Summary and Analysis
It is Kurtz's abandoning all previously cherished codes of conduct and morality that strikes Marlow as so fascinating. No longer pretending to be a force of "civilization" (as the Company does), Kurtz has moved beyond the confines of modern morality and ideas about right and wrong. When Marlow says that Kurtz "had kicked himself loose of the earth," he is metaphorically implying that Kurtz broke free from the restraints of the basic morality (a sense of right and wrong) that creates order in the world — but Marlow then qualifies this idea with, "Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces." In other words, Kurtz has not created a new code of conduct or morality — he has dismissed the very idea of morality altogether. This is why Marlow cannot "appeal" to him in the name of country, finance, or even humanity. Like Frankenstein's creature, Kurtz is in the world but not of it.
The Company wants to get rid of Kurtz because he reveals the lie to their methods. He collects more ivory than any other agent because he uses absolute brute force in collecting it and never hides his real intentions behind the kind of philosophy espoused by Marlow's aunt in Part 1. The Company, however, does not want to appear "loose from the earth" like their number-one agent, which is why its representatives (the Manager and the spectacled man who accosts Marlow in Brussels about Kurtz's papers) want to ensure that Europeans never learn the truth about him. Marlow, while not admiring Kurtz's "methods," does appreciate how Kurtz was able to journey into that part of himself that he (and the rest of us) suppress. According to Marlow, Kurtz was a noteworthy man because "he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot." Kurtz is not heroic, but he is more of an adventurer than Marlow ever imagined he could be — instead of voyaging into an unknown continent, he voyaged into the unknown parts of his own soul. For this alone, Marlow feels the need to safeguard Kurtz's reputation, because no one who had not made such a journey into himself could ever possibly understand Kurtz's.
What Kurtz himself thinks of his own actions and "kicking the earth to pieces" is much more difficult to pinpoint; his final words — "The horror! The horror!" — have elicited an enormous amount of critical commentary. Marlow suggests that these words reflect Kurtz's "supreme moment of complete knowledge" — an epiphany in which Kurtz saw exactly what succumbing to his own darkness had done to him. Care should be taken, however, not to read Kurtz's finals words as an apology or deathbed retraction of his life. Heart of Darkness is not a fable, and one of its themes is that the darkness courted by Kurtz is potentially in everyone's heart — not just the one belonging to this "voracious" demagogue. Kurtz may be commenting on the force for which he has given his life, or the fact that he will not live long enough to finish his "great plans." Conrad's deliberately ambiguous choice of Kurtz's dying words allows for a number of interpretations while simultaneously refusing the reader the comfort he or she would feel in reducing Kurtz to neat categories and descriptions. Like Africa, Kurtz is mysterious, and the workings of his heart at his "supreme moment" remain mysterious as well.
Still, the only character remotely aware of what Kurtz did and what drove him is Marlow, which is why, upon his return to Europe, he finds the people there to be "intruders whose knowledge of life" is "an irritating pretence." He finds them "offensive" because of their self-assuredness in their morals and belief in the inherent "rightness" of their civilization — a "rightness" Marlow now scorns because he sees it (like the Company's wish to bring the "light of civilization" into Africa) as a façade. This is why, in the opening pages of his narrative, Marlow speaks of the Romans conquering England, which "has been one of the dark places of the earth." Marlow now understands that empires are not built without the kinds of activities he witnessed in the Congo and that the "civilization" that is held in such esteem is, in a sense, "just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind." While Marlow never wishes to abandon civilization in favor of the path chosen by Kurtz, he can no longer view it with the same enthusiasm and comfort that he did before working for the Company. Kurtz has taught him too much.
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