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A New Prototype for Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness".

Do we need another historical precursor for Kurtz? Conrad critics have already suggested more than twenty different prototypes. These include Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Conrad's own father. Critics have also identified possible models of influence in officers, naturalists, explorers, and colonial agents who went to the Congo, the presumed setting of "Heart of Darkness" (1899), or were otherwise involved in its colonization: Leopold II, David Livingstone, Guillaume Van Kerckhoven, Cecil Rhodes, Charles Stokes, Roger Casement, Richard Burton, Georges Antonies Klein, Arthur Hodister, Eduard Schnitzer "Emin Pasha," Edmund Barttelot, Charles Henry Stokes, Carl Peters, Paul Voulet, James Sligo Jameson, Henry Morgan Stanley, and Leon Rom. (1) While Peter Firchow maintains that "[n]one of these models quite fits" (35), Patrick Brantlinger speculates that Conrad likely had many models in mind for Kurtz, and all of the "white officers in charge of Leopold's empire were in essence Kurtzes" (268). However, only the Belgian officer Leon Rom, first advanced as a prototype by Molly Mahood in the 1970s, has been connected to what Adam Hochschild calls Kurtz's "signal feature" (145): the heads on stakes around his house--which also forms a graphic climax of the novel. According to F.R. Leavis, who charges the novella for its unapologetic insistence on trying to say what it cannot say, the heads on stakes form an exception to its rule of vagueness: "an essential vibration emanates" from particular details, forming "a legitimate kind of comment," evoked with "charged concreteness" (176)--"a direct significant glimpse" (177). But from where did Conrad get the idea for this concrete picture?

As I will argue, a paragraph in the hitherto untranslated book Tre Ar i Kongo (1887), written in Swedish by G. Pagels, P. Moller, and E. Gleerup, provides a more fitting model for this vibrant picture than the one advanced by Molly Mahood. This is a bold claim, as the number of references in secondary literature suggests that Leon Rom, whom Mahood links to "Heart of Darkness," is one of the most widely accepted prototypes. (2) Moreover, the source I am advancing, as I will show, challenges the exclusively European prototypes advanced by other critics and, by extension, the notion that in "collecting the heads," as Torgovnick asserts, Kurtz must have "acted out a Western fantasy of savagery" (148).

This essay will begin by quoting from the passage in "Heart of Darkness" and a related, deleted passage in its holograph manuscript. I will then revisit the merits of Mahood's source as a possible influence for this pivotal passage before introducing my source as a contender. Since my argument does not seek to prove a direct link between the source and Conrad's text, it leaves the question open whether the passage is the product of Conrad's imagination or whether it is necessarily connected to his actual experience in the Congo. The essay will end with a note on why the Swedish source has been overlooked as well as

a brief comparison with other sources that have sought to locate Kurtz's image in a specific historical personage, with reference to the same passage.


The passage under discussion in "Heart of Darkness" is from when Marlow arrives at Kurtz's Inner Station, stands at the deck of his steamer, converses with the Russian Harlequin, and takes up his binoculars to look at the shore, "sweeping the limit of the forest at each side and at the back of the house" (Conrad 102). Directing his binoculars at Kurtz's house, he sees what could be a familiar sight in any well-kept European suburb: an ornamented pole-fence. The fence is made up in the most unexpected and terrifying way, creating the novella's graphic climax. As "one of the remaining posts of that vanished fenced leaped into my field of my glass," Marlow explains,
   I had suddenly a nearer view and its first result was to make me
   throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from
   post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs
   were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and
   puzzling, striking and disturbing, food for thought and also for
   the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but
   at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend
   the pole. They would have been even more impressive those heads on
   the stakes if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only
   one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so
   shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really
   nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of
   wood there you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had
   seen--and there it was, black, dried, sunken--with closed eyelids--a
   head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the
   shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was
   smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream
   of that eternal slumber. (103-04)

Marlow gives us a full architectural appreciation of the fence--its multiple posts and ornamented, round knobs, and its "expressive," "striking," "puzzling," and "disturbing" aesthetics. The description is also Marlow's first direct visual evidence of Kurtz's "unsound methods" (108). The image of heads on stakes is one of those that remain with the reader and seems "to convey a world of information about Kurtz" (Torgovnick 147). Readers have found the heads to represent anything from "Conrad's fundamental pessimism applied to nature" (McCarthy 640) to a pivotal turning point in Marlow's understanding of Kurtz: initially resisting the full acknowledgement of Kurtz's atrocities, when faced with the heads on stakes, Marlow "can no longer deny the facts" (Lackey 34).

