Mr. Kurtz is a star agent of the Company who works in true ivory country, deep in the interior of Africa. Everyone who knows Kurtz (even his fiancée, who doesn’t know him at all) agrees that he has all the ambition, charisma, and eloquence to achieve greatness. Although he cranks out more ivory than all the stations combined, we have reason to believe he has turned rogue. He has yielded to the implacably hostile nature of the African wilderness and it has caused him to go mad. One thing to keep in mind is that most of the information we learn about Kurtz comes through the grapevine, adding to his mysterious aura.
Kurtz represents a normal – perhaps ambitious – man who falls prey to the dangers of the wilderness. In the dreamlike world of the African interior, he is affected by the eerie silence and the strange, often barbaric (to him) customs of the native Africans. He finds that to thrive, not simply survive, one must approach the Africans as a god. As such, he feels he can lead these "primitive" people to the proverbial light and civilization.
However, his own greed gets in the way of this missionary-like quest. His insatiable hunger for ivory drives him to make alliances and enemies among the native Africans – raiding village after village with the help of his African friends as he searches for ivory. We see that the obsession has really taken over, so much so that Kurtz is described in terms of the very material he seeks: his head "was like a ball – an ivory ball." Again, when he utters his final words, Kurtz carries an "expression of sombre pride" on his "ivory face." These descriptions represent physical changes in Kurtz that are probably the result of his crazed obsession. The jungle, we see, has overtaken him, has "got into his veins, consumed his flesh." Marlow even identifies two separate Kurtzes – one that went into the jungle, and one that came out.
Maybe this is why we are told three times that the problem with Kurtz is that he has "no restraint." So the problem isn’t as simple as "Kurtz goes to jungle; Kurtz becomes like native Africans; Heads on sticks ensue." No, that’s not it at all. Kurtz becomes something else altogether. Whereas the Africans do have a sense of decency and restraint (think of the cannibals who eat rotten hippo meat instead of attacking the pilgrims whom they outnumber five to one), Kurtz has fallen a complete victim to the power of the jungle, has transformed into its "spoiled and pampered favorite." This description fits the bill when Marlow tells us how Kurtz has indeed become a child, infantile in his desires, physicality, selfishness, and brutality. Or as Marlow so beautifully says, the "powers of darkness have claimed him for their own."
Marlow, in his odd fascination with Kurtz, comes to refine his obsession with Kurtz to one particular aspect of the guy: his voice. He’s not excited about seeing Kurtz, or shaking his hand, he says, but only about hearing him talk. "The man presented himself as a voice," Marlow says.
Marlow then breaks the order of the story’s narrative to tell us that, in fact, he does eventually get to talk to Kurtz. He also takes the liberty of revealing that, yes, indeed, Kurtz is little more than a voice.
But the fun part comes when we consider that Marlow, too, sitting on the Nellie and telling his story in the pitch-dark, is explicitly described as "no more than a voice" to the men that listen. In fact, Marlow, like Kurtz, finds wisdom in his own words. When he finds an "appeal" in the "fiendish row" of the Africans dancing on shore, he negates it with the claim, "I have a voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced."
So is this voice business merely another tool to establish connections between Marlow and Kurtz? Maybe. If Marlow’s voice is indeed never silenced, what about Kurtz’s? The guy dies, after all. But are his last words resonant for us? Does Heart of Darkness end on a note of "horror?" You tell us.
The native Africans worship Kurtz like a god, but not without consequences. They know that the white men coming up their river want to take Kurtz back. Potentially, they attack to keep Kurtz with them. We’re not sure whether Kurtz orders the attack or whether the native Africans do it on their own (we get conflicting stories from the harlequin), but if they did launch a thousand or so arrows to keep Kurtz around, there’s some irony here. Kurtz, a god, is also a prisoner to his subjects. He can order mass killings of those who rebel against him, yet he cannot walk away freely.
The irony doesn’t stop there. Kurtz, a man apparently seven feet tall or so (although we figured Marlow was riding the hyperbole train here), has a name that Marlow tells us means "short" in German. So his god-like height is mitigated by his name. This discrepancy, Marlow tells us, reflects the falsity of Kurtz's life and death, which we’re thinking means his life as a god was also false. As for his death? Hmm. We’ll have to think about that one.
Let’s talk about Kurtz’s madness. First of all, is Kurtz mad? We think that jamming a bunch of heads on sticks might qualify, but if that were not enough, Marlow makes sure we know that, although the man’s intelligence is clear, Kurtz’s "soul [is] mad."
But even beyond that, we can see that Kurtz’s madness, a mental deficiency, becomes realized physically. In other words, Kurtz’s sickness is a reflection of his diseased mind. His slow, painful spiral into death is marked by visions and unintelligible ravings. Parts of the narrative recount the emptiness of Kurtz’s soul; this may be a commentary on the debilitating and devastating power of the wilderness to suck all the humanity out of a man. Kurtz’s final words, his judgment on his own life, the Company, or all of mankind (depending on your interpretation), are of condemnation, of pure horror.
So why is it that, despite all this, people still look up to Kurtz – worship him, even? They still see in Kurtz the potential for greatness, in spite of his twisted mind. And it is this charisma and ambition that is Kurtz’s legacy – not the madness and brutality and darkest realizations of human nature that are perhaps more fitting. This could be Conrad’s own condemnation of mankind’s blindness. What do you think?