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In Joseph Conrad’s classic novella, Heart of Darkness, the identity of Kurtz is unknown for most of the story. For the majority of the story, Marlow’s image of Kurtz is based solely on hearsay from other Europeans. He is a seemingly extraordinary man who wants to civilize the natives of the area. Once he is finally introduced to Kurtz, Marlow is surprised by his actions. Marlow finds him to be ill, perhaps insane, and not at all as he expected. The accounts given later by those who knew Kurtz all seem to paint a different picture of him, unknown to Marlow. This brings into question the actual identity of Kurtz. The accounts made by those who knew him could be correct or simply constructs of their own delusional minds. As an alternative, perhaps the “darkness” of the Congo changed the very essence of Kurtz while he was working there. There must be a reason for the discrepancies between the legend of Kurtz and the actual man himself.
Kurtz undoubtedly affected different people in different ways. The Russian trader that Marlow meets holds Kurtz in high regard. He says that Kurtz’s grandiose ideas have “enlarged his mind” (Conrad p. 48). When Kurtz later confides in Marlow, his plans to become famous and wealthy seem immature and ludicrous. This could be due to differences in the perception of the trader and Marlow. What one man thinks is genius, another could think is ridiculous. Conrad may be commenting on human perceptions in this case. There are other accounts of Kurtz that also go radically against the image that is shown to the readers.
Conrad reveals little about Kurtz’s character through the action in the book. Instead, his role is a series of images constructed by others. Kurtz’s cousin tells Marlow that Kurtz was a great musician and humanitarian and concludes that he was just an all around genius. The Belgian journalist offers another image of Kurtz. To him, Kurtz was a brilliant politician and leader of men. Everyone seems to have taken something different from Kurtz and he has affected all of their lives differently. Kurtz’s Intended saw him as a loving, devoted, humanitarian and all around guru. She obviously had no idea that he was having an affair with a native woman in Africa. The Intended’s perception of Kurtz is flawed, but is this her fault or did Kurtz project onto her the image of himself he wanted her to see? Marlow even supports the Intended’s fallacious memory of Kurtz by telling her that his dying words were her name. It is not clear why Marlow did this, but perhaps he did this in order to protect the reputation and memory of Kurtz. Whatever the case, it seems that all these people hold different memories of Kurtz. This is either due to differences in perception or else Kurtz was a master at giving people what they wanted or needed to see. It’s interesting that each person thought they knew Kurtz so well. His Intended exclaimed, “I knew him the best” (Conrad p. 73). It appears that perhaps none of them actually knew him. He affected all different people because he represents to each individual what they would like to see in themselves. It is also possible that Kurtz changed while he was working in the Congo.
The nature of the jungle itself must have played a role in changing the mentality of Kurtz. Marlow seemed to lose his sensitivity while on the river. There is no indication that Marlow was an insensitive man, but rather curious and caring. The reason he wanted to go to the Congo is to explore the white areas of the map of Africa. It is surprising, therefore, that when his helmsman gets killed by some natives, he simply brushes him aside. He immediately changes his socks and shoes and instead of lamenting the death, he is upset that he lost a new pair of shoes. Perhaps the darkness of the jungle has a similar affect on all people. Kurtz’s long stay in the jungle was more than enough time for him to lose the senses he may have once had.
Freud’s analysis of the human psyche attempts to explain the mentality of Kurtz. Freud says that the ‘id’ is the part of the unconscious that humans are born with; it serves to control the desires we are born with. The ‘ego’ develops out of the ‘id’ to try to rationalize these innate desires. The ‘superego,’ Freud explains, controls the ‘ego’ and develops through external controls such as social conscience. Therefore, the ‘superego’ of people who grow up in different societies would not be the same because of different external forces that shaped their ‘superego.’ This should account for the vast differences among the natives of the Congo and the Europeans who are trying to “civilize” them. Freud tends to believe that the ‘superego’ is formed by adulthood and cannot be changed. Freud could be wrong. Kurtz has apparently gone crazy out in the “darkness” of Africa. He posts the heads of rebels on spikes outside his office and has somehow, it is not stated how, convinced the native tribes to worship him as if he is a god. This implies he is not living by European standards or abiding by his European bred ‘superego.’ Kurtz’s European ‘superego’ would not have benefited him in the jungle, though. He possibly lost his former ‘superego’ and adapted himself to his new surroundings. Perhaps Kurtz has even completely overcome his ‘superego.’ Freud may or may not agree that this is possible. The darkness in Heart of Darkness could the ‘id’ without the ‘superego’ to control it, therefore letting all innate, animalistic desires surface. (Freud pp. 12-17)
It is difficult to distinguish how Kurtz, who seems so insular and isolated from the rest of society, was able to connect with so many people. Perhaps the reason is due to the fact that he did not really let anyone get to know him truly. He let people see what they wanted to. Those people therefore used what they knew about Kurtz for their own use and developed an image of him that may or may have not been accurate. For the Intended, Kurtz was an object of affection and someone to care for her. For the Russian trader, he was an inspiration. Marlow somewhat found his purpose through his short relationship with Kurtz. He was intrigued by what he heard about Kurtz and that was what helped him get through the oppression of the Congo. Kurtz was an alternative to the emptiness and laziness of the other Europeans that Marlow met. Kurtz got his job done. He found more ivory than every other manager combined. He was open about his methods also: he took ivory from others by force. He used suppression and extermination to get what he wanted and he had no qualms about admitting it. Kurtz was open about his tactics, but this is what he needed the natives in the area to see in order for them to fear him. Kurtz did not get ivory by being nice to people. This is just another example of Kurtz redefining himself to fit an image that is useful to him or to others.
Kurtz played a significant role in Marlow’s life despite the fact that he barely knew him. Marlow ponders the idea that he has no role in the world. After Kurtz’s death, he is trusted with the role of carrying on his ideas and legacy. However, Marlow realizes that if he died, he would have nothing to say. Kurtz, on the other hand, “had something to say. He said it” (Conrad p. 70). By continuing Kurtz’s legacy, however, Marlow has found a purpose. His purpose is to tell the story about Kurtz to those who will appreciate it. Kurtz therefore gave Marlow’s life purpose, and in doing so has affected yet another person.
The fact that Kurtz appears to have so many different traits throughout the story brings into question his true persona. Who was Kurtz? He could be one of a number of different characters and it is almost impossible to distinguish in which environments he was being true to his nature. Perhaps he went crazy while in the jungle and replaced his European designed ‘superego’ with one that would profit him better in the Congo. Kurtz may have had the power to exude different aspects of his personality to different people. In a sense, he was able to show people the part of his personality that they wanted to see. The story is unclear and reveals little about Kurtz other than through stories told by people who supposedly knew him. Conrad seems to be making a point about the nature of societies and human interactions: that we may never truly be able to know someone else.
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