Perhaps one of the other characters (the brickmaker) summarizes Kurtz best by saying, he is “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else.” It is ironic that the brickmaker says these words because there is more than a touch of (perhaps unintentional) irony here. All these things represent supposedly the best of modern man, but all of these are also the accouterments of the unrelenting ambition of modern society — to conquer and rationalize. Indeed, if we think of modernity as one kind of darkness and the wilderness as another, each in their own way with conquering tendencies, then we can see Kurtz and the natives as two kinds of darknesses meeting. Kurtz conquered the village, which conquered him in a different way in turn.
What was Kurtz in the end? Marlow (Conrad’s mouthpiece) writes: “There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces.” (page 100). How can we explain this passage? He is the best of people, he is the worst of people. In his very lowness, there was nothing higher. Again, we are presented with the instructable.
Kurtz is also, however, a person without a core (other than raw ambition). After all, in the waning pages of the book a colleague of Kurtz says that he would have made a great politician. When asked for which party, his colleague answers, “Any party…he was an extremist.” (page 110). In other words, he would have joined any party, so long as that party offered him the possibility of satiating his ambitions.
The Parts of the Book that Linger and Linger and…
The first hint at dramatic and incongruous contrasts: the boat captain who Marlow is to replace. “Fresleven–that was the fellow’s name, a Dane–thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn’t surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs.” This quote comes early in the book (page 10). It sets up the dramatic contrasts that will occur with major characters later in the book. It’s a great use of a minor character to set the scene for more major events to come.
Depictions of realistic horror. In referring to the conditions of black workers when he arrived: “They were dying slowly–it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now,–nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.” (Page 22). This depiction of the work site stands up against any depiction of modern horror, including depictions in holocaust literature. Later we see the contrast between this death and decay and the well regulated columns of numbers in the accountant’s books, which are, as Conrad puts it, in “apple pie order” (page 24). For the accountant, the groans of the sick people distract his attention and make it difficult for him to finish his work.
Another passage that stuck out to me was the one that described the brickmaker, another peripheral character in the book. “I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe” (page 37). For some reason, I could picture the character even without knowing altogether who Mephistopheles was. You can check out references to Mephistopheles in this wikipedia entry here.
The character Marlow’s frustration at not being able to find rivets to fix his boat. This small detail and the great length it takes up in the book lends credibility to a tale of struggle in an African colony. I can truly see how missing just one or two essential things can drive a person insane. This is the kind of detail that could only have been taken from real life.
To get something done “by hook or by crook” (page 53). This is such a great phrase that I’m surprised people don’t use it anymore. I think I shall use it right now. I’ll get this review written by hook or by crook.
The constant invocation of the rotten hippo meat — like the use of the rivets — is a detail that brings the story to life.
Another Great River
My notes on this book run on and on like a great river (it could be the Congo; it could be the Thames). Surely, the quantity of ideas is something that could be recorded in an accountant’s book (though unfortunately, they are nowhere near worth their weight in ivory). Surely though, this quantity signifies a thing, trite but true: to read a good book once is no good; one must read it again. One must learn to write by reading carefully, as a writer would, reverse engineering it, until it is a thing that you have written again with your own eyes. Only in this way can you allow the darkness of literary genius conquer you.