Heart of Darkness, a novel written by Joseph Conrad, tells the story of a character named Marlow, who is recalling his journey to Africa down the Congo River to a group of seamen on a boat. The story is being retold by an unknown figure that people refer to as the narrator. Joseph Conrad’s characters are constructed around the ideas that were present in society when the novel was written. Characters such as Kurtz and Marlow are created to be naive and to allows action to be the truest medium to characterize the cast in Conrad’s novel.
Shortly after being introduced to Marlow, we discover that he is adventurous through his desire to travel to the centre of Africa because it’s simply uncharted on both the map and in his mind. He acts as a guide for the reader. This is a very daring nature and it Marlow’s adventurous and daring nature is evident to readers when he ventures to rescue Kurtz after he goes far into the grass to take him back to safety. Marlow is in many ways a traditional hero: perceived to be tough, honest, an independent thinker, and a capable man. He is highly skilled at what he does- work is a distraction for him.
Marlow can be read as an extreme of Kurtz, as they share the same mind set and the beliefs of the company. While visiting the company, Marlow witnesses events that are counted as life changing- he sees the slaves of Africa being mistreated, and sees how life is different for people in Africa due to the lack of jobs and poor treatment. The events Marlow witnesses in the heart of Africa change him from a naive man to a man that becomes open minded and even remotely powerful. Even though Marlow does not die, unlike the men of the company that focus only on the money at hand, but he suffers horribly.
He begins to be almost contaminated by his memories of his journey. Plagued by the death of the man he was eager to meet, a man by the name of Kurtz, Marlow begins to have memories and lies play through his head, and begins lying to people to ensure that they are happy. Later in “Heart of Darkness,” the reader concludes that Marlow is compassionate because when he enters the Outer Central and witnesses the ruthless downfall of the African population, he kindly offers a cookie to one of the afflicted. This action shows Marlow’s emotional side, and his astonishment is a view of his innocence.
During the novel, readers learn that Marlow is patient and readers learn that he is curious as well, fixated on Kurtz, who is all but a voice in Marlow’s head, showing a simple judge of character, allowing readers to see the link between the two characters. Marlow’s characteristics, such as compassion and innocence, enable readers to see that he is just a leading role and allows readers to sympathize with him and what he has been through and witnessed. Kurtz resembles the stereotypical “evil genius’’, for he has all of the knowledge and the power and ability to do well by the people, but chooses to do the polar opposite.
Kurtz is the owner of all of the ivory harvested by the company in Africa, and is described to look like a piece of ivory too; his head like a ball, an ivory ball, with an ivory face. This is showing that Kurtz resembles the ivory he is harvesting. He is significant for his style, eloquence and megalomaniacal scheming. Kurtz is a god like figure to the men of Africa. Described as a supposedly seven foot man, his name means ‘short’ in German. His god-like height is mitigated by his name. This allows readers to think if this whole godliness of Kurtz’s life was false.
Kurtz is not so much a fully realized individual as a series of images constructed by others for their own use. The main image that is given to readers of Kurtz is that of his voice. Marlow begins to describe how he is just a voice, almost as if he is a figment of his imagination, too good to be true. “The man presented himself as a voice,” Marlow says. The voice that is described could very much describe the connections between Marlow and Kurtz. Kurtz is represented as style over substance, whereas in fact, style does not over ride substance, and that Kurtz lacks in substance.
Kurtz gets referred to as being ‘hollow’ by Marlow more than once, and this could be due to Conrad trying to imply that a powerful figure can be lacking in substance and is not ‘worthy of contemplation’. This lack of substance allows Kurtz to function as a choice of nightmares for Marlow, mainly due to his powerful figure and the idea he is just a voice, making Marlow seem insane. Readers could argue that it is Kurtz that is responsible for the suffering that Marlow experiences and this is due to the constant voice in Marlow’s head of this powerful and unknown man.
There are no people in the story that actually know Kurtz personally, not even his own fiance or cousin. There is a double contrast that occurs when Kurtz is described as a great musician by his cousin and a great humanitarian and genius to his fiance, so this positions the reader to feel as if Kurtz had more than one life, so to speak. Through the entire novel, up to and after his death, Kurtz stays with the reader and Marlow, as just a voice perceived by Conrad. For the most part, Heart of Darkness is a tale of men. The majority of the characters are men, and the tale that Marlow tells is recited to an all male audience.
But despite the tale being mainly about men, women do play an important role. The European women in the Congo are almost ‘silent strategists’. When Marlow arrives at the office of the company in Africa, he encounters two women knitting black wool, and seem to know everything about him and the other men in the tale. Marlow describes them as ‘guarding the doors of darkness’, which is symbolic of guarding something to prevent the darkness from entering. These women offer a kind of permission for Marlow to continue his journey. The woman who serves the opposite purpose is Kurtz’ intended, his fiance.
It is suggested that his intended is the reason that Kurtz travelled to the Congo in the first place. As well as his intended, Kurtz has another woman in his life, and as she emerges out of the forest after Kurtz has died, Marlow describes this native woman as being savage and superb, wild eyed and magnificent, stating that she is both horrifying and spectacular. There is no direct evidence that says she is in relations with Kurtz, but the reader is positioned to assume this, as she arrives at the end of his life, as if to tell readers that they were together.
She is the very opposite of his intended. His intended mourns the death of Kurtz at home, whereas this native woman who is assumed to be Kurtz’ mistress is there in the wilderness with him before he dies. Even though the majority of the story is based on men, it would not be possible without women present in it. The characters in Heart of Darkness are constructed through different ways, and by creating such strong messages and symbolism behind the characters, the reader is positioned to view each character differently, and even sympathize with some of them due to the sufferings they have endured.