How Surroundings Affect on Character in Heart of Darkness

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the setting of the Belgian Congo molds Kurtz from a man who had good intentions to a man who forgets those intentions, and almost loses himself, to reveal that human nature is only contained through civilisation.

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The Belgian Congo of Heart of Darkness is a place of opportunity for entrepreneurs. A territory, it is free from moral constraints. The objective is to make money, and a strict philosophy of “the ends justify the means”; is followed. A thin veneer of good appearance is maintained; even when things go wrong, it is attested that “everyone behaved splendidly!” The culture of Europe is only maintained in as much as it is convenient; killing natives is common place in the Congo, not even punished, committed even by pilgrim missionaries was by very definition was supposed to civilize the natives. As long as ivory is acquired, anything goes.

Kurtz is indicated to have started out with intentions of innovating the ivory trade so as not to cause so much harm to the natives. Presumably by befriending them, Kurtz can gain the highest quality ivory from even the worst sources. Marlow, a moral man, admires this being whom he has never met, despite rumors against Kurtz’s character. However, it becomes clear that the noble aspirations of the men have fallen by the wayside. With a diary entry advocating “exterminate all the brutes!”, it becomes evident that Kurtz is no longer the benefactor he tried to be.

Without any rules or guides, morality becomes a mere detail to Kurtz. Viewed as a god, worshipped by the natives, Kurtz’s view of himself changes. The diary entry indicates a stark change in his motives. Kurtz realizes that he can have anything he desires. He has utter authority in his outpost. He has the natives in the palm of his hand. With no civilization to indicate the way in which he should act, he is free to do whatever he wishes with them, whether it be having an affair or having them kill other natives, natives whose shrunken heads line the path to his house. He acts subhuman.

His actions lead to his deterioration; he acts as a wild animal, trying to escape into the heart, the darkness of the forest rather than be with those, namely Marlowe and his crew, who would dictate his actions. The noble Kurtz is lost, until he is confronted with the near proximity of his death.

Kurtz’s last utterances “The horror! The horror!” point to the central theme of the novel: that without civilization and its constraints, the true human nature will emerge; the greed and desire to come out on top, to survive, will appear and the heart of darkness will be revealed. Civilization is the one institution which quarantines human nature, and if the bonds of that institution are removed, nothing else can suppress any evil inclination held within.

However, Conrad also attests that the knowledge of the true human nature can only be gained by proximity to one who has lost it. The Europeans in the bureaucracy may, as the French doctor, recognize the change that occurs in those that collect ivory, but cannot identify it. These people, though, are far removed from the environment; for example, the doctor only examines the fitness of those wishing to journey into the Congo. Though he may measure the hearts of such adventurers as Marlow, he will not examine them when they return. Too, does Kurtz’s fiancé not recognize nor realise the monstrosities committed by her intended. Remembering him as the man with whom she was enamored, she was told only that which she wants to hear; that her love’s dying words were of her, not of the true cry of utter despair, and the torturous realisations his demise wrought. Had Marlow told her the truth, she would not have believed it; living in civilisation, hearing of the things Kurtz had done would have no realisational effect on her. Even more removed from the Congo without civilisation, than the French doctor, she would deny heartily any accounts of her Kurtz indulging in bad behaviour, of her Kurtz not behaving splendidly, as never being in a situation where her ties to civilisation and their ability to restrain her true human nature were tested, she could not concieve the horror of her human nature.

Thus not only does Conrad demonstrate how surroundings where there is no moral constraint of civilisation change characters from normal and civilised to corrupt and greedy monsters, he also explains why only those who have experienced temptation in such a setting can understand and accept the noisome qualities of the heart of darkness that is human nature, whereas those who have never had those boundaries tested cannot even concieve of what the human mind and heart and other faculties are capable of doing.

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How Surroundings Affect On Character in Heart Of Darkness. (2021, Jun 01). Retrieved December 1, 2022 , from

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