Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Memorable Moments: Heart of Darkness - 'The horror! The horror!'

Heart of Darkness is so well-known there aren't too many people who know it well.  In other words, it has become such a part of our cultural fabric that people reference it or even quote it but are not familiar with the actual source material.  Without a doubt the most well-known and memorable line from Conrad's unforgettable tale is "The horror! The horror!," which is uttered by the book's mysterious and broken Mr. Kurtz. However, after reading the book, I don't think that immortal line is most memorable because Kurtz uttered it but rather because Charles Marlow does not utter it.

After Marlow returns from the bowels of the jungle that drove Kurtz insane, he continues his obsession with Kurtz by visiting Kurt's fiancée.  She is, of course, distraught and grieving and Marlow attempts to console her.  In a final plea to understand Kurtz's death and the true character of the man she loved, she asks to know the last words that he said.  The reader and Marlow know the last harrowing words—"The horror! The horror!"—groaned by Kurtz.  But how do you further crush the tender soul of a woman who thought so differently about her betrothed than what eventually became a reality?  After some consideration and inner despair, protagonist lies to Kurtz's fiancee and tells her: "The last word he pronounced was—your name."  She is relieved, but the truth has no victory.  But should it?

Heart of Darkness is a book that only deals with bad news.  Conrad's story feels pessimistic and even hopeless.  Those loaded words "The horror! The horror!" express all that's bad about humanity, but the lie about those words told by Marlow are what make the words truly memorable.  Are  we lying to ourselves about ourselves?  And should we?  I’ve pondered such questions before, but for others that haven’t, Heart of Darkness—especially the scene mentioned above—gives a good reason to do so.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Heart of Darkness
Memorable Moments: The Illustrated Man - 'Make a wish! Make a wish!'
Memorable Moments: A Tale of Two Cities - 'It is a far, far better thing'

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