. We know that,
initially at least, Kurtz is neither a bitter man nor a misanthrope. His
report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs
begins on a very humanitarian note. He has altruistic motives and great
hopes for the company's work; he believes that "Each station should be like a
beacon on the road toward better things, a center for trade of course but also
for humanising, improving, instructing." In essence, Europeans coming to
the Congo can have a positive impact on the region and its inhabitants.
We also learn that Kurtz is a cultured man: he writes and recites poetry, he
paints, and he is a musician. In this way, Kurtz is an emissary of
Western culture. He buys into the notion that Europe can help to civilize
the Congo. Yet by the end of the report, after considerable time spent in
the wild, Kurtz concludes that Europeans must "'Exterminate all the
What brings about this
tremendous change? Marlow suggests that Kurtz's time in the wild released
a much more primitive, instinctual nature in him, a nature that Marlow suggests
resides deep within us all but which "civilized" society helps to keep
suppressed. Over time Kurtz becomes a very powerful figure for the
natives. The story strongly suggests that he has achieved a godlike
status among the natives, who care for him, approach him by crawling,
fanatically follow him, and even revere him.
Marlow has a strong desire
to relate Kurtz's message; in fact, it seems to be his sole motivation for
telling the tale. However, he recognizes that not everyone is ready to
hear Kurtz's message. The most obvious example of an individual not ready
to accept Kurtz's message is his fianc´┐Że, his "Intended." At the end of
the tale, when she prompts Marlow to reveal Kurtz's last words, Marlow lies,
stating that it was her own name. The truth, Marlow believes, would crush
her. The Manager and the other company men in the Congo also reject Kurtz's message, believing Kurtz to be insane. By extension, it can be
argued that all "civilized" people reject Kurtz's message. Who does
accept it? Obviously, Marlow accepts it, but so does the Harlequin, a man
who admits that Kurtz "enlarged [his] mind." The natives of the Congo, too, accept the message, for they embrace, even worship, Kurtz. The underlying
distinction seems to be this: those who confine themselves to the safety of
society's rules and morals reject Kurtz's message. Society gives them the
illusions they need in order to carry on. But those few who have gone far
beyond the constraints of society, those who look deeply inward, draw a
different conclusion: there is no real "method" or purpose to life.
2. Why does Marlow refer
to the company men as "pilgrims?"
The standard definition of a
"pilgrim" is one who embarks on a journey for some sacred purpose. When
the word is used, many undoubtedly think of the men and women who traveled from
England to the New World aboard ships like the Mayflower, individuals
embarking on a sacred and very personal mission. On the surface the
Europeans working in the Congo fit this definition. Organizations like
the story's International Society for the Suppression of Savage customs seem to
have a vested interest in bringing "civilization" to the region. Indeed,
Marlow's aunt, who has helped to secure his position with the company, is glad
that her nephew will be "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid
ways." And men like Kurtz, initially at least, also want to help to
improve life for the natives.
As the story progresses,
however, we see that the only real motivation for these "faithless pilgrims,"
as Marlow calls them, is money. As Marlow makes clear, the word "ivory"
is constantly in the background and the quest for it seems to drive their every
action. Marlow notes that the greatest "desire" among the company men
"was to get appointed to a trading post where ivory was to be had, so that they
could earn percentages." During his march to the Central Station, Marlow
encounters an overweight company man, a man ill-suited to the region.
When Marlow asks why he has come to the Congo, the man replies, "To make money,
of course," as if there were no other reason. It is no accident that the
large expedition which arrives at the Central Station, led by the Central
Station Manager's uncle, is called the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, for the
Eldorado is a fabled land of untold gold and riches in South America, sought
out by several famous explorers. The Congo too is a region of untapped
Of course, this quest for
money is the cause of much suffering and even death. The company doctor
notes that most of the men he approves for work in the region never return to
his office. The Manager too complains to his uncle that many of his
workers cannot survive the environment. In fact, the Manager's uncle
notes that the Manager's simple ability to stay healthy is his greatest
strength. Even the native inhabitants, who have existed in the region for
many years prior to the arrival of the Europeans, suffer from the quest for
ivory, as Marlow discovers when he sees a line of native "criminals" and later
stumbles upon a large group of native workers who are nearly wasted from their
brutal work and the harsh conditions. Even the company's attempts to
improve the natives' lives don't amount to much. For example, the native
workers aboard the steamboat are paid in lengths of copper wire. But this
payment is useless because there are no places for the native workers to
trade. As a result, they go hungry.
Thus, Marlow uses the term
"pilgrim" to point out the hypocritical nature of European colonization.
This pilgrimage is anything but sacred; it's about lining pockets with
3. Several times Marlow
speaks of "the nightmare of my choice." What does he mean by this?
Nightmares are the unwelcome
form of dreams. They are frightening manifestations of the subconscious,
and they are often best left unspoken. In Heart of Darkness we see
many dreams: Kurtz initially dreams of making the company stations places to
bring culture to the natives, most of the company men dream of making fortunes
on ivory, and Marlow dreams of great adventures in an uncharted country.
We also see that many of these dreams have a nightmare component.
Clearly, Kurtz's experience
in the Congo has led him to uncover the ultimate nightmare. He has
abandoned the rules and structure of society and has let his baser nature
flourish; as a result, he has seen the savagery, brutality, and emptiness that
reside within us all. The Manager lives in his own nightmare as he
constantly frets over his position within the company, wondering who may
replace him and who has the most influence back in Europe. Marlow's trip
becomes a waking nightmare as he learns that his boat is wrecked, experiences the
deplorable conditions forced upon the natives and company workers, watches a
man die in front of him, encounters the row of decapitated heads at Kurtz's
Inner Station, and eventually hears Kurtz's terrible message.
