Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness: Foil 2 key examples

Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—Marlow and Kurtz:

The novella’s protagonist, Charles Marlow, and the man he’s searching for, the Inner Station chief Mr. Kurtz, function as character foils for each other. But the meaning of their similarities and differences changes several times throughout the book. Ultimately, because Marlow sees Kurtz’s success as a reflection of his own aspirations, his search for Kurtz comes to represent his search for purpose in his own life, as well as his quest to find the redeeming idea behind European colonialism in Africa. After other colonial officials tell Marlow about Kurtz, Marlow starts to imagine Kurtz as his ideal role model: a noble, selfless crusader who decides to conquer Africa out of principle rather than his desire for profit. Marlow explains this theory in Part 1 at the very beginning of his story, when he says that the only thing that can justify conquest is the benevolent ideas behind it:

“What redeems [conquest] is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to....”

Later in Part 1, the cynical Brickmaker first tells Marlow about Kurtz. Marlow immediately realizes that Kurtz has exactly the kind of profound ideas that he has been looking for. The Brickmaker explains:

‘He [Kurtz] is a prodigy,’ he said at last. ‘He is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,’ he began to declaim suddenly, ‘for the guidance of the cause intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose.’ ‘Who says that?’ I asked. ‘Lots of them,’ he replied. ‘Some even write that; and so he comes here, a special being, as you ought to know.’ [...] You are of the new gang—the gang of virtue.

Even the ignorant, selfish Brickmaker recognizes that Kurtz and Marlow have come to the Congo for the same reasons. He knows that Marlow’s aunt has helped send them both, as they belong to a new generation of colonizers that he calls “the gang of virtue” (because they are motivated by moral concerns).

Once Marlow recognizes that Kurtz is the precise kind of man that he wants to become, he grows more and more excited to meet him. Virtually all of the other people that Marlow has met in the Congo are there purely for the money and power, so Marlow hopes that Kurtz will offer him a genuine alternative—something that fits their “gang of virtue” title.

But when Marlow does finally meet Kurtz, he’s profoundly disappointed: Kurtz has all but lost his mind. He spends his time murdering native people and stealing their ivory, not converting them to Christianity or spreading European values. He has given up on all of his old ideals—in fact, it’s not clear if he ever really acted on them at all. This is when Conrad draws an important moral distinction between Marlow and Kurtz for the first time, truly making them foils for each other. Namely, Kurtz’s false commitment to his values appears to make Marlow’s genuine commitment stand out by contrast.

Yet, even after Kurtz’s death, Conrad continues to complicate his relationship with Marlow. First, once Marlow leaves the Congo, having accomplished nothing, he starts to suspect that he isn’t really any nobler than Kurtz. Just like Kurtz, he worked for the Company and advanced its interests; while he didn’t spend nearly as long in the Congo or kill any native people himself, in general terms, he clearly did more harm than good to the Congolese. His visit to Kurtz’s Intended in Part 3 confirms his fears, as he cannot bear to tell her Kurtz’s true final words (“The horror! The horror!”). After he lies, he feels terribly guilty for a moment, until he realizes that he will get away with his lie and face no consequences:

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. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether....”

This passage confirms that, in one crucial way, Marlow is just like Kurtz: the Congo corrupted him, leading him to give up his moral principles (in this case, his belief that it’s always wrong to lie).

Conrad adds one more final complication to Marlow’s relationship with Kurtz. When Marlow nearly dies of the same tropical disease that killed Kurtz, he realizes that, unlike Kurtz, he could not think of any final words. And this makes him admire Kurtz, despite his sadism and greed. In Part 3, Marlow explains:

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. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, 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!’

In short, Marlow concludes that Kurtz was courageous merely to recognize and speak out about the horror inherent to the human condition. Indeed, Marlow credits Kurtz with teaching him about that horror—something he may have never recognized on his own. Thus, after considering all of the meaningful differences between himself and Kurtz, Marlow concludes that Kurtz truly was a role model—not because he turned into a vicious, immoral murderer, but rather because he found the courage to tell the truth about it.

