Excerpt: “I was within a hair’s breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness” (65).
When I came across the excerpt while reading the third part of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I found myself re-reading these words over and over and asking myself a few questions. First of all, if I were lying on my deathbed with just enough breath left in me to say a few words, would I have something profound to say? Like Marlow, I must honestly say that in this point in my life I don’t think I’d have a very profound statement to leave to the world. The fact that Kurtz has enough wisdom and life experience to make such a statement just prior to his death is the exact reason that Marlow declares Kurtz a “remarkable man” (63). This assertion is actually quite interesting since Marlow did not find Kurtz so remarkable earlier in his journey. In fact, Marlow does not seem sure what to think of Kurtz until after his death. At first, Marlow comes to think of Kurtz as some kind of legend. Everyone Marlow meets tells him of this extraordinary Kurtz fellow, building up an enormous expectation. Marlow finds himself disappointed, though, when he does finally meet Kurtz. He says, “his covering had fallen off, and his body emerged from it pitiful and appalling as from a winding sheet. I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arms waving” (55). And then, the manager tells Marlow in discretion that “Mr. Kurtz has done more harm than good to the Company” (57), and asks that Marlow guard Kurtz’s reputation. But, when Kurtz dies and Marlow is left with his dying words and all of his personal papers, Marlow feels an immense connection and loyalty to the man. Perhaps this is the reason that Marlow reflects after Kurtz’s death, “And then they nearly buried me” (64).
Another question this excerpt left me asking is what Marlow means when he says he had “peeped over the edge” (65)? When I think of “peeping over the edge,” I imagine looking over the side of a large cliff, seeing the area below, and realizing that just one wrong step could end everything. In this sense, it seems that Marlow is suggesting that Kurtz’s death has showed him what the heart of darkness/living in the New World can do to a man. It seems that the heart of darkness will completely take hold of a person and never let him go. This is why the doctor that measures Marlow’s head at the beginning of the journey explains that those who travel into the heart of darkness never return. Since Marlow has peeped over the edge and seen what the heart of darkness can do to a man, he travels back to England as fast as he can. Although Marlow escapes from the heart of darkness with his life, he remains forever changed and haunted by his journey.