Death Without Dignity - Contrasting Kurtz's Death to the Events of His Life
It is common for most societies to conduct elaborate burials for their dead. The departed are respected and revered, and treating them otherwise is a grave transgression. Yet Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness marks Kurtz's demise with only a single sentence: "Mistah Kurtz - he dead" (Conrad, 168). This simple pronouncement seems trite when describing a man once respected and feared by so many. No elaborate ceremony or eulogy mark Kurtz's passing - he is simply dumped into the ground without so much as an afterthought. Why should a character that plays such a significant role in the novel receive such irreverent treatment? The answer lies in the persona of Kurtz himself. By examining his former life and regression into savagery, one can understand why the pilgrims took no care in burying Kurtz's body.
Kurtz's ignoble death contrasts with his prior life of respectability and ambition. Marlow recounts that Kurtz's "impatience of comparative poverty" (172) motivated him to join the Company and leave Europe. But Kurtz does not want to simply gather ivory for the rest of his life. He has "vast plans" (172) to rise to the top of society, and works diligently toward that goal. Along the way, he becomes convinced that his efforts are meant to civilize the savage people of Africa, not simply to enrich himself. The idea of being an "emissary of light" (131), and converting the "ignorant millions from their horrid ways" (131) appeals to Kurtz, as he can complete the "noble quest entrusted to [him] by Europe," (139) and build his reputation at home. When Marlow questions the Company's sincerity about civilizing Africa - he can see the Company is actually "run for profit" (131) - he is denounced for not understanding Kurtz's vision. People revere Kurtz as a "prodigy," (139) a "special being" whose wisdom helps to bring "pity, science, and progress," (139) to the unenlightened savages. Unfortunately, Kurtz's drive and ambition help to bring about his downfall. Though Kurtz is a man who "had the faith" (170) in his mission, he could "get himself to believe anything" (170). He writes a pamphlet on the "Suppression of Savage Customs" (170) in the hopes it will garner more respect in Europe. To put his words into practice, Kurtz drives deeper into the heart of Africa to civilize the natives - and collect precious ivory. But while Kurtz is successful, sending back more ivory than any other agent, he has "no restraint" (156) and leaves himself vulnerable to the dark forces within the wilderness and his heart. Like his painting of the blindfolded torchbearer, Kurtz marches into his mission oblivious, naively thinking that his work will be a source of good. But as the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister" (139), so too do Kurtz's efforts push him further from civilization and eventually to a death hardly deserving of his former character.
Kurtz's stay in Africa transforms him into a savage, and he is buried like one as well. In Africa, Kurtz encounters a world where people are not "moored with two good addresses" (154) and have the benefit of a "butcher round the corner" (154). Instead, he encounters a land where "vegetation rioted on the earth" (145) and men are "cut off forever from everything [they] had known" (145). The stark difference between the two worlds fascinates Kurtz, as he mingles among the people who survive in this harsh climate. But the more time Kurtz spends in the wilderness, the more his formal, educated self yields to the primal nature beneath. He fears that the Company will try to take the ivory that he collected at "great personal risk" (171), and resents the idea that they would "claim it as theirs" (171). No longer is Kurtz an ambassador of civilization; he would rather "Exterminate all the brutes!" (156), than convert them from savagery. Such changes are largely because of the environment's affect on Kurtz. Even Marlow notices the slight effects of the wilderness on his soul, as he finds himself identifying the natives' drum beats "with the beating of [his] heart" (165). If a short stay in Africa like Marlow's can elicit such feelings, it is no wonder that Kurtz's prolonged encampment puts him permanently under the "heavy, mute spell of the wilderness" (166). Kurtz becomes so possessed that even when he is physically weak, he crawls "on all fours" (165) towards the drumbeats that awaken the "forgotten and brutal instincts" (166) suppressed by his civilized upbringing. Kurtz embraces these primal urges and pushes his "unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations" (166). He establishes himself as a king, and the natives treat him like a god. But as final act of defiance, Kurtz turns away from civilization and sails back towards the wilderness. When he does so, he rejects the Company and his former life. At this point, Kurtz's reputation is tarnished forever, as the manager believes his "unsound method[s]" (163) have "done more harm than good to the Company" (163). This attitude towards Kurtz explains the pilgrims' decision to bury him without ceremony - they feel that a savage man does not deserve one.
