Heart of Darkness

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The fiancé of his Intended, and a man of great intellect, talent, and ambition who is warped by his time in the Congo. Kurtz is the embodiment of all that's noble about European civilization, from his talent in the arts to his ambitious goals of "civilizing" and helping the natives of Africa, and can be seen as a symbol of that civilization. But in his time in Africa Kurtz is transformed from a man of moral principles to a monster who makes himself a god among the natives, even going so far as to perform "terrible rites." His transformation proves that for all of his talent, ambition, and moral ideas, he was hollow at the core.

Kurtz Quotes in Heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness quotes below are all either spoken by Kurtz or refer to Kurtz. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Colonialism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of Heart of Darkness published in 1990.
Part 1 Quotes
In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

To support his point on the old darkness of London, Marlow constructs a tale of a Roman citizen who arrived in what is now England. With a language that will later parallel his descriptions of the Congo, Marlow describes the insidious way a new and inhospitable environment will challenge the morality and identity of someone unfamiliar with its domains.

At first the description seems to juxtapose the inner civility of the Roman with the outer “savagery” of the environment: The “forest,” “jungles,” and “wild men” are all figures that must be confronted without any fore-knowledge. And that lack of understanding notably makes them “detestable,” alluding to the deep hatred and fear that can stem from encountering foreign environments. Yet in the second half of the image, Marlow’s position takes a dramatic turn. He observes that the savage “mysteries” also hold a “fascination.” The inner civility of the Roman, he implies, is actually susceptible to and allured by the savagery of the external environment.

Whereas we might assume that the violence in the situation is the result of the Roman simply rejecting the new savage lands, Marlow implies that it comes from a strange combination of hatred and “fascination.” The hypothetical character is pulled in two directions, hoping to leave, but also succumbing to the savagery and thus arriving at a state of intense “hate”—presumably for both himself and for others. These lines clarify the reason Marlow attributes darkness to London, and they also foreshadow the encounter of supposedly civilized Europeans with hostile foreign environments later in the text.

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Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams...no, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow suddenly breaks with his fluid narration to reflect on the process of narration itself. He anxiously wonders whether the listeners aboard the Nellie are following the story and notes that he cannot impart the full gravity of the events he experienced.

Though Marlow begins with a direct and sensible question, asking if the listeners can visualize the character of Kurtz, he soon moves to broader questions on storytelling. These play somewhat fast and loose with visual imagery: One does not, after all, "see" a story, and the boat is now sufficiently dark that the sailors cannot literally see anything before them. On the one hand, Marlow is speaking about the specific conditions of the Congo adventure, which he repeatedly uses the term “dream” to describe—as if they were a fundamentally different reality ordered around rules that the sailors cannot possibly comprehend. But he is also making a general comment on storytelling, in which the complete “life-sensation” of a prior experience of “one’s existence” cannot ever be truly captured in its recounting.

The use of the term “essence” is significant and seems to support the second option. At the novel’s onset, Marlow observed that the essence of a tale was less important than its surface content or effect on the listener. In these lines, the “essence” of a dream is deemed “the incredible,” but it is therefore the exact thing that cannot be conveyed to others. That primal and incredible sensation, Marlow implies, is only ever experienced “alone.” And by equating living and dreaming in that final line, Marlow indicates that this inability to share an essence is a universal conclusion he has arrived at through his travels. Perhaps, then, the meaning of a story lies only in its surface because that is all that listeners can understand.

Part 2 Quotes
It was a distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home—perhaps; setting his face towards the depth of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow conjures this image of Kurtz as he eavesdrops on the General Manager’s conversation with his Uncle. The two trade gossip about how Kurtz may be ill, and offer the evidence that he had planned on leaving the Inner Station before suddenly deciding to return.

Marlow finds himself taken with the poetry of this scene. On one level, it rejects the narrative desired by other Europeans seeking their fortune: that is, enter as deeply as possible into the Congo, extract large quantities of ivory, and then rapidly return to civilization. These people would equate headquarters with “relief” from the wilderness and see it as a step back across the sea toward a European home.

