I first read this slim (118 pages) classic novel(first published in 1899) in May ,2005.I read it again recently in June ,2016.The reason for reading again was that when I tried to remember the remarkable character of Kurtz from this book ,I could not .I found that it was completely erased from my memory . And it was worth it because I realized for the first time how brilliant and great Joseph Conrad was as a novelist. The book is a peep in the interiors of human psyche.It is set during the era of imperialism when the Company with offices located in
controlled the ivory trade and ruled over the natives in Africa. Darkness is real unknown of the jungle as well
as the darkness that hides within the human heart and also pervades the
It is the story of Mr Kurtz, a first class ivory agent in the forests on the banks of
Congo in Africa.
He was an exceptional man in many
ways , of the greatest importance to the Company.” His
soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it
had looked within itself , and
by heavens! I tell you ,it had gone
mad. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith
and no fear , yet struggling blindly with itself.”
But Mr Kurtz had another side of his identity. I quote :” Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts. . . .Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say .I think the knowledge came to him at last-only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early , and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know , things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude –and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating .It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core . . .”
The wilderness helped him to know the darkness inside him , more so because he was hollow at the core. Many exceptional people , what to say about the ordinary folks , are hollow as well as dark inside .Conrad tells us about the nature of evil. How fragile civilized behaviour can be , how sometimes civilizes persons easily slip into brutality. Even persons with excellent motives and apparently unblemished character can fall into evil ways. But Conrad is not sure if this falling into brutal behaviour is because their soul becomes corrupted , or because there is some supernatural source of evil.Quote1:”The belief in supernatural source of evil is not necessary ;men alone are quite capable of every wickedness. Quote2,( which contradicts quote 1) is as follows: ”I saw on the ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power , of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation and surrender during that moment of complete knowledge ?He cried in a whisper at some image , at some vision –he cried out twice , a cry that was no more than a breath :’The horror!The horror!”
The news of the sudden death of Mr Kurtz reaches Marlow through a boy.Suddenly the manager’s boy said in a tone of scathing contempt—“Mistah Kurtz—he dead”.
T S Eliot in his poem the hollow men quotes this line and says: ”Remember us –if at all-not as lost, Violent souls ,but only ,As the hollow men ,The stuffed men”.Joseph Conrad shows a remarkable understanding of life as also of Mr Kurtz. That is why this book is a masterpiece .
“ …. .Destiny .My destiny! Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself –that comes too late –a crop of unextinguishable regrets .I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness ,with nothing underfoot , with nothing around , without spectators, without clamour, without glory , without the great desire of victory , without the great fear of defeat , in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism , without much belief in your own right , and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom , then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.”
“This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man .He had some thing to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself ,I understand better the meaning of his state, 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. He had summed up –he had judged “The horror!”
“ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief, it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth-the strange commingling of desire and hate.”
“ And it was not my own extremity I remember best-a vision of greyness without form filled with physical pain , and a careless contempt for the evanescence of all things-even of this pain itself! No! it is his extremity that I seem to have lived through. True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge , while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps , in that is the whole difference, perhaps all the wisdom , and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible. Perhaps!”
“ I like to think my summing-up would not have been a word of careless contempt. Better his cry-much better. It was an affirmation , a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions .But it was a victory !That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last , and even beyond when a long time after I heard once more , not his own voice , but the echo of his magnificent eloquence thrown to me from a soul as translucently pure as a cliff of crystal.”
At places , Conrad has left the crucial information unstated. For example , between Marlow’s rescue of Kurtz and Kurtz’s death , the two had many significant conversations .But Conrad has not cared to inform us of those conversations.
In a world getting increasingly dominated by multinationals and international organisations , sending their officers in developing countries , we need to realize that every one of us has some darkness in our hearts and every one is susceptible and fallible to corruption and evil. Conrad warns us to protect ourselves from such horrors. Though he said it in 1899 , his words are still relevant today .That is what makes this book a masterpiece .Please do read it , if you have not read it so far.