Horror in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' and 'The Secret Agent'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009
20 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Kurtz’s ’The horror! The horror!’ in Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness

3. Horrors in Joseph Conrad’sThe Secret Agent
3.1. Stevie
3.2. Winnie
3.3. Mr Verloc

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“’The horror! The horror!’”1“’Horrible, horrible!’”2

Although the novels are different in style and plot, Joseph Conrad’sHeart ofDarknessandThe Secret Agenthave one thing in common: They are full of different kinds of ‘horror’ and ‘madness’. But what are all these different kinds of horror? Why does Conrad use this word this often? Is the horror in theHeart of Darknessthe same as inThe Secret Agent?

In this paper, I will try to analyse some of the horrible aspects Conrad mentions in his texts. The first chapter will have a closer look at Kurtz’s famous phrase “’The horror! The horror!’”3. I will give insight in some of my own interpretations of what could be meant with this horror.

The second part of this paper will investigate the horrors and fears of the three main characters inThe Secret Agent: Stevie, Winnie Verloc and Mr Verloc. In the end, there will be a short conclusion of the aspects of horror I have explored.

2. Kurtz’s ’The horror! The horror!’ in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

“I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair. [...] He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “’The horror! The horror!’”4

There is probably no other phrase in Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darknessthat has been quoted and discussed so often. It belongs to the important scene in the book, in which Kurtz dies.

First, it is interesting to know the etymology and meaning of the word ‘horror’: “from L[atin]horror‘bristling, roughness, rudeness, shaking, trembling,’ fromhorrere‘to bristle with fear, shudder,’”5. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary describes ‘horror’ as “a feeling of intense fear, shock and disgust”6. This description leads me to my first idea: Kurtz pronounces these last words the moment he dies. Feelings of fear and shock are natural ones when we think of death. Some people see a bright light and feel safe and comfortable the moment they are dying, but Kurtz obviously did not so: Kurtz says these words “at some image, at some vision”7, so we can guess that he was hallucinating, probably something awful. Whatever it was that Kurtz saw in contemplation of death it was obviously nothing wonderful and calming such as a bright light, but something that made him feel horror-stricken. Sometimes people, when they face death, suddenly start to see everything clearly, to see the truth, and also to regret things they have done in the past. It could be that Kurtz faced the truth of what he has done or become during his stay in the Congo and that he was even regretting ‘the horror’ he has seen and maybe done; I do not think so. This would be kind of a lovely idea to the reader and maybe even to Marlow because this way Kurtz would appear more human and likable. Gekoski writes: “Marlow, however, is certain of his own interpretation; he sees Kurzt’s last words as a confession, as a final attempt at self-purification”8. The text gives hints that this actually is nothing more than a lovely idea or wish as it says that Marlow “saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror”9- there is no hint of regret. Then, on the other hand, we must not forget that this is only what Marlow sees or wants to see, and we can never be sure of his reliability.

So what could it be, the horror Kurtz is speaking about? This leads me to my next idea: My understanding of Kurtz’s horror is related to the African world in many ways. “[B]efore his [...] nerves went wrong and caused him to preside at certain dances ending with unspeakable rites,”10Kurtz was a “gifted”11Englishman in good health. Whatever happened to and changed him must have taken place during his time in Africa. Africa, as any other culture that was different from the European, especially the British world, was seen as something bad, dangerous, and inhuman. The British Empire saw itself as superior to any other culture; so did Kurtz: “He began with the argument that the whites [...] must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings”12. Kurtz even continued this thinking by writing in his pamphlets for the Belgian company: “’Exterminate all the brutes!’”13. The ‘brutes‘, natives, are inhuman to him. Actually, it is Kurtz who is inhuman in many ways. They are the real brutes; or as Cheng argues: “Kurtz’s madness is not [only] inflicted by his African followers, but backfired by his European making.”14I think that Kurtz was aware of that somehow, maybe not consciously, but he has seen (and done) all this unspeakable, unthinkable horror and terror the whites have done to the Africans, and he could not bear all of it and therefore has gone mad. So all this superior thinking of the whites obviously was not really helpful. Kurtz was not strong enough to lead a ‘normal’ life in the Congo and to stay the person he always was. “Kurtz is, after all, not a supernatural monster, but a weak man [...], a person made of flesh and blood vulnerable to the consumption of nature.”15In the end, Kurtz was liable to the African world, which thereby becomes in one way superior. He was the superior white leader on the one hand, and the inferior broken savage on the other hand: “He hated all this and somehow he couldn’t get away.”16This was horrible for him.

As I have already mentioned, ‘the horror’ is linked to anything Kurtz has done or seen in the Congo. What is it that he has seen and could not stand? There are many things he could have seen: first of all, he entered a completely new and strange world where everything was different from the world he knew. In this world he saw strange looking and behaving people performing odd dances and rites. He experienced different vegetation, the heat and the smell of unknown plants and animals. The deeper he got into the jungle the darker and more menacing this world must have appeared to him. But he has probably also seen how the whites actually treated the natives, all the brutality, and the nearly starving haggard people with their strange looks. All of this must have been a shock for him and possibly caused him nightmares and maybe even hallucinations. And he experienced loneliness. He was somewhere deep in the jungle with no one to talk to and rely on, until he met the ‘harlequin’, in whom he found an admirer and subject. All these aspects lead to his physical and psychological transformation. He found himself lost in a world where he was somehow in an inferior position. So, what do we do when we feel lost and inferior? We try to get back the control of everything so we feel strong and superior, which is exactly what Kurtz did, when he forced these natives under his control. Suddenly, he felt strong and in power over everything, but at the same time he started to build up a life that was unnatural for him. He entered a different world, not just literally but also mentally. He fooled himself by getting himself into the position of the superior leader of the poor ‘niggers’. And he also had no one to tell him what is right or wrong. So again, he lost control and became a psychotic dictator in a world where everything belonged to him: “‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my ...’”17. This way he “has done more harm than good to the Company.”18

At some point, his mental state changed, and Kurtz became ill. One could say that the disease he suffered from was the African world; his stay there infected him. As Cheng says: “The heart of darkness is out there in the jungle: its dangers are contagious like diseases.”19


1Conrad, 2006, p. 69.

2Ibid, 2007, p. 80.

3Ibid. 2006, p. 69.

4Conrad, 2006, p. 69.

5Harper, 2009.

6Crowther, 1995, p. 549.

7Conrad, 2006, p. 69.

8Gekoski, 1999, p. 85.

9Conrad, 2006, p.69.

10Ibid. p. 50.

11Ibid. p. 48.

12Ibid. p. 50.


14Cheng, 1999, p. 35.

15Ibid. p. 36.

16Conrad, 2006, p. 56.

17Ibid. p. 48.

18Ibid. p. 61.

19 Cheng, 1999, p. 38.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Horror in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' and 'The Secret Agent'
Saarland University  (Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Anglophone Kulturen)
Joseph Conrad
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Horror, Joseph, Conrad, Heart, Darkness, Secret, Agent
Quote paper
Eva K. Sammel (Author), 2009, Horror in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' and 'The Secret Agent', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/140455


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