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CHAPTER III (continued)
As the boat steams swiftly downstream, Kurtz's life is ebbing away. Marlow has the grim double duty of overseeing his dilapidated steamboat and of watching Kurtz die. The trip is especially unpleasant as the loathsome manager is watching the demise of his rival with obvious satisfaction.
As Kurtz's body fades to nothing, his voice remains strong to the last. He doesn't stop talking until he's dead. But his subject matter disappoints Marlow after all the talk he's heard about Kurtz's ideas. Mostly he talks about his dreams of fame and fortune, many of which are "contemptibly childish." His fantasies of wealth and fame don't seem so different from those of the pilgrims or the explorers of the Eldorado Expedition. He doesn't say much that would identify him with the "gang of virtue," though he often repeats the kind of newspaper platitudes Marlow heard in Brussels from his aunt. This is fitting, too, since as it turns out Kurtz was a journalist: "He had been writing for the papers and meant to do so again." (What better occupation could there be for the man of words?) But when the boat breaks down, Marlow has to spend most of his time making repairs instead of listening to Kurtz (again, work versus words)- "unless I had the shakes too bad to stand." Whether his shakes come from the onset of a fever or the start of a mental breakdown isn't quite clear, but we do know he's been deeply upset by his encounter with Kurtz.
Kurtz raves on, never fully aware either of the depths to which he sank at the Inner Station or of his approaching death. "His was an impenetrable darkness." One night it becomes so impenetrable that when Marlow brings in a candle he can't see the light.
At once Kurtz knows that he's about to die. A change comes over his face as if a veil had been torn away, and he has a final vision, a "supreme moment of complete knowledge." Although Marlow doesn't know what it is he sees or suddenly understands, he hears his final words: "The horror! The horror!"
Marlow goes out to the mess room for dinner, but the meal is interrupted by
the manager's young servant, who announces contemptuously, "Mistah
Kurtz-he dead." Considering that only a short time before Kurtz had
been adored as a god, the "tone of scathing contempt" is an
ironic comment on his ineffectuality, his ultimate weakness. The idealist
who dreamed of moving mountains, who "desired to have kings meet
him at railway-stations on his return," doesn't even have the respect
of the servants.
Marlow stays in the mess room to finish his meal, and as usual his behavior shocks the pilgrims who are always piously keeping up appearances. ("However, I did not eat much," he adds dryly.) Conrad certainly means us to interpret his reason in symbolic terms: "There was a lamp in there-light, don't you know-and outside it was so beastly, beastly dark." A lamp may not be much to hold against the universal dark, but it's something.
What is the meaning of Kurtz's final, chilling words? Conrad provides a couple of clues. Marlow says that the heads around the station house "showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts," that there was a deficiency, a lack of something, under all his magnificent eloquence; and he adds, "I think the knowledge came to him at last-only at the very last" (III, 1). Now he tells us that with these words Kurtz "had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth." It seems clear that at least on one level "the horror" refers to the abominable deeds he committed out there in the jungle. The words are a form of revulsion, of repentance, of final, sorrowful knowledge.
But the way these words continue to haunt Marlow (and have continued to haunt readers of Conrad) may lead us to wonder if they don't carry a larger meaning as well. Though there's an element of madness to Kurtz, he's remained lucid enough for us to wonder whether in casting off all restraints in the jungle, he has faced, or found, some dark truth about the cosmos, a truth that horrifies him. Are his words a pronouncement on the universe we all inhabit? The 1890s were an era of pessimism in Victorian England. The ideal of progress had dominated the 19th century; it was widely believed that science would eventually create a perfect world. But by the end of the century it was obvious that the Industrial Revolution, far from creating a perfect world, had only created new forms of misery. Technology could lead to enslavement and death-as it had in Africa. Kurtz symbolizes this failure of technology. After all, he goes to Africa with high and beneficent ideals as an emissary of light" (in the phrase of Marlow's aunt), but the darkness prevails. Kurtz is the hope of the 19th century perverted, the optimism that failed because it failed to acknowledge its own heart of darkness.
Darwin's theory of evolution had also justified a certain optimism. After all, if his theories were correct, then the history of life on our planet was a history of progress. Each form of life was higher than the one it evolved from; there was a constant upward movement. But by the end of the century the Victorians had also recognized the other side of the coin: no matter how high we ascend, we're still bound to the lower forms of life. Marlow says as much when he's feeling the attraction of the savages along the river: "The mind of man is capable of anything-because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future" (II, 2). Thus the possibility of reversion, of atavism, is always there. Kurtz travels to Africa thinking he's the future, and what he finds in himself out there is the dim, dark past. We can read his final words not only as a judgment of his own life, but as a warning against a condition that threatens us all. "The horror" is what he finds in the darkness, and the darkness, he knows, is something that exists in all of us.
But what exactly is the darkness? In general, we can safely say that the darkness represents the opposite of civilization. Near the beginning of the book Marlow observes, "We live in a flicker-may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday" (I, 1). (Compare the opening of Genesis: "And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.") If the light of civilization is only a flicker, then isn't the darkness more powerful, surrounding us in space as well as in time?
The darkness also represents the unknown. Thus Africa, traditionally the Dark Continent, is "a place of darkness" for Marlow (I, 2). We live on a planet surrounded by darkness, and there is a mysterious darkness deep within ourselves. Marlow's point in telling his tale is that we'd better acknowledge that mysterious part of ourselves and learn to live with it-as he did-or it will sneak up on us and overpower us, as it did Kurtz, whose darkness becomes "impenetrable."
But you shouldn't confuse the darkness with simple savagery, which, as Marlow says, is something that has "a right to exist-obviously-in the sunshine" (III, 1). After all, even brute savagery represents a stage in the development of civilization. Marlow even has a grudging admiration, or at least sympathy, for the savages he meets in Africa-they're certainly no worse than the whites.
In fact, Conrad sometimes reverses the traditional associations of light with good and dark with evil. The darkness of the jungle is certainly threatening. But other images of evil and of the unknown are white, for example, the fog that surrounds the steamboat before it's attacked. The city of Brussels, that capital of hypocrisy, is a "whited sepulchre." Above all, the monstrous villains Marlow encounters on his journey come not from the dark race but almost without exception from the white one.
The "heart of darkness" refers both to the jungle ("The
brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness"- III,
Although Marlow recognizes the darkness, and although his tone is generally pessimistic, he doesn't succumb to despair. After all (as we'll see in the pages to follow), Marlow survives his ordeal-barely. Unlike Kurtz, he has the ideals of work and restraint to oppose the call of the jungle. These may not seem like much in the face of a universal darkness (just as the lamp in the mess room seems pretty small against the "beastly dark" outside), but modest as they are, they manage to see him through. Conrad was certainly pessimistic when he opposed the encompassing darkness to the glib ideas of Victorian progress, but there's a big difference between pessimism and despair. The darkness exists, Conrad was saying; acknowledge it and oppose it.