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Through the first two thirds of Heart of Darkness, our curiosity about Kurtz is raised to such a pitch that we may realize only afterward, in thinking about the novel, that the main character isn't Kurtz at all, but Marlow. We find out less about Kurtz than about his effect on Marlow's life. Heart of Darkness tells the story of Marlow's spiritual journey-a voyage of discovery and self-discovery.
It seems safe to assume that Marlow is Conrad's stand-in. Marlow was born in England, not Poland, and he never gave up sailing to write; but otherwise the differences between the two men aren't striking. And we know that Heart of Darkness, especially in its first half, is heavily autobiographical.
Marlow tends to keep his own counsel: he's always observing and judging, but his politeness covers up the harshness of his judgments and encourages others to speak their minds. The brickmaker and the manager both speak frankly to him because his mask of courtesy hides his contempt for them. (Later, when his experiences have so upset him that he's on the verge of a breakdown, Marlow does speak sarcastically to the manager, and he's never forgiven for it.)
We don't learn much about Marlow's life before the Congo voyage, beyond the simple fact that he is an experienced sailor who has seen the world. But we do get to know Marlow quite well. He is a man of modesty and courage. We know about his modesty from his embarrassment at his aunt's high praises. And we see many examples of his courage, most notably during the attack on the steamer and at Kurtz's escape. At such times Marlow always keeps a cool head; but in telling the story he never emphasizes his own daring or heroism.
Marlow is obviously an excellent sailor, devoted to his work; he enjoys remembering, and making us attentive to, the technical details and difficulties of getting an old steamboat up a shallow river. His fondness for work is at the very base of his system of values. Although you may not like work-nobody does, he admits-it's what keeps you sane, just as it keeps Marlow sane in the jungle. It provides a structure for your life, and if you concentrate on the details of your duties, you won't be tempted by the call of madness, the "darkness" of the unknown that surrounds us.
Marlow is the moral grounding point of the novel, the only white man in the Congo who recognizes the evils of colonialism in Africa. The spectacle of death and enslavement there is overwhelming, so Marlow's responses (as he would probably argue) aren't extraordinarily moral, just normal, the only normal ones we see amid the demented greed of the traders. But Marlow is also the everyman of the novel, the basically decent and intelligent character who stands for all of us. The ugly truths he confronts are truths we all have to face. Marlow learns that he has to acknowledge his own heart of darkness, the call of the primitive in his own nature. (Conrad puts this symbolically when, late in the story, Marlow confuses the pounding of the savage drum with the beating of his own heart.) And this is the lesson he tries to impart to his listeners-and to us.
Almost from the moment Marlow arrives at the Outer Station he starts hearing about Mr. Kurtz-from the accountant, the manager, the brickmaker, and finally from the Russian. And he tells us a lot about Kurtz himself, especially during the long digression that comes just after the attack, a few pages before the end of Chapter II. But Kurtz himself is on the scene for only a few pages, and we learn less about him from observation than we do from what these other characters say about him. In fact, after all the build-up, his appearance may even seem a little disappointing: he never turns out to be as exciting as the "unspeakable rites" we're told he participated in. But Kurtz is more important for what he represents than for what he does-we don't get to see him do much of anything.
Although he isn't the subject of the novel (Marlow's spiritual journey is), you could call him the focus, the catalyst to whom the other characters react. He's more present in his effect on others than in himself. Some characters, such as the Russian and the Intended, are defined almost solely by their relationship to him.
But though he isn't strongly present as a personality, as a symbol he's a figure rich with meaning. Kurtz is a microcosm-a whole in miniature-of the white man's failure in Africa: he goes equipped with the finest technology and the highest philanthropic ideals and ends up injuring (even killing) the Africans and stealing their ivory. He reduces technology to the guns he uses to plunder ivory.
Kurtz also shows us the consequence of inadequate self-knowledge. He journeys to Africa eager to do good, and completely unaware of the dark side of his nature, the side that will respond to the call of the primitive. (It's Marlow who comes to know this side of himself.) Kurtz points up one of the morals of Marlow's tale: if you aren't aware of the darkness within you, you won't know how to fight it if you ever need to.
If Marlow stands for work, Kurtz represents the opposite value, talk. Before meeting him, Marlow can imagine him only talking, not doing; and when Marlow does finally come face-to-face with him, Kurtz is so thin from disease that he seems to be little more than a strong, deep voice. His influence on people (the Russian, the Intended, even the accountant and the brickmaker) comes through his eloquent words. He is, fittingly, a journalist (a profession for which Conrad seems to hold little regard: Marlow is disgusted by the "rot let loose in print" in the Belgian papers). One of his colleagues thinks he would have made a fine radical politician: after all, if he could sway individuals by his words, couldn't he sway masses as well? Conrad was conservative in his own politics; he would have disapproved of Kurtz the demagogue, the radical orator.
Actions, Marlow seems to be saying, can't lie; but words can and do. And Kurtz is associated with lies. After explaining that Kurtz (kurz) is German for short, Marlow tells us: "Well, the name was as true as everything else in his life-and death. He looked at least seven feet long" (Chapter III). Kurtz's ideals turn out to be lies when he drops them to become a devil-god in the jungle. In fact, there is something contaminating in the aura of lies that surrounds him. Thus, as Marlow is drawn to him, he finds himself almost irresistibly lying (to the brickmaker), and he continues lying even after Kurtz's death (to the Intended).
But Kurtz has one quality that even in his degradation places him on a level above most of the other whites Marlow encounters in Africa. That quality is consciousness. Kurtz recognizes the evil of his actions; in fact, as the Russian informs us, he suffers from that knowledge. The other whites in Africa commit acts (the enslavement and massacre of huge numbers of people) that they don't even recognize as wrong. So when Marlow talks about the "choice of nightmares" represented by the manager and Kurtz, he puts his loyalty with Kurtz, who at least isn't petty, though he is brutal. The manager, on the other hand, is a talentless nobody who in his pettiness still brings suffering to others. The depths to which Kurtz sinks is a measure of the heights he could have risen to.