As a result of his
experience one might expect Marlow to welcome his return to "civilization" with
open arms. Yet after his encounter with Kurtz life in Europe seems
somehow nightmarish too. Like Kurtz, Marlow has been to the heart of
darkness; he too has seen the utter emptiness that it at the center of it
all. As a result he now understands that Europe and all that it
represents is nothing more than a hollow façade.
This point of view, however,
is not shared by the other men, who haven't pushed themselves far enough
to see the truth of Kurtz's message. This is the reason Marlow is no
longer accepted by them. It is also the reason Marlow lies to Kurtz's
fianc´┐Że when she asks him to tell her Kurtz's last words: the truth is simply
too much to bear.
4. How does the novel
depict the "savages" of the Congo region?
It's clear that to the
Europeans the native inhabitants of the Congo are subhuman; they are savages in
the basest sense of the word. Marlow's aunt, who uses her influence to
help him gain employment with the company, speaks of "'those ignorant
millions'" who need to be saved "'from their horrid ways.'" During
Marlow's stay at the Central Station, a native is beaten for supposedly setting
fire to one of the company huts. His cries elicit no pity from one of the
company workers, who remarks: "'What a row the brute makes! [. . .] Serve
him right. Transgression-punishment-bang! Pitiless, pitiless.
That's the only way." The man's remarks suggest that the station's agents
see the natives as no better than animals. Even Marlow buys into to this
line of thinking, for he likens the native in charge of running the steamboat's
boiler to "a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind
But the novel depicts these
"savages" in a far more sympathetic light. For example, Marlow hires a
group of "cannibals" to help run the boat. Some of them cut wood, one
tends the boiler, and one steers the boat. Early in the journey upriver,
the cannibals' main source of food, a hunk of rotting hippopotamus meat, is thrown
overboard because of its offensive smell. Thus, the cannibals are very
hungry. It is true that when the boat is fog-bound and the cannibals hear
the loud cries from the forest, they want to capture these other natives so
they can eat them. However, Marlow marvels over the cannibals' tremendous
restraint. He notes that the cannibals outnumber the company men "thirty
to five" and he admits that they are strong, powerful men who could easily
overwhelm them, yet they don't attempt to harm the company men. Such
restraint is the mark of a civilized man, not an animal. In addition, the
natives demonstrate far more concern for the welfare of Kurtz than do most of
his countrymen. True, they worship him, an act that would be seen as
evidence of their uncivilized or backward nature, yet they actively work to
ensure his safety.
In the end, the novel
asserts that the Europeans are far more savage than those whom they label as
5. What is the role of
women in Heart of Darkness?
For the most part, Heart
of Darkness is a tale of men. The majority of the novel's characters
are male, and Marlow's account is related to an all-male audience aboard the Nellie.
Despite these facts, women do play an important role in the tale.
If the European men in the
Congo are the foot soldiers of colonization, the European women are the
behind-the-lines generals. They are the silent strategists. This
point is first revealed when Marlow tries to obtain a position in the
Congo. He attempts to get a job on his own merits and through his own
connections, but he strikes out. The men whose help he enlists do nothing
for him. Marlow comments: "Then-would you believe it-I tried the
women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work-to get a job!
Heavens!" There is a certain amount of incredulity and shame in his
comment, yet the reality, which each of Marlow's listeners probably knows,
though would surely hesitate to admit, is that women are particularly powerful
figures in European culture. Their ability to network and influence the
male-dominated business world is revealed in Marlow's aunt's comment: "I know
the wife of a very high personage in the Administration. . . ." Though
Marlow may be ashamed of his actions, he recognizes his aunt's influence and
efficiency, telling the others, "I got my appointment-of course; and I got it
The next women presented are
those at the company's main office. When Marlow arrives at the office, he
encounters two women knitting black wool. They seem to know everything
about him and the other men who enter the office and are described by Marlow as
"guarding the door of darkness." In a way they offer permission for
Marlow to undertake his journey.
Perhaps serving the opposite
role is Kurtz's fianc´┐Ż his "Intended," for it is suggested that she is the
reason Kurtz initially traveled to the region. Marlow learns that their
engagement wasn't approved of by her relatives, and it "was his impatience of
comparative poverty that drove him out there." Thus, the Congo was a land
where Kurtz could prove himself financially. And perhaps it wasn't a bad
deal, for she is completely devoted to him, telling Marlow, "'I believed in him
more than any one on earth-more than his own mother, more than-himself.'"
There is, of course, one woman
who stands apart from the others: the native woman who emerges from the
forest. She is described by Marlow as "savage and superb, wild-eyed and
magnificent." Though there is no direct evidence to support that she is
Kurtz's mistress, it is tempting to view her as such. Regardless of her
physical relationship with Kurtz, she is the opposite of his Intended.
Whereas the Intended is at home, sitting in her house with its "high and
ponderous door," the native woman is there, with him, in the lush wilderness.
While his Intended gracefully mourns his absence, the native woman shouts to
the heavens and physically moves to ensure Kurtz's safety.
And so it is true that the
bulk of the action in Heart of Darkness is undertaken by men, but
without women, the story would not be possible.