Marlow’s return to Brussels through the conclusion.
Marlow barely survives his illness. Eventually he returns to the “sepulchral city,” Brussels. He resents the people there for their petty self-importance and smug complacency. His aunt nurses him back to health, but his disorder is more emotional than physical. A bespectacled representative of the Company comes to retrieve the packet of papers Kurtz entrusted to Marlow, but Marlow will give him only the pamphlet on the “Suppression of Savage Customs,” with the postscript (the handwritten “Exterminate all the brutes!”) torn off. The man threatens legal action to obtain the rest of the packet’s contents. Another man, calling himself Kurtz’s cousin, appears and takes some letters to the family. The cousin tells him that Kurtz had been a great musician, although he does not elaborate further. Marlow and the cousin ponder Kurtz’s myriad talents and decide that he is best described as a “universal genius.” A journalist colleague of Kurtz’s appears and takes the pamphlet for publication. This man believes Kurtz’s true skills were in popular or extremist politics.
Finally, Marlow is left with only a few letters and a picture of Kurtz’s Intended. Marlow goes to see her without really knowing why. Kurtz’s memory comes flooding back to him as he stands on her doorstep. He finds the Intended still in mourning, though it has been over a year since Kurtz’s death. He gives her the packet, and she asks if he knew Kurtz well. He replies that he knew him as well as it is possible for one man to know another.
His presence fulfills her need for a sympathetic ear, and she continually praises Kurtz. Her sentimentality begins to anger Marlow, but he holds back his annoyance until it gives way to pity. She says she will mourn Kurtz forever, and asks Marlow to repeat his last words to give her something upon which to sustain herself. Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz’s last word was her name. She responds that she was certain that this was the case. Marlow ends his story here, and the narrator looks off into the dark sky, which makes the waterway seem “to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
Marlow’s series of encounters with persons from Kurtz’s former life makes him question the value he places on his memories of Kurtz. Kurtz’s cousin and the journalist both offer a version of Kurtz that seems not to resemble the man Marlow knew. Kurtz, in fact, seems to have been all things to all people—someone who has changed their life and now serves as a kind of symbolic figure presiding over their existence. This makes Marlow’s own experience of Kurtz less unique and thus perhaps less meaningful. The fact that he shares Kurtz with all of these overconfident, self-important people, most of whom will never leave Brussels, causes Kurtz to seem common, and less profound. In reality, Marlow’s stream of visitors do not raise any new issues: in their excessive praise of Kurtz and their own lack of perspective, they resemble the Russian trader, who also took Kurtz as a kind of guru.
Marlow goes to see Kurtz’s Intended in a state of profound uncertainty. He is unsure whether his version of Kurtz has any value either as a reflection of reality or as a philosophical construct. In response to the woman’s simple question as to whether he knew Kurtz well, he can only reply that he knew him “‘as well as it is possible for one man to know another.’” Given what the preceding narrative has shown about the possibilities for “knowing” another person in any meaningful sense, the reader can easily see that Marlow’s reply to Kurtz’s Intended is a qualification, not an affirmation: Marlow barely knows himself. By the end of Marlow’s visit with the woman, the reader is also aware, even if Marlow is not, that the kinds of illusions and untruths which Marlow accuses women of perpetuating are in fact not dissimilar from those fictions men use to understand their own experiences and justify such things as colonialism. Marlow has much more in common with Kurtz’s Intended than he would like to admit.
Kurtz’s Intended, like Marlow’s aunt and Kurtz’s mistress, is a problematic female figure. Marlow praises her for her “mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering,” suggesting that the most valuable traits in a woman are passive. Conrad’s portrayal of the Intended has thus been criticized for having misogynist overtones, and there is some justification for this point of view. She is a repository of conservative ideas about what it means to be white and European, upholding fine-sounding but ultimately useless notions of heroism and romance.
Although both Marlow and the Intended construct idealized versions of Kurtz to make sense out of their respective worlds, in the end, Marlow’s version of Kurtz is upheld as the more profound one. Marlow emphasizes his disgust at the complacency of the people he meets in Brussels in order to validate his own store of worldly experience. Marlow’s narrative implies that his version of Kurtz, as well as his accounts of Africa and imperialism, are inherently better and truer than other people’s because of what he has experienced. This notion is based on traditional ideas of heroism, involving quests and trials in the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, by seeming to legitimize activities like imperialism for their experiential value for white men—in other words, by making it appear that Africa is the key to philosophical truth—the ending of Heart of Darkness introduces a much greater horror than any Marlow has encountered in the Congo. Are the evils of colonialism excusable in the name of “truth” or knowledge, even if they are not justifiable in the name of wealth? This paradox accounts at least partially for the novella’s frame story. Marlow recounts his experiences to his friends because doing so establishes an implicit comparison. The other men aboard the Nellie are the kind of men who benefit economically from imperialism, while Marlow has benefited mainly experientially. While Marlow’s “truth” may be more profound than that of his friends or Kurtz’s Intended, it may not justify the cost of its own acquisition.
It would be good to note the relationship of this text to middle class values, such as the idea of morals or nationalism.
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Nature or the wilderness is also an important motif. I believe the sparknotes team should look into it. It is evident by its consumption of Kurtz, its whispers, and its maternal feelings toward the natives.
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