Heart of Darkness: Essay Q&A

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1. What is "'The horror! The horror!'"?
Literally, "The horror! The horror!'" are Kurtz's dying words.  They are spoken to Marlow in private as the steamboat makes its return journey to the Central Station.  Of course, the most important question, generally the most frequently asked question related to the novel, concerns what Kurtz means by the statement.  One interpretation is that the horror is a great emptiness, a profound nothingness that lies at the heart of everything. 
Marlow believes that Kurtz's immersion in the wilderness has fundamentally changed him.  Living deep in the Congo, among the "savages" and far from the structured life of society, Kurtz has learned some deep, dark secret about the nature of life.  It is a secret that most people either cannot or will not hear.  We know that, initially at least, Kurtz is neither a bitter man nor a misanthrope.  His report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs begins on a very humanitarian note.  He has altruistic motives and great hopes for the company's work; he believes that "Each station should be like a beacon on the road toward better things, a center for trade of course but also for humanising, improving, instructing." In essence, Europeans coming to the Congo can have a positive impact on the region and its inhabitants.  We also learn that Kurtz is a cultured man: he writes and recites poetry, he paints, and he is a musician.  In this way, Kurtz is an emissary of Western culture.  He buys into the notion that Europe can help to civilize the Congo.  Yet by the end of the report, after considerable time spent in the wild, Kurtz concludes that Europeans must "'Exterminate all the brutes!'" 
What brings about this tremendous change?  Marlow suggests that Kurtz's time in the wild released a much more primitive, instinctual nature in him, a nature that Marlow suggests resides deep within us all but which "civilized" society helps to keep suppressed.  Over time Kurtz becomes a very powerful figure for the natives.  The story strongly suggests that he has achieved a godlike status among the natives, who care for him, approach him by crawling, fanatically follow him, and even revere him. 
Marlow has a strong desire to relate Kurtz's message; in fact, it seems to be his sole motivation for telling the tale.  However, he recognizes that not everyone is ready to hear Kurtz's message.  The most obvious example of an individual not ready to accept Kurtz's message is his fiancee, his "Intended." At the end of the tale, when she prompts Marlow to reveal Kurtz's last words, Marlow lies, stating that it was her own name.  The truth, Marlow believes, would crush her.  The Manager and the other company men in the Congo also reject Kurtz's message, believing Kurtz to be insane.  By extension, it can be argued that all "civilized" people reject Kurtz's message.  Who does accept it?  Obviously, Marlow accepts it, but so does the Harlequin, a man who admits that Kurtz "enlarged [his] mind." The natives of the Congo, too, accept the message, for they embrace, even worship, Kurtz.  The underlying distinction seems to be this: those who confine themselves to the safety of society's rules and morals reject Kurtz's message.  Society gives them the illusions they need in order to carry on.  But those few who have gone far beyond the constraints of society, those who look deeply inward, draw a different conclusion: there is no real "method" or purpose to life. 
2. Why does Marlow refer to the company men as "pilgrims?"
The standard definition of a "pilgrim" is one who embarks on a journey for some sacred purpose.  When the word is used, many undoubtedly think of the men and women who traveled from England to the New World aboard ships like the Mayflower, individuals embarking on a sacred and very personal mission.  On the surface the Europeans working in the Congo fit this definition.  Organizations like the story's International Society for the Suppression of Savage customs seem to have a vested interest in bringing "civilization" to the region.  Indeed, Marlow's aunt, who has helped to secure his position with the company, is glad that her nephew will be "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways." And men like Kurtz, initially at least, also want to help to improve life for the natives. 
As the story progresses, however, we see that the only real motivation for these "faithless pilgrims," as Marlow calls them, is money.  As Marlow makes clear, the word "ivory" is constantly in the background and the quest for it seems to drive their every action.  Marlow notes that the greatest "desire" among the company men "was to get appointed to a trading post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages." During his march to the Central Station, Marlow encounters an overweight company man, a man ill-suited to the region.  When Marlow asks why he has come to the Congo, the man replies, "To make money, of course," as if there were no other reason.  It is no accident that the large expedition which arrives at the Central Station, led by the Central Station Manager's uncle, is called the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, for the Eldorado is a fabled land of untold gold and riches in South America, sought out by several famous explorers.  The Congo too is a region of untapped wealth.
Of course, this quest for money is the cause of much suffering and even death.  The company doctor notes that most of the men he approves for work in the region never return to his office.  The Manager too complains to his uncle that many of his workers cannot survive the environment.  In fact, the Manager's uncle notes that the Manager's simple ability to stay healthy is his greatest strength.  Even the native inhabitants, who have existed in the region for many years prior to the arrival of the Europeans, suffer from the quest for ivory, as Marlow discovers when he sees a line of native "criminals" and later stumbles upon a large group of native workers who are nearly wasted from their brutal work and the harsh conditions.  Even the company's attempts to improve the natives' lives don't amount to much.  For example, the native workers aboard the steamboat are paid in lengths of copper wire.  But this payment is useless because there are no places for the native workers to trade.  As a result, they go hungry.
Thus, Marlow uses the term "pilgrim" to point out the hypocritical nature of European colonization.  This pilgrimage is anything but sacred; it's about lining pockets with gold.  
3. Several times Marlow speaks of "the nightmare of my choice." What does he mean by this?
Nightmares are the unwelcome form of dreams.  They are frightening manifestations of the subconscious, and they are often best left unspoken.  In Heart of Darkness we see many dreams: Kurtz initially dreams of making the company stations places to bring culture to the natives, most of the company men dream of making fortunes on ivory, and Marlow dreams of great adventures in an uncharted country.  We also see that many of these dreams have a nightmare component. 