The Kurtz that is buried is not the original Kurtz - the orator and the dreamer - he is simply a shell of a man once known for being "a voice" (167). It is only in his final moments that Kurtz understands how the wilderness has gradually weakened him, physically and psychologically. Kurtz's last words are "no more than a breath," (168) a far cry from the man who "electrified meetings" (170) with his presence. Though Kurtz's body is physically weak, Marlow detects a struggle taking place somewhere in Kurtz's mind. It seems that the original Kurtz - the orator and dreamer - still resides within the "hollow sham," (167) but is not able to reverse what he has done to himself. Marlow is amazed at how Kurtz tries to "hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence" (167) while fighting against the "barren darkness of his heart" (167). Kurtz lists his possessions: "My Intended, my station, my ideas" (167) as accomplishments, but Marlow dismisses these as "utterances of elevated sentiments" that Kurtz uses to justify his actions. But no matter how much Kurtz tries, he cannot recover his soul that is "satiated with primitive emotions" (167). This struggle for control is ultimately a futile one, as Kurtz is defeated, physically and emotionally. When a part of Kurtz finally understands that the battle is useless, he seems to fall into an "impenetrable darkness" (168) where "the sun never shines." Kurtz, the ambitious man who once braved the Congo to civilize savages, is now a broken and defeated man. In the grip of death, Kurtz can no longer hide behind ideals or eloquent words. Instead, he judges that everything he tried to accomplish was simply a lie. Kurtz understands the reality of his situation, that he is in fact "lying in the dark waiting for death" (168). By finally conceding defeat, Kurtz takes his faults at face value. The result is not satisfying though. Kurtz sees in himself a man who once had "immense plans," (166) but let them fall away as he gave into the darkness inside of him. In his final breath, he synthesizes his condemnation of the universe - "The horror! The horror!" (168). Kurtz's final words mark the end of his magnificent presence, leaving only an empty body that is "buried in a muddy hole" (168).
Though Kurtz's life and death impact Marlow, he finds it difficult to reconcile the reality of Kurtz's passing to his Intended, a woman who loved Kurtz deeply. Marlow tries to assure her that Kurtz's end was "in every way worthy of his life" (173), but knows that Kurtz's final burial was anything but such. The Intended, like most Europeans, does not understand how Africa changes men so easily. Marlow notes how she "was out of it completely" (154), living in a "beautiful world" (154) that would not simply accept atrocities like Kurtz decapitating his own followers. In her naiveté, the Intended believes that she was the only thing Kurtz cherished. Yet Marlow understands how Kurtz spoke of the Intended only as a possession, never as a person. It would be impossible to reveal the truth, as she sincerely believes that she "knew him the best" (172). When confronted about the nature of Kurtz's death, Marlow lies for fear that it would be "too dark altogether" (173) for the woman. Rather, Marlow would prefer that the Intended remain oblivious about her beloved than giving her the truth, that "many powers of darkness" (155) claimed Kurtz before he succumbed to death. Though he could choose to tell the Intended how Kurtz actually died, Marlow cannot find it in himself to break the heart of a woman whom he has "infinite pity" (173) for. So Marlow tells the Intended that it was "her name" (173) that Kurtz pronounced at his deathbed, even though Marlow "can't bear a lie" (140). Marlow's decision to lie to the Intended reveals his unwillingness to relive the details of Kurtz's death. To see a man of remarkable talents waste away into nothingness and then buried without concern pains Marlow, so he spares the Intended the burden about knowing the reality of her beloved's end.
Ironically despite Kurtz's unfortunate death, Marlow sees it as a victory. Despite falling to the forces of the wilderness, Kurtz at least took the step many men would never dream of. This final struggle for control, in Marlow's eyes, is even more remarkable as Kurtz fights with only the "wastes of his weary brain" (167) even after most men would stop trying. It is the struggle - the real work a man accomplishes - that Marlow admires, not necessarily the end result. Marlow extols that no matter how futile, a man's struggle is what makes his mark on the universe, not simply eloquent words. Kurtz's overstepped the bounds of civilization and in the end saw his faults revealed before him. Marlow points out that all Kurtz wanted was "justice," (173) a simple understanding from others about his struggle against powers greater than he was. Yet the Company sees Kurtz as a man who became a savage, and buried him as such.
Since this paper was written for a senior year AP course, the quality of the writing is close to that of a college-level paper. This example high school English paper weaves powerful quotes throughout its insightful commentary - the second paragraph on Kurtz' upbringing is especially excellent. The paper also uses an effective conclusion that challenges the reader's perceptions about Kurtz. The essay however does suffer from a broad thesis. It merely promises to examine "his former life and regression into savagery" as a way to understand why his body was buried. If the thesis instead discussed how Kurtz' life would lead to his undoing, it would tie the rest of the essay together.
1,700 words / 6 pages