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Conrad has created a complex narrator in Marlow, a man who is not all good or all bad. He travels to Africa with a vague belief of the goodness behind the imperialist venture, but what he finds is totally opposite. He despises the destruction, greed, chaos, and inhumanity that he sees in Africa and begins to identify, through sympathy, with the "savage" natives, but he refuses to do anything to help them. He cannot rise above his European thinking that somehow the white man is superior and returns from the Congo to Belgium and does nothing except to perpetrate the myth of the goodness behind European imperialism when he lies to Kurtz's intended. At least the lies have a pure motive, for they save the distraught fiancé.
As a person, Marlow is a thirty-two year old seaman who has traveled extensively. His experience on the Congo River is a departure for him, for his travels are usually in salt waters. As a narrator, Marlow is unreliable in the sense that he is not an objective teller of the story, but is instead emotionally conflicted about the events and people within his tale. He is also a figure who is alienated from the mainstream. Unlike most Europeans who bought into the justifications for imperialism and saw it as a righteous cause, Marlow saw that it was nothing but greed. However, Marlow's ability to distance himself from the dominant thinking of the time does not fully free him from that kind of thinking. In the end, he accepts the injustice of imperialism by supporting the lies, which justify it.
Conrad has created the character of Kurtz out of all the contradictions and madness of imperialism. Like Marlow, he is of European descent and is described as half-French and half- English. He is also described as a universal genius that is a great writer, painter, poet, orator, musician, and politician. Also like Marlow, Kurtz comes to Africa with noble intentions of doing good things for the dark continent. He believes that each station of the ivory company, for which he is an agent, should help the natives to a better way of life, but good (the light truth) and evil (the dark truth) split Kurtz's soul. Unfortunately, in the end he crosses over to live totally by the dark truth.
On the level of words, Kurtz expounds on the ideals of altruism, progress, enlightenment, and kindliness in the European presence in Africa. On the level of actions, he ruthlessly kills Africans, steals their natural resources in order to forward his own goals for rising in the company and in the world, and presents himself as a deity to be worshipped by the natives. Marlow says Kurtz is insane mainly for the reason that he embodies this contradiction, but Kurtz has also been horribly neglected the Manager and deprived of food and supplies for months, a situation that would drive any normal man to insanity. Whether Kurtz is actually insane at the time of his death is left open to speculation. Perhaps Marlow names him as insane simply because he has great difficulty dealing with the reality of the man.
Kurtz is a total contradiction of himself and breaks all the rules of human law. The undeniable truth is that Kurtz is a man, who in spite of his genius and lofty idealism is "hollow at the core." He is truly "small" like the meaning of his German name and in spite of his seven-foot stature that is destroyed by the Manager and the reality of life on the dark continent.
In the Manager, Conrad embodies all that he finds repugnant about the kind of character required by capitalism and imperialism. The Manager is interested only in profits, is totally self-interested, is competitive in a petty and vicious way, cares nothing for ideals, but only for the efficiency or soundness of methods for achieving goals. He is the true villain of the novel and is responsible for all the waste, chaos, and cruelty found at each of the three stations along the Congo, for he is in charge of all of them. His archenemy is Kurtz, who he fears will take his position from him. As a result, in total inhumanity, he starves Kurtz to death be withholding the basic necessities to survive in the African wilderness. The Manager is totally hollow to the core in every moral sense and has no redeeming characteristics.
The Frame Narrator
This unnamed narrator only gets a small part in direct speech in the novel. He speaks at the opening few pages of the novel and he describes Marlow and the scene on board the Nellie in the last paragraph of the novel. In the opening, his praise of Sir Frances Drake and other explorers indicate that he is a fairly mainstream thinker in the sense that he has accepted the standard idea that England is the height of civilization and that the value of that civilization is worth the plunder of other lands and peoples. The way Conrad set up the narration--as a tale told after years have passed--indicates that this man has been bothered by Marlow's story and needs to tell it again in order to purge it in some way. By the last paragraph of the novel, when he connects England to "the heart of darkness," he seems to have learned from Marlow's critical view of imperialism.