The Powerful Voice of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Many times, words by themselves do not convey an idea wholly or conceal it altogether. Instead, the voice carrying the words conveys the idea, lending shape and new meaning to the familiar syllables. Words resonate with prescribed meanings, whereas voice creates its own meaning and identity. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, voice comprises the primitive component of language, with words existing only as a secondary function of voice. Glimpsing a “primitive truth,” Kurtz’s voice and soul unite so that his knowledge speaks through his voice, rather than through his words. Alternately draining words of their meaning and filling them with new meaning, Kurtz’s voice contains the power to define his own words. Strip Kurtz of his common syllables, and what remains is a terse note in a margin of seventeen eloquent pages, a frightening voice shaped by unfamiliar words. Marlow first hears of Kurtz as a word repeatedly spoken by others. As Marlow navigates down the river, traveling farther from civilization, Kurtz’s voice amplifies, ultimately consuming the name and the man himself.
The voice of Kurtz is heard and realized not in the familiar words of others, but in the journey down the river into the unknown. People’s inability to pronounce Kurtz’s name suggests the authenticity of Kurtz’s own voice and the weakness of the words used to describe him. When describing Kurtz, familiar vocabulary fails altogether; Kurtz remains a word with little meaning. Marlow first hears of Kurtz from the Company’s chief accountant at Outer Station. When asked who Kurtz is, the accountant responds, “He is a very remarkable person” (37).* The accountant does not mention his name without adding the formal title, “Mister,” as if to make his name more appropriate to be spoken and to distance himself from the name. The accountant then trails off and begins to write again. Still governed by familiar language and voiceless words on paper, the accountant is unable to accurately describe Kurtz. Later, at Central Station, in the conversation between the nephew and uncle, Kurtz is again referred to, but not by name: “His name, you understand, had not been pronounced once. He was ‘that man’” (57). Although still inadequate, the phrase, “that man,” describes Kurtz much better than the accountant’s “Mister.” There is contempt and scorn that underlie these words, as if Kurtz himself has inspired them. At this point in the narrative, Marlow addresses his listeners: “He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?” (50) But Marlow appeals to the wrong sense. He should be asking, “Do you hear him?”
Kurtz’s voice finally becomes audible during the arrow attack on the boat. Among the wails and howls, Marlow realizes the authenticity and strength of Kurtz’s voice beneath the words:
I made the strange discovery that I had never...