112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

How Magic Problematizes Evil in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Renee Grodsky, California State University, Los Angeles

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kurtz serves as a magical figure, casting a spell on all around him through his mesmerizing voice and indomitable will. Marlow’s quest is laden with fantastic elements that support familiar archetypes and utilize symbols of the fantastic to problematize a journey into the human soul.


While Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is described as a great magician, his ultimate coup is his ability to bend those around him to his will.  Likewise, the wizard in Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is also a conjurer of tricks, but his greatest asset is his skillful deception in making others regard him as a man of position and power.  In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the character Kurtz also serves as a magical figure, casting a spell on all those around him through the use of his mesmerizing voice and seemingly indomitable will.  The complicated figure of Marlow is sent on a quest to retrieve Kurtz, but ultimately falls under his persuasive enchantment along the way. Marlow’s quest is laden with fantastic elements that support other familiar archetypes, making this a tragic vision that utilizes symbols of the fantastic to problematize a journey into the human soul. According to Northrop Frye, “every poet has his private mythology, his own…peculiar formation of symbols, of much of which he is quite unconscious” (Frye 695). Conrad created these symbols of the fantastic, perhaps unconsciously, to revolve around the character of Kurtz as a magus, magician, and sorcerer.  But Kurtz’s level of agency problematizes the idea of Kurtz as a wizard. The involvement of Kurtz as the castor or victim of enchantment is unclear and supportive of Marlow’s meditative questions into the darkness of the human heart. Symbols of fantasy play out in an extended metaphor of a magic show, one in which the reader and Marlow are forever unsure if the illusion presented is possible. Marlow’s quest into darkness is laden with fantastic elements that reflect the moral ambiguities he encounters as he travels deeper into the wild to recover the magical Kurtz. 

Perhaps in the repeated images of magicians or deities, Conrad shows the cyclical nature of evil, in both the death of one magical figure in Kurtz and the seeming renewal of another in Marlow. While Marlow spends the majority of the story trying to escape evil’s spell, he eventually returns home to become the image of a deity similar to that of Kurtz as a wizard.  Even with Marlow’s conscious decision to tell his story in order to diminish Kurtz’s power as a legend, his deity-like status problematizes his own separation from darkness. Can civilization, like Marlow, ever really be free from the evil of the human heart?  Or is it simply a complicated magician’s trick that has bewitched the larger audience of humanity?  These magical figures and fantastical elements complicate classical divisions of good versus evil and instead present a murky ambivalence that can only be further explored by looking both inwardly at the self and outwardly at the journey.  It may not be that magic problematizes evil, but rather that the nature of evil problematizes the human heart.