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Peter Welch
Mr. Wood
Honors English III
19 January 2015
Kurtz As A Tragic Hero
Joesph Conrad's 1899 novel Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow, a ship
captain, and his voyage into Central Africa as part of an ivory trading company. On his journey,
Marlow hears rumors of a man named Kurtz. All accounts tell Marlow that Kurtz is a great and
powerful man. For the vast majority of the novel, Kurtz is unseen. It is only at the end of his
journey when Marlow finally meets Kurtz. Their meeting is short-lived, as Kurtz dies after only
being part of the story for a few days.
If there is one adjective to describe Kurtz, it would be enigmatic. Almost all that is
known of Kurtz is hearsay, and his physical presence in the novel is incredibly short-lived.
Despite this, Kurtz fits the criteria of a tragic hero. Kurtz is a tragic hero because he is fated for
greatness and never reaches his true potential, his downfall is a result of his own decisions and
flaws, and he comes to a moment of realization amidst his collapse.
In an essay on the archetypical tragic hero, Playwright Arthur Miller writes:
As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, I think the
tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is
ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal
dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is
that of the individual attempting to gain his "rightful" position in his society.
(Miller)
In a way, Kurtz fits this criteria. Kurtz's fiance, whom Marlow meets at the end of the novel,
knew Kurtz before he left for Africa. She calls him a man of "promise," "greatness," a "generous
mind," and a "noble heart" (49). Almost everybody else who meets Kurtz corroborates this

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description. Kurtz isn't literally born into a line of kings like Hamlet or given a prophecy that he
will become a king like Macbeth, but Kurtz still posses great potential to be a leader, and
everybody who knows him thinks of him as a leader. Marlow speaks with one of Kurtz's cronies
on his trip:
This visitor informed me Kurtz's proper sphere ought to have
been politics `on the popular side.' [he] confessed his opinion
that Kurtz really couldn't write a bit -- 'but heavens! how that
man could talk. He electrified large meetings. He had faith -don't you see? -- he had the faith. He could get himself to believe
anything -- anything. He would have been a splendid leader of an
extreme party.' `What party?' I asked. `Any party,' answered the
other. `He was an -- an -- extremist.' (46)
Kurtz flirts with power and greatness in his life. When he lives in Africa, he
becomes a powerful leader- a demigod of sorts- to the native people. But,
this is not the position of power for which he was fated. Leading a nearly
subhuman group of burglars from town to town, raping, pillaging, and
murdering is not something a man with a noble heart would do. In his
former life, Kurtz could have pursued politics or another respectable
profession in which his talents of leadership could be used. Instead, Kurtz
wastes his potential on the first power-grab he encounters.
The archetypical hero has flaws, and those flaws are almost invariably
responsible for his downfall. For example, in Oedipus the King nobody can
be blamed for Oedipus's downfall except Oedipus himself. Oedipus's hubris
and ignorance lead to his own destruction. This thinking applies to Kurtz as
well. Like all men, Kurtz is susceptible to corruption and greed. He is
inclined to seize all that is available to him. This comes in the form of both
ivory and supremacy over the native people. The reader sees Kurtz through

the lens of Marlow. Marlow is the only character in the novel who is able to
recognize Kurtz as being corrupt. Marlow speaks on Kurtz's fixation on
physical wealth: You should have heard him say, 'My ivory.' Oh, yes, I heard him. 'My
Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my-' everything belonged to him." (24)
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Kurtz's obsession with wealth and power is also exemplified in his attempted escape from
Marlow's ship. Despite the fact that he is in desparate need of medical attention, Kurtz crawls off
Marlow's ship on all fours to return to his people in the jungle. Without much trouble, Marlow
finds Kurtz. Marlow speaks to Kurtz, symbolically and literally looking down on him. Marlow
has his head in the moment, understanding the need to leave on the boat, while Kurtz babbles on
about his standing in the native tribe.
Kurtz's flaws are what kill him in the end. If Kurtz had not involved himself so much
with the natives, he would not have grown ill. All the other European characters in the novel live
through their time in Africa without major illness. For this reason, Kurtz's illness appears to the
reader as an act of God. God punishes Kurtz for the violent atrocities he has committed.
A tragic hero comes to a realization of his own flaws during his downfall. This
characterisic of a tragic hero can again be exemplified by looking at Oedipus the King. At the
end of the play, Oedipus stabs his eyes out. He realizes and admits to his ignorance and the flaws
in his ways. Kurtz's self-realization is much more subtle than that of Oedipus, and it comes in
only a few words. With his final breath, Kurtz pronounces the phrase The horror! The horror!
(43) Marlow is haunted by the words, and comes to analyse them himself. He says:
I was within a hair's breadth of the last opportunity for
pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I
would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that
Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it.
Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the
meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle,

but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing


enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He
had summed up -- he had judged. `The horror!' (44)
Marlow is impressed and captivated by Kurtz's ability to express the essence
of his life in only four words. He even says that this summation of life makes
Kurtz a remarkable man. The reader is led to believe that Kurtz is speaking
on both the horrors of imperialist Africa and the horrors of his own actions in
his dying words.
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Kurtz is a unique character and certainly enigmatic, but he functions as
a tragic hero nonetheless. He is a great and powerful man by nature, but his
flaws destroy him, and prevent him from reaching his full potential. Kurtz's
final words show that he has an understanding of his own condition and the
horrors of the world in which he lives. These words perfectly encapsulate his
life and show that he truly is a tragic hero.