But Kurtz seems to be attracted to the “depth of the wilderness,” the same incomprehensible entity for which Marlow is developing both respect and fear. Kurtz turns away, too, from social contact and order, opting for a space described only in the negative terms of “empty” and “desolate.” Instead of valuing the European comrades of his home, he chooses the “paddling savages.” Though the General Manager and his uncle interpret the scene as either an indication of illness or a secret plot, Marlow focuses on the “distinct glimpse” or the poetry of the image. Something in Kurtz’s rejection of civilization appeals to him.

It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow sees this horrifying statement at the end of Kurtz’s treatise “On the Suppression of Savage Customs.” Kurtz, he goes on to explain, had been commissioned to write the report by an International Society of the same name. The majority of the text features grandiose statements on the need for Europeans to civilize natives, but the end radically shifts tone and calls for violent extermination.

The piece of writing shows Kurtz at both his most idealistic and his most brutal. Its simplicity and its attention to “altruistic sentiment” mark it as a prophetic text that could significantly alter colonial attitudes back in Europe. Perhaps the treatise would cause Londoners to adopt less brutal and more benevolent practices in the Congo. Yet after seventeen pages of that “serene sky,” the scrawled postscript demands complete annihilation. The shift implies that Kurtz has lost his noble sentiments—perhaps due to mental illness, perhaps due to an epiphany reached in the Congo—and now has been consumed fully by hate and avarice.

That Marlow observes this change in a piece of writing is revealing, particularly considering his own role as a storyteller. Marlow is attentive to the way language functions as a mask that obscures rather than reveals reality. Though Marlow is at first enraptured by Kurtz’s words—as he has been by the ideal of Kurtz to offer something less hollow than other Europeans—he comes to realize that the treatise is yet another linguistic mask.

"I tell you," he cried, "this man has enlarged my mind."
Related Characters: The Russian Trader (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow meets the Harlequin, a mislaid Russian sailor, as he arrives at the Inner Station. Whereas Marlow has become increasingly disillusioned with Kurtz, the Harlequin is still clearly under his spell and talks extensively about his many merits.

The phrase “enlarged my mind” stresses, in particular, the deified portrayal of Kurtz. He is often presented as a god-like figure, and, indeed, his treatise notes that to best accomplish their colonial goals, the Europeans should appear before the “natives” as gods. The Harlequin’s phrase implies that Kurtz reaches beyond human realms and then transmits that knowledge back to enlarge the minds of others. In this view, his virtuosic writing and speech are not masks, but rather ways to convey saintly messages.

Yet Conrad sets up the Harlequin’s character to seem ridiculous from the start. He sports flamboyant attire and has done only fickle work for a variety of colonial groups. And, having already seen the terrible postscript about exterminating the brutes, the reader is well primed to be skeptical of anyone overly complimentary of Kurtz. The passage does not serve to redeem Kurtz in Marlow’s eyes, but rather to show just how effective his lies have been in manipulating both the Congolese and Europeans.

Part 3 Quotes
There was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. 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 found him out early, and had taken 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.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow’s criticisms of Kurtz grow increasingly direct. Though the two have not actually met in the narrated story, Marlow often makes these retrospective asides in order to frame the events of the tale. His main contention here is a hollowness he perceives in Kurtz, which we know by now is a red flag for Marlow.

Marlow first contrasts the surface of Kurtz’s “magnificent eloquence,” epitomized by his writing, with his internal fortitude, which is “wanting.” At first this might not seem to imply complete hollowness, but rather a “small matter” or tiny flaw. Yet Marlow asserts that the Congo unleashes the terror of that small deficiency. His language implies that the environment plays an evil nurturing role, “whispering” horrible truths that Kurtz takes into “counsel.” Though other Europeans have described the Congo environment as driving colonists mad, these lines claim that the madness is not simply imposed. Rather, the environment allows pre-existing qualities to grow; it fascinates something that already existed inside Kurtz.

Yet Marlow does not use this conclusion to absolve Kurtz of guilt. Rather, he takes it as proof that “he was hollow at the core,” just as vacant as the paper-mâché Brickmaker and as lacking in principle as any other colonialist. The heart of darkness, then, does not seem to be the physical environment at all, but rather the interior truth of man that only fully manifests itself in that certain environment.

"The horror! The horror!"
Related Characters: Kurtz (speaker)
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Kurtz speaks these famous final words to Marlow as their ship slowly returns from the Inner Station. They do not refer to the horror of any particular object or event, but rather are a broad diagnosis of the Congo and of humanity.

