Heart of Darkness
Analysis of Major Characters
Although Marlow appears in several of Conrad’s other works, it is important not to view him as merely a surrogate for the author. Marlow is a complicated man who anticipates the figures of high modernism while also reflecting his Victorian predecessors. Marlow is in many ways a traditional hero: tough, honest, an independent thinker, a capable man. Yet he is also “broken” or “damaged,” like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock or William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson. The world has defeated him in some fundamental way, and he is weary, skeptical, and cynical. Marlow also mediates between the figure of the intellectual and that of the “working tough.” While he is clearly intelligent, eloquent, and a natural philosopher, he is not saddled with the angst of centuries’ worth of Western thought. At the same time, while he is highly skilled at what he does—he repairs and then ably pilots his own ship—he is no mere manual laborer. Work, for him, is a distraction, a concrete alternative to the posturing and excuse-making of those around him.
Marlow can also be read as an intermediary between the two extremes of Kurtz and the Company. He is moderate enough to allow the reader to identify with him, yet open-minded enough to identify at least partially with either extreme. Thus, he acts as a guide for the reader. Marlow’s intermediary position can be seen in his eventual illness and recovery. Unlike those who truly confront or at least acknowledge Africa and the darkness within themselves, Marlow does not die, but unlike the Company men, who focus only on money and advancement, Marlow suffers horribly. He is thus “contaminated” by his experiences and memories, and, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, destined, as purgation or penance, to repeat his story to all who will listen.
Kurtz, like Marlow, can be situated within a larger tradition. Kurtz resembles the archetypal “evil genius”: the highly gifted but ultimately degenerate individual whose fall is the stuff of legend. Kurtz is related to figures like Faustus, Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick’s Ahab, and Wuthering Heights’s Heathcliff. Like these characters, he is significant both for his style and eloquence and for his grandiose, almost megalomaniacal scheming. In a world of mundanely malicious men and “flabby devils,” attracting enough attention to be worthy of damnation is indeed something. Kurtz can be criticized in the same terms that Heart of Darkness is sometimes criticized: style entirely overrules substance, providing a justification for amorality and evil.
In fact, it can be argued that style does not just override substance but actually masks the fact that Kurtz is utterly lacking in substance. Marlow refers to Kurtz as “hollow” more than once. This could be taken negatively, to mean that Kurtz is not worthy of contemplation. However, it also points to Kurtz’s ability to function as a “choice of nightmares” for Marlow: in his essential emptiness, he becomes a cipher, a site upon which other things can be projected. This emptiness should not be read as benign, however, just as Kurtz’s eloquence should not be allowed to overshadow the malice of his actions. Instead, Kurtz provides Marlow with a set of paradoxes that Marlow can use to evaluate himself and the Company’s men.
Indeed, Kurtz is not so much a fully realized individual as a series of images constructed by others for their own use. As Marlow’s visits with Kurtz’s cousin, the Belgian journalist, and Kurtz’s fiancée demonstrate, there seems to be no true Kurtz. To his cousin, he was a great musician; to the journalist, a brilliant politician and leader of men; to his fiancée, a great humanitarian and genius. All of these contrast with Marlow’s version of the man, and he is left doubting the validity of his memories. Yet Kurtz, through his charisma and larger-than-life plans, remains with Marlow and with the reader.