Kurtzs Last Words
In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad presents the character of Kurtz as a man who is seen differently by all who know him depending on their individual experiences with him. His cousin knew him as a man with great musical talent, others knew him as a great leader, and his "Intended" fiance knew him as an admirable humanitarian; but all of these knew him to be a remarkable genius. When the narrator, Marlow, first hears of him, he is told that Kurtz is known as a great leader destined to hold high positions and fame. However, as he travels the river, he also learns that Kurtz has become insane during his time in the African jungle. After Marlow finally comes into contact with him, he discovers that Kurtz has become a god among the natives and has been brutally collecting the coveted ivory. Marlow finally convinces the deathly ill man to return to the ship where he finally dies. Upon his death, Kurtz's facial expression causes Marlow to feel as though he may be seeing his entire life passing just before it ends; and finally, he murmurs his final words "The horror! The horror!" (Conrad, p. 64).
Although these last words seem full of meaning, they can be interpreted as being so vague that they are devoid of any specific rationalization. In spite of this, they have several explanations, mainly relating to his life and the choices he made. As Kurtz succinctly verbalizes the terrible visions "of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair" (p. 64), Marlow wonders if he is witnessing the events of his life. Perhaps Kurtz is recognizing the results of the choices he made and the evil inside of himself that he unleashed upon other people through dreadful acts. When he came to Africa, he was an admired leader with a fiance and a promising future; but his own power led to his downfall. Despite his high intelligence, his ability to do literally whatever he wished without answering to any higher power aside from his own desires was too much for him to endure sanely. Through Kurtz's demise, Conrad describes the ridiculousness of one person's rule over others because all people have weaknesses and faults that they cannot overcome when tempted. The absolute power of one individual is too much responsibility and will ultimately corrupt any person, leading them to believe that he or she truly possesses divine power which is true madness. At that point, one is unable to freely make moral decisions because, as demonstrated by Kurtz's own experience, selfishness has taken over.
Kurtz's madness, although made clear early in the novel, is barely recognizable among the horrors of the men of the Company who completely dehumanize the Africans and treat them like animals or even worse in some cases. The difference is found in the fact that the Company tries to downplay their brutality while Kurtz is completely honest about his suppression of the natives, whom he refers to as "brutes," and his desire to eradicate them. In his final days, he reveals to Marlow the plans for his life that include fame and the expansion of his power and reputation. His wickedness does not haunt him until his final hour; however, when he is horrified by the evil took control of his life in Africa and ultimately ruined him. Marlow, who nearly dies of an illness himself, is fascinated that Kurtz was able to put his final feelings into words, despite their vagueness. Although Marlow survives and will be carried back to civilization by the river's current, Kurtz and the darkness of the African interior have permanently marked him. He will always ponder the man who was Kurtz, his legacy, and his ability to put his last thoughts into poetic, yet mysterious final words.