The passage's significance can also be seen in the way it is echoed in Kurtz's last words, before his death and hasty burial in the primeval mud. However, somewhat like Marlow's deletion of Kurtz's own postscript of "Exterminate all the brutes!" (Conrad 95) from his pamphlet on colonial expansion for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, Conrad censors Kurtz. The reader of the novella never hears these words: "'Let me go--I want more of it' More of what? More blood, more heads on stakes, more adoration rapine, and, murder" (366).

These final demands and wishes of Kurtz--at once cartoonish and terrifying--were deleted from the manuscript before its publication, in magazine formats and then as a novella. "The horror! The horror!" (117), Kurtz's valedictory in published form, is more enigmatic and profound, leaving ample room for the reader's imagination. The manuscript suggests that the heads on stakes outside of Kurtz's house are part and parcel of what Kurtz means when he judges and sums up, and cries out twice, in a whisper, "The horror!"


Did this image of heads on stakes come from Conrad's imagination, reading, or memory? In a book on "Heart of Darkness" that I am translating from Swedish, Olof Lagercrantz notes that Horace Engdahl suggested to him that "Kurtz's death-skull camp is reminiscent of Tacitus' famous story about how the remnants of Varus' Roman army were found in the Teuton woods, which had been decimated by Arminius' Teutons" (my translation). Among heaps of bleached bones and altars showing where the Romans had been slaughtered, heads were fastened on the trees. In Conrad, Lagercrantz notes, "there is the same type of fear in the face of unfathomable barbarities, the same sudden glimpse in the unmeasurable forest of something completely foreign" (my translation). The picture differs from "Heart of Darkness," where the heads are fastened on poles, not trees. Also, Gene M. Moore relates the scene to an account of human skulls hanging from a tree, this time in the Congo in the decade Conrad was there.

The English adventurer Edward James Glave's report on Leon Rom (1859-1924), a Belgian colonial officer, is in even more agreement with the textual details of "Heart of Darkness." In "Cruelty in the Congo Free State: Concluding Extracts from the Journals of the late E.J. Glave," published in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, September 1897, he maintains that:
   The State soldiers are constantly stealing, and sometimes the
   natives are so persecuted that they resent this by killing and
   eating their tormentors. Recently the State post on the Lomami lost
   two men killed and eaten by the natives. Arabs were sent to punish
   the natives; many women and children were taken, and twenty-one
   heads were brought to the falls, and have been used by Captain Rom
   as a decoration round a flower-bed in front of his house! (706)

Glave's account was first connected to "Heart of Darkness" by the Shakespeare scholar Molly Mahood in "Idols of the Tribe: Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" a chapter in her monograph The Colonial Encounter: A Reading of Six Novels (1977). Although Glave's account was published in 1897 in Century Illustrated, Glave dates the source to January 17, 1895--more than four years after Conrad had been to the Congo. An edited version of Glave's story was also printed in Britain in the Saturday Review of December 17, 1898, the same month Conrad began writing "The Heart of Darkness." However, as Firchow notes, there is no evidence that Conrad read this number of the Saturday Review. Even if he did, he might not have seen it; reproduced in the English magazine, "the 'story' runs to only a couple of sentences mixed in with two paragraphs of editorial commentary on the economic situation of the Congo Free State; and even those two paragraphs are buried among a mass other miscellaneous topical information" (Firchow 129-30).

My opposition to the notion that Glave's account of Leon Rom influenced the portrayal of Kurtz, however, is simply that there is an alternative explanation that works better as a source. The link to "Heart of Darkness" in Glave's account hinges on the account of heads lying on the ground decorating a flowerbed. This type of garden certainly seems Kurtzian but in the novella the heads are fastened on poles, decomposing and smiling, and surround the chief's residence--not a flowerbed. Prima facie, it seems hardly necessary to demand that Glave's account fulfill all of these details to work as a potential source--unless there was a competing source that fulfilled those requirements, which exists in the hitherto untranslated Tre Ar i Kongo (Three Years in Congo).