Clearly, Kurtz's experience in the Congo has led him to uncover the ultimate nightmare.  He has abandoned the rules and structure of society and has let his baser nature flourish; as a result, he has seen the savagery, brutality, and emptiness that reside within us all.  The Manager lives in his own nightmare as he constantly frets over his position within the company, wondering who may replace him and who has the most influence back in Europe.  Marlow's trip becomes a waking nightmare as he learns that his boat is wrecked, experiences the deplorable conditions forced upon the natives and company workers, watches a man die in front of him, encounters the row of decapitated heads at Kurtz's Inner Station, and eventually hears Kurtz's terrible message. 
As a result of his experience one might expect Marlow to welcome his return to "civilization" with open arms.  Yet after his encounter with Kurtz life in Europe seems somehow nightmarish too.  Like Kurtz, Marlow has been to the heart of darkness; he too has seen the utter emptiness that it at the center of it all.  As a result he now understands that Europe and all that it represents is nothing more than a hollow façade. 
This point of view, however, is not shared by the other men, who haven't pushed  themselves far enough to see the truth of Kurtz's message.  This is the reason Marlow is no longer accepted by them.  It is also the reason Marlow lies to Kurtz's fiancee when she asks him to tell her Kurtz's last words: the truth is simply too much to bear.
4. How does the novel depict the "savages" of the Congo region?
It's clear that to the Europeans the native inhabitants of the Congo are subhuman; they are savages in the basest sense of the word.  Marlow's aunt, who uses her influence to help him gain employment with the company, speaks of "'those ignorant millions'" who need to be saved "'from their horrid ways.'"  During Marlow's stay at the Central Station, a native is beaten for supposedly setting fire to one of the company huts.  His cries elicit no pity from one of the company workers, who remarks: "'What a row the brute makes! [. . .]  Serve him right.  Transgression-punishment-bang!  Pitiless, pitiless.  That's the only way." The man's remarks suggest that the station's agents see the natives as no better than animals.  Even Marlow buys into to this line of thinking, for he likens the native in charge of running the steamboat's boiler to "a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs."
But the novel depicts these "savages" in a far more sympathetic light.  For example, Marlow hires a group of "cannibals" to help run the boat.  Some of them cut wood, one tends the boiler, and one steers the boat.  Early in the journey upriver, the cannibals' main source of food, a hunk of rotting hippopotamus meat, is thrown overboard because of its offensive smell.  Thus, the cannibals are very hungry.  It is true that when the boat is fog-bound and the cannibals hear the loud cries from the forest, they want to capture these other natives so they can eat them.  However, Marlow marvels over the cannibals' tremendous restraint.  He notes that the cannibals outnumber the company men "thirty to five" and he admits that they are strong, powerful men who could easily overwhelm them, yet they don't attempt to harm the company men.  Such restraint is the mark of a civilized man, not an animal.  In addition, the natives demonstrate far more concern for the welfare of Kurtz than do most of his countrymen.  True, they worship him, an act that would be seen as evidence of their uncivilized or backward nature, yet they actively work to ensure his safety. 
In the end, the novel asserts that the Europeans are far more savage than those whom they label as such. 
5. What is the role of women in Heart of Darkness?
For the most part, Heart of Darkness is a tale of men.  The majority of the novel's characters are male, and Marlow's account is related to an all-male audience aboard the Nellie.  Despite these facts, women do play an important role in the tale. 
If the European men in the Congo are the foot soldiers of colonization, the European women are the behind-the-lines generals.  They are the silent strategists.  This point is first revealed when Marlow tries to obtain a position in the Congo.  He attempts to get a job on his own merits and through his own connections, but he strikes out.  The men whose help he enlists do nothing for him.  Marlow comments: "Then-would you believe it-I tried the women.  I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work-to get a job!  Heavens!" There is a certain amount of incredulity and shame in his comment, yet the reality, which each of Marlow's listeners probably knows, though would surely hesitate to admit, is that women are particularly powerful figures in European culture.  Their ability to network and influence the male-dominated business world is revealed in Marlow's aunt's comment: "I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration. . . ." Though Marlow may be ashamed of his actions, he recognizes his aunt's influence and efficiency, telling the others, "I got my appointment-of course; and I got it very quick."
The next women presented are those at the company's main office.  When Marlow arrives at the office, he encounters two women knitting black wool.  They seem to know everything about him and the other men who enter the office and are described by Marlow as "guarding the door of darkness." In a way they offer permission for Marlow to undertake his journey. 
Perhaps serving the opposite role is Kurtz's fiance his "Intended," for it is suggested that she is the reason Kurtz initially traveled to the region.  Marlow learns that their engagement wasn't approved of by her relatives, and it "was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there." Thus, the Congo was a land where Kurtz could prove himself financially.  And perhaps it wasn't a bad deal, for she is completely devoted to him, telling Marlow, "'I believed in him more than any one on earth-more than his own mother, more than-himself.'"
There is, of course, one woman who stands apart from the others: the native woman who emerges from the forest.  She is described by Marlow as "savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent." Though there is no direct evidence to support that she is Kurtz's mistress, it is tempting to view her as such.  Regardless of her physical relationship with Kurtz, she is the opposite of his Intended.  Whereas the Intended is at home, sitting in her house with its "high and ponderous door," the native woman is there, with him, in the lush wilderness.  While his Intended gracefully mourns his absence, the native woman shouts to the heavens and physically moves to ensure Kurtz's safety. 
And so it is true that the bulk of the action in Heart of Darkness is undertaken by men, but without women, the story would not be possible.