Explanation and Analysis—Company Men and Trader:

The Company men and Russian Trader serve as character foils for one another. During his journey up the Congo River, Marlow meets a series of corrupt Company administrators, like the Brickmaker who never makes bricks, the Accountant who complains about having to record enslaved Africans’ deaths, and the General Manager who only got his job because he’s resistant to tropical diseases. These men all represent the greed and thoughtlessness that Conrad sees at the heart of European colonialism. Yet Marlow also meets the Russian Trader, a remarkable man who displays neither of these traits. The contrast between the Company men and Russian Trader thus allows Conrad to distinguish the kind of purposeful, dignified exploration that he thought could genuinely improve the world from the profit-seeking that he thought was ruining it.

Marlow is thoroughly unimpressed with the Accountant, Brickmaker, and General Manager. For instance, when he first meets the General Manager in Part 1, he comments:

“He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. [...] He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. [...] He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? Perhaps because he was never ill... [...] He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all.”

The Manager’s personality couldn’t be further from the inspired, intrepid colonial administrators of legend: he is utterly charmless and boring, and he has no mission beyond profiting for himself. This, in Marlow’s eyes, is where European imperialism goes wrong: its leaders focus on extracting value from colonies so that they can profit in the short term, rather than creating more sustainable economic options for those colonies. And since most colonialism worked this way, to Marlow, most of it was disastrous. But this is also why he starts to form such high hopes for Kurtz. Ironically, it’s not Kurtz but the Russian Trader who ends up fulfilling these hopes. After meeting him in Part 3, Marlow remarks:

I was seduced into something like admiration—like envy. Glamour urged him on, glamour kept him unscathed. He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this bepatched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame.

Unlike the Manager, Brickmaker, and Accountant, who just want the easiest possible route to riches, the Russian actually wants to be in the Congo. He’s motivated by genuine passion, not money or power. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of man that Marlow hopes to become, and that he thinks Kurtz may turn out to be. After all, these secondary characters all ultimately matter to Marlow because they serve as foils to the man at the center of the book: Mr. Kurtz, who combines the Manager’s bottomless greed with the Russian’s passion. While Marlow long hopes that Kurtz will turn out to be the best colonizer of them all, instead, he turns out to be the worst: because he’s so passionate about profit, he’s far more proactive about murdering native people and seizing their ivory. But even though Kurtz and colonialism in general completely let Marlow down at the end of the book, the Russian provides a rare positive role model for him in the Congo.

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Part 3
Explanation and Analysis—Marlow and Kurtz:

The novella’s protagonist, Charles Marlow, and the man he’s searching for, the Inner Station chief Mr. Kurtz, function as character foils for each other. But the meaning of their similarities and differences changes several times throughout the book. Ultimately, because Marlow sees Kurtz’s success as a reflection of his own aspirations, his search for Kurtz comes to represent his search for purpose in his own life, as well as his quest to find the redeeming idea behind European colonialism in Africa. After other colonial officials tell Marlow about Kurtz, Marlow starts to imagine Kurtz as his ideal role model: a noble, selfless crusader who decides to conquer Africa out of principle rather than his desire for profit. Marlow explains this theory in Part 1 at the very beginning of his story, when he says that the only thing that can justify conquest is the benevolent ideas behind it:

“What redeems [conquest] is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to....”

Later in Part 1, the cynical Brickmaker first tells Marlow about Kurtz. Marlow immediately realizes that Kurtz has exactly the kind of profound ideas that he has been looking for. The Brickmaker explains:

‘He [Kurtz] is a prodigy,’ he said at last. ‘He is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,’ he began to declaim suddenly, ‘for the guidance of the cause intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose.’ ‘Who says that?’ I asked. ‘Lots of them,’ he replied. ‘Some even write that; and so he comes here, a special being, as you ought to know.’ [...] You are of the new gang—the gang of virtue.

Even the ignorant, selfish Brickmaker recognizes that Kurtz and Marlow have come to the Congo for the same reasons. He knows that Marlow’s aunt has helped send them both, as they belong to a new generation of colonizers that he calls “the gang of virtue” (because they are motivated by moral concerns).

Once Marlow recognizes that Kurtz is the precise kind of man that he wants to become, he grows more and more excited to meet him. Virtually all of the other people that Marlow has met in the Congo are there purely for the money and power, so Marlow hopes that Kurtz will offer him a genuine alternative—something that fits their “gang of virtue” title.

