Kurtz’s last words

By the end of the novel, I was still trying to comprehend the full meaning behind Kurtz’s famous last words, “‘The horror! The horror!’” (64). Marlow seems to think that it was a profound thing to say, that “he had summed up” and “he had judged” – but summed up what? Judged what? It seemed vague and merely sounded like the crazy last ramblings of a dying man and I felt that either I was missing something or it was deliberately vague. The ‘horror’ that Kurtz is speaking of is connected to some kind of truth, as Marlow thinks: “[He] had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate” (65). I decided that, for a ‘truth’ to inspire a “commingling of desire and hate,” it must be a profound truth, one that causes the holder of that knowledge satisfaction in possessing that truth. It also must be a disagreeable truth to inspire the ‘hate’ that Marlow speaks about.

Perhaps the ‘truth’ is connected to the title of the novella: Heart of Darkness. The lack of an article (“a” or “the”) in suggests its universality, that all people are capable of immense evil: “All the hearts that beat in the darkness” (65). Whatever this truth may be, the next question is, at what costs is this truth attained? Marlow says that “[Kurtz’s summation/judgment was] an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terror, by abominable satisfactions” (65). For Kurtz, it was death. “But it was a victory!” insists Marlow (65). As for Marlow himself, the cost of glimpsing the heart of darkness is that he will never be a part of civilized society, not completely at least. Africa, Kurtz, the natives and the imperialists’ greed have all left an indelible mark on his mind and soul. Indeed, Kurtz is a symbol of this immortality for long past his death, although Marlow has tried “to surrender personally all that remained of him with me to that oblivion,” he is ultimately unsuccessful (67). The memory of “him on the stretcher, opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind” returns again, along with “the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart—the heart of a conquering darkness” (68). Marlow admits to Kurtz’s far-reaching power in that “his words will remain” (71). Back in the “sepulchral city,” Marlow is disgusted by the “intruders whose knowledge of life was to [him] an irritating pretense” (66). His experiences have ‘enlightened’ him, they have set him apart from those “commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety” (66). This seems to echo Kurtz’s hubris and self-aggrandizement, leading to a deeper parallel between the two men. Perhaps Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz’s “‘the horror! The horror!’” words (and the man himself) is because he had the courage to sum up or judge that which is impossible and ambiguous to name.

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