The primary antagonist in Heart of Darkness is Kurtz, whose descent into madness makes him the clearest embodiment of corruption and evil in the novella, and ultimately the character that fully disillusions Marlow in regard to European conquests. Even though Kurtz does not make his brief appearance until late in the story, his specter haunts Marlow long before and long after their encounter. Marlow first hears about Kurtz at the Outer Station, when the accountant explains that Kurtz presides over the most productive ivory station in the interior. Marlow learns more about Kurtz the further he travels. At the Central Station he observes a painting Kurtz made of a blindfolded woman holding a torch in the darkness. Kurtz’s painting clearly endorses the civilizing mission of European imperialism, which seeks to bring European enlightenment to the dark wilderness of Africa. Marlow explains that Kurtz also endorsed imperialism in a pamphlet he wrote at an invitation from the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. However, Marlow’s copy of the pamphlet bears a handwritten postscript: “Exterminate all the brutes!” The sheer violence of this postscript indicates Kurtz’s descent into madness as well as the radicalization of his philosophy.
As a representative of a Belgian colonial enterprise, Kurtz symbolizes a larger, more abstract antagonist: European imperialism. Marlow makes the connection between Kurtz and Europe explicitly when he reveals Kurtz’s parentage: “His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” Here, Marlow refers to more than just Kurtz’s family pedigree. He references the broader social, political, and cultural norms shared throughout Europe, despite national differences. All these norms helped make Kurtz the man he became in the Congo. By extension, the corrosion of Kurtz’s psychology also mirrors the breakdown of the logic behind European imperialism. Kurtz set out with good intentions on behalf of the Company, but ended up consumed by violent desires and greed. The logic of imperialism is plagued by a similar contradiction: supposedly a civilizing mission, yet conducted with savage violence; supposedly an enterprise based on the efficient extraction of resources, yet grossly inefficient and corrupted by greed. In the end, Kurtz fully embodies the moral bankruptcy of Europe as a whole.