This open-ended quality makes the lines difficult to parse. The horror, here, may refer to Kurtz’s failed attempt to instill reason in the Congo and his fall from a prophetic figure to a corpse-like body made of nothing but greed and rhetoric. We could consider the horror, then, to be the environmental factors of the Congo that caused Kurtz to go mad, or perhaps the central horror in humanity that was unleashed in Kurtz by the wilderness. The horror may, alternatively, be the colonial enterprise itself. It presumed to bring Enlightenment to the “natives” but actually led to terror and exploitation.

The lines also have a rhythmic quality formed by the repetition of the same phrase, indicating that even as Kurtz degenerates he still maintains the ability to forge powerful rhetoric. After all, these words stay in the minds of both Marlow and reader—they are the most cited of Conrad’s work—so that even if Kurtz is deemed hollow, the way he conveys that hollowness still carries some value. There may be no answer as to the exact nature of the heart of darkness, but its very broadness makes it deeply compelling.

"Mistah Kurtz—he dead."
Related Characters: The General Manager's servant (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Soon after Marlow hears Kurtz's “The horror! The horror!” the General Manager’s servant notifies him, and by extension the sailors on the Nellie and the reader, that Kurtz has perished.

Instead of actually describing the death, Conrad makes it a pithy phrase. It is especially odd considering Marlow’s tendency to wax poetic on imagery and even on previous morbid scenes. Why has the actual moment of Kurtz’s death been hidden from the reader’s vision? We can make sense of the scene by connecting it to Marlow’s anxieties about rendering stories in all their detail. Instead of trying to give the full emotional weight of Kurtz’s death, Marlow opts to present the lines “The horror! The horror!” as the final image and then avoid the moment itself.

This is also one of the only times that we see a native Congolese speak in the text. This shift is particularly poignant as the character is announcing the death of the person who epitomized the European forces. After all, voice and speaking power hve been repeatedly imbued with a deep significance in the novel. Conrad, then, takes Kurtz’s story out of his own control, showing how at this moment of death his narrative will be ordered by others. It is the Congolese who will describe his death, and the burden will fall on Marlow to preserve his reputation back home.

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. . . . He had summed up—he had judged. "The horror!" He was a remarkable man.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow has by become deeply ill. As he fights to stay alive, he reflects on Kurtz’s last words and concludes that they were braver and more laudable than he originally thought.

By this point, the reader has begun to see Kurtz in a very negative light, but Marlow switches his tone to “affirm” that he “was a remarkable man.” Yet to be remarkable for Marlow is not to have accomplished anything ethical or even impressive, but rather to have vocalized an earnestly held belief. We should note that having “something to say” makes no claim on whether that “something” is good or evil, but simply comments on the conviction of saying it. “Summed up” lauds the phrase’s ability to have encapsulated so many different meanings, while “judged” indicates a shrewd analysis of the content and how it will be received by an audience.

In this way, “The horror! The horror!” must be reevaluated. Marlow, now himself in a situation analogous to Kurtz’s, no longer sees it as hollow, but rather takes its enigmatic quality as a sign of power. Here we see Marlow act based on the role of a storyteller, for he defines the significance of things based on their rhetorical strength: on the way they can convey the terrors of the world to others. Conrad indicates that while the search for substance and for ethical truth may be ultimately lacking in Marlow’s journey, perhaps the language itself can carry an aesthetic truth capable of affecting the listeners.

I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. 'I knew it—I was sure!' . . . She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz's Intended (speaker), Kurtz
Related Symbols: Women
Page Number: 71-72
Explanation and Analysis:

In his story’s final scene, Marlow visits Kurtz's “Intended” (fiance) who asks him to recite Kurtz’s last words. Fearful that admitting they were “The horror! The horror!” would betray Kurtz’s descent into madness, Marlow decides to lie and tell her Kurtz spoke her name. Marlow debates whether the lie makes him ethically complicit in colonialism, or whether it was necessary to preserve the Intended’s illusions.

