In “Heart of Darkness,” only two characters have names: Marlow and Kurtz. While competing theories exist as to why this is, such as the notion that it illustrates the dehumanization of mankind in the Congo, it cannot be refuted that this indeed highlights these two characters and immediately suggests their importance to the novel. In Conrad’s classic, speech and physical description are scarce and tainted by the austerity of the Belgian Congo. Therefore, action is the truest medium to characterize Conrad’s cast. Although we have a vast stream of thought to pull from Marlow, his ideas are complex and fragmented, thus analyzing his character through his own thoughts holds a high risk of misinterpretation. Furthermore, Kurtz is insane and as a result, many of the depictions we receive of him are skewed and do not depict the character that is enshrouded by the Congo’s severe ability to warp the mind.
In order to learn about Marlow, we also must look at several events throughout the text and the characteristics that they reveal. Shortly after being introduced to Marlow, we discover that he is adventurous through his desire to travel to the center of Africa because it’s simply uncharted on both the map and in his mind. This adventurous spirit is complemented by Marlow’s daring nature, which he demonstrates when he ventures back into the deep grass to retrieve Kurtz after he has escaped from his initial capture. Later in “Heart of Darkness,” the reader concludes that Marlow is compassionate because when he enters the Outer Central and witnesses the ruthless emaciation of the African population, he kindly offers a cookie to one of the afflicted. Also, Marlow’s reaction to said emaciation, his astonishment, is a testament to his innocence. During the lull in Marlow’s trip, at the Central Station, the reader learns a lot about Marlow. First, the reader learns that Marlow is patient yet resilient when he must endure several stagnant months in Congo in order to fix his boat. Additionally, at this time of extended solitude, the most intriguing characteristic is revealed about Marlow. We learn that Marlow is curious and susceptible to the ills of the Congo. During this time, Marlow’s increasing fixation with Kurtz depicts his pliability. At the end of the novella, Marlow lies to Kurtz’s wife to portray his protective qualities, which is demonstrated when he throws the helmsman overboard in order to prevent cannibalism. These characteristics, notably Marlow’s compassion, malleability, and innocence, establish Marlow as the protagonist and allow the reader to easily identify and sympathize with him.
Because Kurtz only actively participates in a small segment of the story, his actions are limited, but we can still develop a full character with that which we do witness. Before Kurtz is actively seized in the literature, the impressions he has imparted paint him as a divine creature whose immense ivory output has made him an idol within the Belgian company; even Marlow becomes mesmerized by the man’s allure through these commentaries. While most of the actions, such as the heads on the polls, which surround Kurtz tent, clearly illustrate that he is insane. The insanity is simply a consequence of the exposure to the Congo. However several actions give us a clue into the true identity of Kurtz. For instance, the way in which Kurtz address his fiancé, my intended, indicates that Kurtz was a possessive individual when acclimated to society. Furthermore, Kurtz’s last words, “The Horror! The Horror,” give further insight into Kurtz as a member of society. These words suggest that Kurtz, at one point, thought, like Marlow and the reader, that the Congo was mortifying. It can be elicited that Kurtz was an ambitious, but innocent member of society who was ensnared in the torment of Congo and hideously transformed into a model of greed and evil.