But when Marlow does finally meet Kurtz, he’s profoundly disappointed: Kurtz has all but lost his mind. He spends his time murdering native people and stealing their ivory, not converting them to Christianity or spreading European values. He has given up on all of his old ideals—in fact, it’s not clear if he ever really acted on them at all. This is when Conrad draws an important moral distinction between Marlow and Kurtz for the first time, truly making them foils for each other. Namely, Kurtz’s false commitment to his values appears to make Marlow’s genuine commitment stand out by contrast.

Yet, even after Kurtz’s death, Conrad continues to complicate his relationship with Marlow. First, once Marlow leaves the Congo, having accomplished nothing, he starts to suspect that he isn’t really any nobler than Kurtz. Just like Kurtz, he worked for the Company and advanced its interests; while he didn’t spend nearly as long in the Congo or kill any native people himself, in general terms, he clearly did more harm than good to the Congolese. His visit to Kurtz’s Intended in Part 3 confirms his fears, as he cannot bear to tell her Kurtz’s true final words (“The horror! The horror!”). After he lies, he feels terribly guilty for a moment, until he realizes that he will get away with his lie and face no consequences:

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. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether....”

This passage confirms that, in one crucial way, Marlow is just like Kurtz: the Congo corrupted him, leading him to give up his moral principles (in this case, his belief that it’s always wrong to lie).

Conrad adds one more final complication to Marlow’s relationship with Kurtz. When Marlow nearly dies of the same tropical disease that killed Kurtz, he realizes that, unlike Kurtz, he could not think of any final words. And this makes him admire Kurtz, despite his sadism and greed. In Part 3, Marlow explains:

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. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, 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!’

In short, Marlow concludes that Kurtz was courageous merely to recognize and speak out about the horror inherent to the human condition. Indeed, Marlow credits Kurtz with teaching him about that horror—something he may have never recognized on his own. Thus, after considering all of the meaningful differences between himself and Kurtz, Marlow concludes that Kurtz truly was a role model—not because he turned into a vicious, immoral murderer, but rather because he found the courage to tell the truth about it.

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Explanation and Analysis—Company Men and Trader:

The Company men and Russian Trader serve as character foils for one another. During his journey up the Congo River, Marlow meets a series of corrupt Company administrators, like the Brickmaker who never makes bricks, the Accountant who complains about having to record enslaved Africans’ deaths, and the General Manager who only got his job because he’s resistant to tropical diseases. These men all represent the greed and thoughtlessness that Conrad sees at the heart of European colonialism. Yet Marlow also meets the Russian Trader, a remarkable man who displays neither of these traits. The contrast between the Company men and Russian Trader thus allows Conrad to distinguish the kind of purposeful, dignified exploration that he thought could genuinely improve the world from the profit-seeking that he thought was ruining it.

Marlow is thoroughly unimpressed with the Accountant, Brickmaker, and General Manager. For instance, when he first meets the General Manager in Part 1, he comments:

“He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. [...] He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. [...] He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? Perhaps because he was never ill... [...] He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all.”

The Manager’s personality couldn’t be further from the inspired, intrepid colonial administrators of legend: he is utterly charmless and boring, and he has no mission beyond profiting for himself. This, in Marlow’s eyes, is where European imperialism goes wrong: its leaders focus on extracting value from colonies so that they can profit in the short term, rather than creating more sustainable economic options for those colonies. And since most colonialism worked this way, to Marlow, most of it was disastrous. But this is also why he starts to form such high hopes for Kurtz. Ironically, it’s not Kurtz but the Russian Trader who ends up fulfilling these hopes. After meeting him in Part 3, Marlow remarks:

I was seduced into something like admiration—like envy. Glamour urged him on, glamour kept him unscathed. He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this bepatched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame.

Unlike the Manager, Brickmaker, and Accountant, who just want the easiest possible route to riches, the Russian actually wants to be in the Congo. He’s motivated by genuine passion, not money or power. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of man that Marlow hopes to become, and that he thinks Kurtz may turn out to be. After all, these secondary characters all ultimately matter to Marlow because they serve as foils to the man at the center of the book: Mr. Kurtz, who combines the Manager’s bottomless greed with the Russian’s passion. While Marlow long hopes that Kurtz will turn out to be the best colonizer of them all, instead, he turns out to be the worst: because he’s so passionate about profit, he’s far more proactive about murdering native people and seizing their ivory. But even though Kurtz and colonialism in general completely let Marlow down at the end of the book, the Russian provides a rare positive role model for him in the Congo.

Unlock with LitCharts A+