The certainty with which the Intended responds speaks to how blind and distant Europeans are from the actual events in the Congo. She is entirely convinced by the idealistic image of Kurtz as a bearer of Enlightenment—and of him as a man faithful to her. (Remember that he had a mistress in the Inner Station!) Marlow stresses how ridiculous this certainty is by first quoting and then paraphrasing the lines. “I knew it” becomes “She knew”; “I was sure” becomes “She was sure.” In the distance between first and third person, we see a tone both ironic and despairing.

The Intended's certainty causes Marlow to wonder about the ethics of his lie. Though the stakes of the individual lie may be small, they stand for a larger lie about the avarice and human terror he witnesses on his journey. To swap the Intended’s name for "the horror" is a metaphor for how "civilized" Europeans obscure the horror of the Congo (and of all humanity). So Marlow expects divine retribution for this lie…except nothing of the sort occurs. That this discrepancy causes Marlow to consider the lie “such a trifle,” returns us to the question of scale ever-present in this book. Even if the lie stands for a human heart of darkness, Marlow claims, that lie is still a trifle when compared to the earth and the heavens.

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Kurtz Character Timeline in Heart of Darkness

The timeline below shows where the character Kurtz appears in Heart of Darkness. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
...day the Chief Accountant mentions that further up the river Marlow will probably meet Mr. Kurtz, a station head who sends in as much ivory as all the others put together... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
...to pilot has sunk. Apparently, the General Manager had suddenly decided to try to reach Kurtz at the Inner Station with an inexperienced pilot at the helm of the steamship. The... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
...Manager explains why he took the steamship onto the river before Marlow, its pilot, arrived: Kurtz, the Company's best agent, is sick. The General Manager takes special interest when Marlow mentions... (full context)
Part 3
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Meanwhile, the Russian begs Marlow to take Kurtz away quickly. He tells of his first meeting with Kurtz, in which Kurtz "talked of... (full context)
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Kurtz, the Russian says, is a god to the local tribesman, who adore him. They help... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
The Russian says that Kurtz can't be judged as other men are. He adds that Kurtz "suffered too much. He... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
The Russian mentions that when the native chiefs came to see Kurtz they crawled up to him. This information disgusts Marlow, who comments that in contrast "uncomplicated... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
The Russian can't understand Marlow's scorn at Kurtz's savage actions. He says that the Company abandoned Kurtz, who had such wonderful ideas. (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
The pilgrims come out of the house bearing Kurtz on a stretcher. Marlow describes Kurtz as looking like "an animated image of death carved... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
...African woman paces back and forth. The Russian's comments about her imply that she was Kurtz's mistress. (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Inside the cabin, an argument erupts between Kurtz and the General Manager. Kurtz accuses the General Manager of caring less about Kurtz himself... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
The General Manager exits from the cabin. He tells Marlow that Kurtz is very ill and that Kurtz's "unsound methods" ruined the district for the company. Marlow... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
...the General Manager and his men, and seeing nothing more that he can do for Kurtz. But before departing he tells Marlow that it was Kurtz who ordered the native attack... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
...goes to sleep, but wakes suddenly just after midnight. As he looks around he notices Kurtz has disappeared. On the bank of the river, Marlow finds a trail through the grass... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
The next day the ship departs. Kurtz, in the pilothouse with Marlow, watches the natives and his mistress come to the shore.... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
As they travel swiftly downstream, the General Manager is pleased. After all, soon Kurtz will be dead and the General Manager will be secure in his position without having... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
The steamship soon breaks down, which doesn't surprise Marlow. But Kurtz becomes concerned he won't live to see Europe. He gives Marlow his papers, fearful that... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
...that on his deathbed he could think of nothing to say. That's why he admires Kurtz. The man had something to say: "The horror!" Marlow's describes Kurtz's statement as a moral... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
A representative of the Company comes to get Kurtz's papers from Marlow, who offers him only On the Suppression of Savage Customs (with the... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Kurtz's cousin soon shows up. The cousin, a musician, tells Marlow that Kurtz was himself a... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Soon after, a journalist stops by. He says Kurtz wasn't a great writer, but was a great speaker. He could have been a great... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
At last, Marlow works up the nerve to go to see Kurtz's Intended and give her the last of his letters. When she lets Marlow into her... (full context)
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Marlow, full of pity, does not dispute her claims. Finally, the Intended asks to hear Kurtz's last words. This is the question Marlow's been dreading. He pauses, then tells her that... (full context)