Throughout the novella, Conrad’s characters burnish Kurtz’s reputation using hyperbole—deliberate exaggeration intended to highlight important truths. But while most of these people genuinely believe that Kurtz is an exemplary man, he turns out not to be. Thus, the other characters’ hyperbole shapes Marlow and the reader’s expectations about Kurtz, setting them up for dramatic disappointment at the end of the book—a disappointment that is crucial to the novella’s plot.
Indeed, until the final portion of the novella, Marlow only learns about the legendary Kurtz through others’ hype. It’s often unclear how much of their exaggerated praise is truth and how much is fantasy, so Marlow must always decide how much to believe. For instance, after he first hears about Kurtz from the General Manager at the Central Station, Marlow asks the Brickmaker who Kurtz is. The Brickmaker explains:
‘[Kurtz] is a prodigy [...] He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else. We want, [...] 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 [Marlow] asked. ‘Lots of them,’ he replied. ‘Some even write that; and so he comes here, a special being, as you ought to know.’
Everyone who tells Marlow about Kurtz, from this Brickmaker to the Russian Trader, praises him with the same exaggerated, inspired tone. They don’t merely say that Kurtz is a particularly virtuous man and capable ivory trader—instead, like the Brickmaker in this passage, they view him as a “prodigy” and “special being” who represents the best traits of European colonialism (including its supposed “pity” for native people and remarkable “science and progress”).
The Brickmaker goes on to declare that Kurtz will take over as General Manager within a few years. This gives Marlow very high expectations for his meeting with Kurtz—and sets him up for profound disappointment when Kurtz turns out to be a greedy, homicidal maniac, and not a virtuous “emissary of pity, and science, and progress.” Everyone speaks so fondly of Kurtz that he looks all the more ridiculous when he turns out to be a madman. Thus, Conrad uses hyperbole to set up the novella’s ironic conclusion, in which Kurtz—and European colonialism as a whole—turns out to be a lie.
In fact, this dynamic is already present in the Brickmaker’s quote: shortly after their conversation, Marlow realizes that the Brickmaker is being disingenuous. The Brickmaker and General Manager don’t admire Kurtz—rather, they’re frightened of him, because they view his abilities as a threat to their own power. Thus, in this passage, the Brickmaker is really using hyperbole to tell Marlow what others think of Kurtz. And because Marlow sees the General Manager and Brickmaker as corrupt idiots, their contempt for Kurtz only makes him admire the man even more. Thus, Conrad’s hyperbole achieves its effect through a double negative: the Brickmaker uses hyperbole to point out the qualities he hates about Kurtz (because they make him a threat), and because Marlow hates the Brickmaker, he assumes that Kurtz must be a wonderful man.
This pattern repeats itself up until the very end of the novella, when Kurtz dies a vicious, pathetic death of a mysterious tropical illness and says his famous last words: “The horror! The horror!” At this point, Marlow has realized that Kurtz’s persona was a lie and given up his faith in European colonialism’s supposedly glorious mission to civilize Africans by enslaving them. But back in Europe, far from the ravages of the ivory trade, others still believe in it.
Most notably, Kurtz’s fiancée (or “Intended”) continues to believe that he’s an incredible man. For instance, she calls his death not just a personal loss, but rather a great loss “to the world.” Like the Brickmaker, she uses hyperbole to convey her strong feelings about Kurtz—but this time, Marlow can see through it. Having met Kurtz, he knows that Kurtz’s Intended is wrong about him. Thus, the Intended’s hyperbole has the same effect as the Brickmaker’s: it ultimately backfires and shows the reader not why Kurtz is such a great man, but rather how common beliefs about him turn out to be bald-faced lies. By using hyperbole to show how the people around Kurtz are gullible and dishonest, Conrad shows how corruption and dishonesty lie at the heart of European colonialism in general—and perhaps the human condition as a whole.