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Essay Prize 2017 Joint runner-up essay
Who is your favourite villain in literature and why?
By Alfie Fletcher, runner up of the 2017 Connell Guides Essay Prize
On the bank of the great brown river, in the hidden depths of darkness, Mr Kurtz lived, surrounded by the heads of those he killed and inside the heads of those whose minds he owned. Meeting Kurtz changed the life of Marlow – both the narrator and the protagonist of Heart of Darkness – for all time. But it is not just Marlow who was profoundly affected by the man at the dark heart of Conrad’s book. Kurtz makes everybody whose path he crosses – whether in the novel or as a reader – look at themselves; he is a projection of whomever you want him to be. To me, he is the most dangerous, complex and exciting of villains – and my favourite. There is little behind him but his words, yet he still weaves a spell over everybody he meets and leaves them transformed. Like them, I was fascinated by him; I, too, wanted to delve into his intricacies, to understand the power he has to control people.
Kurtz draws people to him for being a “remarkable man”. Right from the first mention of him, Marlow obsesses over the idea of hearing him talk. Long before he met him – and Kurtz, while being at the centre of the book, is not present for most of it – Marlow hears stories of what a good company agent Kurtz is. Meeting him becomes the destination of the book. But first Marlow meets Kurtz’s biggest fan, the young Russian, who tells Marlow the story of Kurtz wanting to shoot him: “He wanted to shoot me, too, one day – but I don’t judge him.” The young Russian can do nothing but obsess over Kurtz who, he says, “enlarged my mind”. When he tries to explain how, he is – ironically – lost for words: “We talked of everything… Everything! Everything!” and, “He made me see things – things.” Kurtz enslaves the young Russian with the power of his words and keeps him at his side, his last disciple, in the bowels of hell.
Kurtz means something different to everybody; he becomes a representation of the aspirations in an individual. To the young Russian, he is a genius with a bewitching way of talking, “of love, too.” Love, it appears, is the most important thing to the Russian. To Kurtz’s cousin, an organist, he is “Essentially a great musician.” To the journalist, he is not only a stunning orator, but a potentially brilliant politician: ‘“He would be a splendid leader of a political party.” “What party?” I asked. “Any party.”’ The journalist clearly believes that Kurtz should be a leader of men and that he is an example for everyone to follow. His political alignment doesn’t matter as much as the power of his leadership. To Marlow, however, it is more complicated.
Marlow, and Conrad to an extent, believed having a moral code to be very important. What draws Marlow to meet Kurtz is to find out how Kurtz has dealt with living in the tropical hell of the jungle, and how it has affected his morality. The closing sentences of Part One show Marlow’s (in his guise as the narrator) confusion about his feelings towards Kurtz and how he felt the need to see and understand him: “Now and then I would give some thought to Kurtz. I wasn’t very interested in him. No. Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who came out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all and how he would set about his work when there.” Kurtz’s moral compass had never been mentioned before, but, like the others, Marlow projects onto Kurtz something with which he is obsessed. Unlike the young Russian’s belief in Kurtz’s genius, however, a fascination with someone’s morality can be upended when you learn about their evil ways.
Once Marlow saw the heads on spikes outside Kurtz’s hut, and learned of his massacre of the natives in pursuit of monetary gain, he no longer worshipped him in the same way that everybody else did. Yet, still, he did not betray him. Kurtz’s genius – you could almost say his divine quality – was this: everybody saw something in him that made them think of him as a “remarkable man.” What fascinates me about Kurtz is how he did this through the power of language. His journalist colleague says of Kurtz: “But heavens! How that man could talk.” Kurtz’s “Intended” goes further: “You have heard him! You know!” People who have heard Kurtz speak think it’s a blessing; really it is his way of capturing you under his spell.
Throughout the story, Marlow-the-protagonist’s and Marlow-the-narrator’s opinion on Kurtz fluctuates. After meeting him, Marlow (narrator) defiantly says that Kurtz’s life was not “worth the life we lost getting to him.” Marlow understands that Kurtz, as he lay close to death, was not as he was before: “The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham.”
We the readers, through Marlow, only meet Kurtz just before his passing, and it is his final words that provide the most long-lasting effect on Marlow: “The horror! The horror!” Kurtz could have meant so many things by these words. Marlow certainly doesn’t understand what he was saying, so can only have his own interpretations. At one point, he believes it may be Kurtz repenting for what he has done and understanding what moral mistakes he made; from Kurtz’s look, Marlow believes that he is debating, “the strange comingling of desire and hate.” At another, he wonders whether it could be Kurtz’s judgement on mankind: “No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of insincerity.” Or could Kurtz have been referring to his hatred of the entire universe: “That wide immense stare embracing, condemning, loathing all the universe… The Horror!” From the final two interpretations, Kurtz seems almost demonic. This is backed up when Marlow says, “He was an impenetrable darkness.” But that is also everything that draws the reader to Kurtz: What is he? What does he mean? Why can’t he be understood? These are the unanswerable questions that incite interest.
With those final words, everything that, to my mind, makes him the most villainous of villains is again exemplified. From just those two immortal words, “the horror”, Marlow has created his own projection of Kurtz. We have no idea what Kurtz meant, but the ambiguity he creates is what makes him such a compelling villain. Unlike other villains of literature – from the giants and goblins of fairy tales to Conan Doyle’s Moriaty, Shakespeare’s Claudius and Iago and Dickens’s Bill Sykes – Kurtz is not so much evil for what he does (though that is, indeed, bad), but for the effect he has on all those whose lives he touches. He draws us in and spits us out changed. He is the immoral worm wiggling into our souls. His dark heart is the darkness that we fear is inside our own. From two words, Kurtz ensures he is never forgotten; the power of his words, once again, cause havoc in Marlow’s mind – as they do in ours, the readers’.
Mr Kurtz was a man who didn’t care about anything. He took what he wanted, killed what he wanted and said whatever he wanted to say. He was a mirage, hidden behind his words – just a “hollow sham.” But, if Heart of Darkness is a battle between him and good, then Kurtz wins. The last scene is of Marlow lying to Kurtz’s Intended about his final words, protecting his reputation and legacy to the end. But still he had the most profound effect on anybody who was unlucky enough to meet him, without seeming to try. He didn’t set out to be evil, he just didn’t care about the thousands of lives he wasted in pursuit of his nefarious aims; his was the behaviour of a true sociopath.
After meeting Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, it is impossible to forget him. Just as he sucked in his subjects, so as a reader I am drawn to him. He is a villain, yes, but he is so much more. He has insinuated himself inside me, too, and made me project my image of him – of one of the the most overwhelming characters in literature, and the most enduring of villains.