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.
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