“Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”
~ Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
As its title suggests, Heart of Darkness is not a cheerful book. It shows how dark and depraved the human heart can be. (It’s also boring and kinda racist, but still a worthwhile read.) Although I haven’t touched the book since reviewing it, I recently found myself contemplating one of its most famous lines.
Most of Heart of Darkness is spent slowly building up to an enigmatic man named Kurtz. When Kurtz finally appears, he turns out be a madman at death’s door. I can think of many adjectives for the genius, artist, and monster that is Kurtz: tortured, eloquent, gifted, brutal, terrifying, insane. He is not a good man, but in some ways, he is a great one. His final words—“The horror! The horror!”—are among the most famous in literature.
At last, Kurtz dies… only for his death to be announced insolently, almost comically, by an African boy: “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”
The more I think about this scene, the more it impresses me. At the end of his life, Kurtz the visionary receives neither comfort nor honor, but only the flat acknowledgment that “he dead.” He dies alone, shrouded in darkness and overwhelmed by despair. This great man’s death is met with scathing derision and a muddy burial. Kurtz was cruel, but how much crueler is the world that shrugs and says, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”
The death of Kurtz is, to borrow the narrator’s words, “so beastly, beastly dark.” The death of Kurtz is an outstanding moment not only in Heart of Darkness, but in literature.