The nightmare of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is found in its stark portrayal of madness under the influence of an environment filled with desolation. Its protagonist, Mr. Kurtz, was raised amongst civilized people, adapted virtues that were regarded proper in society during the Victorian era, yet when he travels into the Congo, where these qualities are of no consequence, he abandons them to become wild. To understand how Kurtz fell to this emotional corruptness, a reader must be aware of three main elements that caused his disillusionment: power, greed, and isolation.
When Kurtz was living in England, he was a follower of the island’s ruling party and conducted tasks amongst the supervision of its magistrates. Under these conditions, most of his actions were in abidance to the law, and if he were found conducting himself improperly in society, a harsh punishment could result in the form of fines or imprisonment for activities against the state. With his voyage into the Congo in search of finding a fortune through ivory trade, the lack of ruling parties in these far-flung outposts has an immediate effect on his persona.
He discovers as he travels further into the interior of Africa that lawlessness grows as the watchful eyes of government factions fade away into the nothingness of primeval jungles. Many individuals thrown into an environment where they find unbridled freedom will seek means of overpowering others, and as Mr. Kurtz finds himself the sole member of intelligence amongst a province populated by heathens, he seeks ways to gain rule.
When Marlow arrives to bring Kurtz back to civilization, the ivory trader has become supreme ruler over most of the lands inhabitants and has brainwashed the people into following his whims. As Kurtz’s maniacal boat mate states, “they adored him”277. How he gained power over the natives is expressed through his ruthless treatment of traitors by putting their heads on stakes and his disregard of implementing English customs and well-bred indoctrination into the mindset of his people.
Instead, he encourages savagery for he understands people bred from the wild will only follow those who enforce nature’s unwritten code. He grows so favorable towards his position as ruler over the jungle that when he discovers Marlow is coming to take him back to civilization, a place where he has no control, he tries to stop him, and dispatches natives to massacre all the passengers on the steamer. Marlow survives the onslaught and takes Kurtz away from a place he believes has deranged the man’s mind, but has actually offered him a gift so many people seek in life: control over the masses.
Ivory in an insurmountable supply creates greediness in Kurtz. He is renown amongst the Congo for his expertise in the ivory trade and no one can match his production. Boatloads of the valuable commodity are sent downstream bringing him handsome profits, yet when he has achieved financial success the glamour of wealth becomes false to him. He begins to see his business not through what he can get for his product but in how much he can produce.
Money is not needed in the jungle and Kurtz goes out on hunting expeditions not to earn profits but to possess ivory in massive numbers, for he finds gratification in ownership of these valuable items. Kurtz’s greed is shown through his wanting to kill a Russian friend unless he returned ivory stolen from a personal stock and through his continuous, almost mindless ventures into the jungle for more supply. What purpose does his life serve while being taken up by this melodramatic pursuit of materialistic gain?
If he were working for a goal other than sending ivory downstream to acquire an allotment of unneeded monies, it would behoove me to rethink upon the uselessness of his endeavors. It’s hard not to agree with Marlow when he remarks on Kurtz’s senseless pursuits into the jungle for ivory, “Why he’s mad. ” The jungle, in its loneliness and impenetrability, drive Kurtz to a mental regeneration. He has lived away from England and its cultured people for many years and his separation from society awakens the chained beast within him.
All men come from the primeval and carry from their earliest ancestors a propensity for wildness. How this wildness comes out in obverse behavior, depends on a person’s condition, state of affairs, or environment, and when Kurtz came to Africa all of these factors played against etiquette, so he allowed the jungle to take control of him. The characters in the book regard this abrupt change in Kurtz as madness, but would not a prisoner of any social standing put behind bars for a long period of time suffer a change in their mental makeup?
Kurtz is not driven mad but has formed a closer bond toward his surroundings and through this friendship has survived years of solitude and contact with unpredictable savages. It would be true to surmise he could never survive in England with his current mental instability but the same could be said of a tiger, which could outlive any unarmed lawyer in the wild. When we come to the end of the story, we wonder if Kurtz’s actions and words were not stupid mutterings from a lunatic but held meaning beyond reason.
He utters before his death the powerful words, “The horror! The horror! ” Is this Kurtz’s final cry against life or words of disgust for what he had become in the Congo? The reader can make their own conjectures upon the meaning of these words, but in the story, it is certain through Kurtz’s big plans for life and his universal ideas toward improving the future that he wishes for immortality. Maybe he discovers how useless personal gain, greed, and betterment over others mean in the end when all that invites us is death.