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The most nefarious villains are those who understand the evil they commit but pay no heed. In Heart of Darkness, however, the major villain, Kurtz, is not one of these characters. More than anything, he is depicted as being helpless in the face of a greater force which compels him to act in a depraved manner. He does not choose to act villainously, but nonetheless must do so. He cannot prevail against the nature deep within him, and the nature all around him. In the jungle, there is only the law of the wild. Kurtz’s role as a villain stems from the dark, perverted knowledge of freedom that he gains in the jungle and the subsequent destruction of all boundaries previously imposed by society.
The narrator tells the reader that Kurtz travels to the Congo with the best of intentions. It was his wish to help civilize those whom the Europeans viewed as savages. Though he undoubtedly possessed a racist attitude, he also genuinely wished to help the natives in the Congo. He had been renowned in Europe for his efforts on behalf of the Africans, and the narrator initially described him as being a true humanitarian. The manager tells Marlow, “He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress…. [He is the guide] of the cause entrusted to us by Europe…higher intelligence, wide sympathies, and a singleness of purpose.” Kurtz had left Europe and its comforting confines for the betterment of another people. Towards the end of the story, Marlow himself says, “The original Kurtz had… his sympathies… in the right place. [M]ost appropriately… the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, had entrusted him with… its future guidance.” Kurtz had taken up the “white man’s burden,” and wished only to further and spread civilization – not to be forever lost in a land that would not be tamed.
Once in the jungle, however, Kurtz changes. Freed from the shackles of European society and Western civilization, Kurtz familiarizes himself to the dark truths that the wilderness holds. There is no longer any model of proper behavior to which he must conform – only his personal drives and desires. Marlow says, “[Kurtz] had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land – I mean literally. You can’t understand. How could you? – with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors… delicately stepping between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums – how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammeled feet may take into him by way of solitude – utter solitude without a policeman – by the way of silence – utter silence, where no warning voice… can be heard whispering of public opinion?” Without anything to balance these impetuses, his actions reflect only his raging, untamed liberty. Describing the effect the jungle has upon Kurtz, Marlow says, “The wilderness had patted [Kurtz] on the head, and, behold, it was like… an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and lo! – he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh and sealed his soul to its own by… some devilish initiation.” Kurtz’s sense of morality had been molded by his society, and once free of that society, it was shattered and shaken off. The wildness of the jungle and the knowledge of such unbridled liberty overwhelm Kurtz, transforming him into an utterly different being.
From the moment of his arrival, Kurtz’s behavior becomes increasingly driven by his desires, oblivious to the moral implications of his conduct. Everything that Kurtz wants, he goes after. All his energies are devoted to the fulfillment of his hunger and avarice, without a thought to whether his actions would be viewed as “right” or “wrong.” Marlow describes this, saying, “…Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, there was something wanting in him….The wilderness found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude – and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.” In his new world, his pleasure is the utmost priority. His desires and freedom act as irresistible forces to coerce Kurtz into satisfying his urges, and after a lifetime of restriction, they have a strength that Kurtz could not hope to resist. Marlow also describes to us another object, perhaps the greatest, of Kurtz’s desires – the African woman. He says, “She was savage and superb…. Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow…. She stood there looking at us… like the wilderness itself….” The relationship between Kurtz and the jungle is represented in Kurtz’s lust for the African woman and the draw she holds for him. He has become willing to do whatever it takes to acquire that which he wants, that which he has come to need, so he goes to atrocious extremes to satiate his ever-growing appetite.
Once Kurtz had tasted the sweet fruit of freedom, he could not go back to a society in which such knowledge was forbidden. A wild animal would rather die than be caged and Kurtz was no different. His villainy was not so much a conscious decision as a by-product of the sudden deluge of knowledge to which he was so abruptly exposed. Without his “villainous” actions, however, he would not have become privy to the primal knowledge the jungle possessed. Only through his villainy could Kurtz truly travel to the heart of darkness.
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