Tre Ar i Kongo, the recounted experiences of four Swedish officers who journeyed with the Belgian army in 1883-86, details an experience close in time to Conrad's six months in the Congo in the 1890's. The three-volume work starts with G. Pagels's account of his experiences, which contains many details that are reminiscent of "Heart of Darkness"--caravans of black people carrying supplies, a steamboat journeying upriver, the trade of useless knickknacks (calico, beads, brass-wire, and cotton prints), a promotion schedule based on colleagues catching fever, red curtains for the windows, filed teeth, and many other details. There is also a short description of a similar sight to that of Glave's. The difference is that G. Pagels does not report that the heads lie on the ground, but--like the vivid details in the novella--they are placed like knobs on top of "poles," "decomposing" and "grinning." In rambling nineteenth-century Swedish, he writes about his first sight of M'fa Dumas's residence:
   Jag varseblev snart en vidstrackt inhagnad af gras, fastbundet vid
   hoga stolpar, hvilka ofverst voro prydda med grinande, vittrade
   dodskallar, och forstod da, att der var hofdingens bostad, hvilket
   afven marktes af den skara menniskor, som strommade in genom den i
   inhagnaden lemnade oppna gluggen. (58)

      I soon became aware of a wide-reaching area marked by a grass
   fence, tied to high poles, which at the very top were decorated
   with grinning, decomposing skulls, and thereafter I understood that
   it was the chief's residence, which one could also tell from the
   number of people, who were streaming through the fenced off area's
   opening. (my translation and emphasis)

In short, there are two accounts of the Congo, deriving from the 1880s and 1890s--Conrad's and Pagels's--that both make the case for a chief who has grinning heads on stakes outside his residence. One possibility is, of course, that Pagels's imagination simply happened to overlap with Conrad's. Another possibility is that Conrad and Pagels both experienced or heard of the same macabre sight during their time in the Congo. Like Marlow in the story, Conrad may have spoken to Swedes in the Congo--Scandinavians were the third-largest national group present in the Congo after Belgians and Italians at the time (Reinius Gustafsson 11). Apart from suggesting a new prototype for Kurtz, Tre Ar i Kongo offers the possibility of understanding Conrad's and Marlow's accounts from the perspective of shared imagination or experience--demonstrating how close fiction can come to fact, or how close factual accounts can come to fiction.


(1.) The most comprehensive source of these claims is Peter Firchow's chapter, "E.J. Glave, Captain Rom, and the Making of Heart of Darkness" (128-47), in Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

(2.) The originality of this claim is frequently misattributed to Adam Hochschild in his work from 1998. Others who are frequently associated with this claim include John Lester in a work from 1982, Patrick Brantlinger in 1988, John Batchelor in 1993, and Sven Lindqvist in 1997.


Batchelor, John. The Life of Joseph Conrad. Blackwell, 1993.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Cornell University Press, 1988.

Conrad, Joseph. "Heart of Darkness." Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, edited by Owen Knowles, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Firchow, Peter. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Kentucky University Press, 2000.

Glave, Edward James. "Cruelty in the Congo Free State: Concluding Extracts from the Journals of the late E.J. Glave." The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, vol. 54, no. 5, 1897, pp. 699-715.

Guerard, Albert. Conrad the Novelist. Harvard University Press, 1958.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Lackey, Michael. "The Moral Conditions for Genocide in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness." College Literature, vol. 32, no. 1, 2005, pp. 20-41.

Lagercrantz, Olof. Lard med Morkrets Hjarta: En bok om Joseph Conrads roman. Wahlstrom & Widstrand, 1987.

Leavis, F.R. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. George W. Stewart, 1950.

Lester, John. "Captain Rom: Another Source for Kurtz?" Conradiana, vol. 14, no. 2, 1982, p. 112

Lindqvist, Sven. Exterminate all the Brutes: One Man's Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origin of European Genocide. Translated by Joan Tate, New Press, 1997.

Mahood, Molly. The Colonial Encounter: A Reading of Six Novels. Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.

McCarthy, Jeffrey Mathes. "'A Choice of Nightmares': The Ecology of Heart of Darkness." Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 55, no. 3, 2009, pp. 620-48.

Moore, Gene M. "Europeans in Conrad's Africa." The Third International Joseph Conrad Conference. Yearbook of Conrad Studies, Opole University Press, 2005.

Pagels, G., P. Moller, and E. Gleerup. Tre Ar i Kongo: Skildringar. Stockholm: P. A. Norstedt & Soners Forlag, 1887-88.

Reinius Gustafsson, Lotten. "Forfarliga och begarliga foremal: Om tingens roller pa Stockholmsutstallningen 1897 och Etnografiska missionsutsallningen 1907." Kulturspektiv 15. Stockholm: Etnografiska Museet, 2005.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. University of Chicago Press, 1991.


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Author:Warodell, Johan Adam
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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