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Charlie Marlow, a philosophical seaman who travels to the Congo River as a means of escape from the conformity of city life in Europe, is idealistic about the Europeans' role in Africa. He wants to believe and find that there is some good in the white presence in "the dark continent." He identifies with Kurtz long before he meets him. For he believes that this European man truly represents the good of imperialism.
The reality of European imperialism in Africa is total greed and evil. When Marlow arrives in Africa, he finds only senseless destruction and waste, man's inhumanity to his fellow man, and the unblinking rapacious materialism of European imperialism. He distances himself from the Europeans he meets in Africa and is critical about their brutality. Instead, he identifies with Kurtz before he meets him at the end of the novel, believing that this man is a symbol of the idealistic, pure side of imperialism and a hope for humanity.
When the protagonist finally arrives at the Inner Station and finds out that Kurtz appears insane and has stooped, like his fellow Europeans, to a base level of greedy imperialism and senseless brutality, Marlow's idealism and hope is destroyed. Nothing is left but materialism for greed's sake and man's cruelty to his fellow man.
The novel ends in tragedy, as suggested by the title Heart of Darkness, referring primarily to man's inhumanity to man as witnessed in Africa. When Marlow discovers the truth about Kurtz's greed, ambition, and inhumanity, he realizes that there is no vestige of pure motive in the European imperialism in Africa except greed and evil triumph. And yet Marlow cannot fully come to terms with this knowledge because of his strong idealism and belief that there must be goodness in mankind. At the end of the novel it is obvious that he cannot fully accept the truth, and he lies to Kurtz's Intended and lets her believe that Kurtz died with a noble purpose, helping the Africans, and uttering her name as his last words.