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Heathcliff and Kurtz /Obsession

Don Buckley English 161 Professor Jolicoeur 23 November 2010 Heathcliff and Kurtz/ Obsession The Characters, Heathcliff in Brontes’ novel Wuthering Heights and Kurtz, in Conrads’ novel Heart of Darkness share interesting qualities. Both characters are prideful, passionate, menacing and brooding. Each has been referred to as an “evil genius” at times. Both display qualities of greed and a desire for power and control. These men throughout their individual stories are engulfed in a world of their own.

Heathcliff because of his strong desire and twisted love for Catherine succumbs to the evil attempt at destroying the lives of her family members as well as his own. Kurtz on the other hand, is so focused and driven to collect ivory he will compromise his morals and integrity in order to achieve wealth and success at any cost. Through individual analysis of these two men it is clearly seen that they not only resemble each other in personality, but also in character. The main flaw that each one inherits and displays throughout the storyline is one of obsession.

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Love preoccupies almost all of the characters in Wuthering Heights. The quest for it motivates the actions of Heathcliff and Catherine In particular. Heathcliff, who is at the heart of the novel, is a very romantic and passionate suitor for Catherine. At the beginning of their friendship it appears that he is driven purely by love, but as time passes it is quickly recognized that it is his obsessive behavior that is truly his driving force. Almost from the start, outrage at his mistreatment at Catherine’s hands inflames him. Heathcliff is a prideful man.

The turning point of the plot occurs when Heathcliff overhears Catherine speaking to Nelly. “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliffe now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am” (Bronte 75). Shortly thereafter Heathcliff leaves and does not return to Wuthering Heights until approximately three years later. He returns a different man, having come into a vast and mysterious wealth. After Catherine’s marriage to Edgar and her eventual death, fury at being denied the chance to marry her causes him to take drastic measures.

In fact his actions can be construed as monstrous. While Heathcliff is best known for his love for Catherine, it is his vengefulness that truly makes him memorable. Paradoxically, Heathcliffe’s thirst for revenge makes him loathed and admired all at the same time. During his return home, Heathcliff is determined to seek revenge for Catherine’s betrayal. His behavior can be at best described as childish and at worst excessively cruel. It is his obsession for Catherine however, that causes him to lose control. Hindley may be half the man Heathcliff is, but nevertheless, the two were raised as brothers.

Moreover, whatever Hindley’s childhood sins may be, he is now a broken man, a drunk and a gambler. In light of these facts, Heathcliff still insists on coldly and methodically finding a way in taking Wuthering Heights from him. Heathcliff is also bent on turning Hareton against his own father. Heathcliff treats his wife Isabella equally unmercifully. She is a silly woman by all means, but a very innocent one at that. Heathcliff who thinks of her as nothing more than a pawn in his game of revenge, treats her very unfairly. His professed willingness to punish her for her brother’s crime makes him out to be a maniac.

Heathcliff’s quest for revenge is never seemly, but it becomes downright grotesque as the years pass. After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff’s vengefulness is less easier to understand. After all, the woman he loves, the woman he wants to impress and punish is no longer alive. As Heathcliff’s motivation turns sour and confusing, his actions spiral downward also. In an attempt to get Edgar’s estate, Heathcliff manipulates young Catherine and his own son, Linton, into an ill-advised romance and then forces them to wed after kidnapping Catherine and holding her prisoner.

Out of general ill will and a specific desire to punish Catherine’s relatives, he abuses Hareton, the character who closely resembles himself. By denying the intelligent boy an education and keeping him in a state of servitude, Heathcliff recreates the very ill treatment that was visited on him when he was young. It is a crime just as morally repulsive as is his manipulation of his own son. Yet however bad Heathcliffe’s obsessive behavior may be, his desire for revenge makes him just as endearing as it does objectionable. First, while Heathcliff is a brute, he is an intelligent and capable brute.

Those he controls are much more fragile and stupider than he can ever be. One can understand his desire to manipulate them to a point. It is a natural dominance for the strong to want to control the weak. Second, his vengefulness arises from his very deep love for Catherine. He is cruel not for cruelty’s sake, but because the woman he loves has broken his heart. After Catherine’s death, even the shocking manifestation of Heathcliff’s obsessive behavior can be interpreted as touching. Were his need for revenge to die with Catherine, it would suggest that his love for her was a temporary passion.

Because his need for revenge only increases after her death, we are likely to conclude that his love for her is timeless, undying and classically romantic. In one interpretation the more outrageous and monstrous his actions are, the more clear, concrete, and passionate his love appears to be. By the time Heathcliff dies, his hunger for revenge has also passed away. Ironically it is the vivid image of his obsessive behavior that leads to his desire for revenge that keeps him alive. Conrad’s character Kurtz, is the Chief of the Inner station and the object of Marlow’s quest.

Kurtz is described as a man of many talents. He is a gifted musician and a fine painter. He has an uncanny ability to lead men and appears to be quite charismatic. He is a man who fully understands the power of words, and his writings are marked by an eloquence that obscures their horrifying message. Although he remains an enigma even to Marlow, Kurtz clearly exerts a powerful influence on the people in his life. His downfall appears to be a result of his willingness to ignore the hypocritical rules that govern European colonial conduct.

Kurtz has “kicked himself loose of the earth” by fraternizing excessively with the natives and not keeping up appearances; in so doing, he has become wildly successful but has also incurred the wrath of his fellow white men. Kurtz can be situated within a larger tradition. He resembles the archetypal “evil genius”; the highly gifted but ultimately degenerate individual whose fall is the stuff of legend. Like Heathcliff he is significant for both his style and eloquence and at the same time for his grandiose, almost megalomaniacal scheming.

In a world of malicious men and cannibals, Kurtz can be criticized for the fact that his style entirely overrules his substance and he attempts to provide some justification for his display of amorality and evil. It can be argued that Kurtz literally has no substance at all. On more than one occasion Marlow has referred to him as “hollow”. This could actually be taken negatively, to mean that Kurtz is not even worthy of contemplation. It also points to Kurtz’s ability to function “as a choice of nightmares”. In other words he has chosen the lesser of two evils in his own mind.

It is clear however that Kurtz is indeed obsessed with the success that the ivory has brought him. He does not hide the fact that he takes it through brute force and violence. He even describes his treatment of the natives with words such as “suppression and “extermination”. Through his exploration and strong arm tactics of recovering ivory, Kurtz has turned himself into a god. He sees the Africans as nothing more than mere objects and treats them with malice. The Ivory in Conrad’s novel has literally taken on a life of its own. ”The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed.

You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in any life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion” (Conrad 40). This statement represents Marlow’s first impression of the Central Station. It is perfectly clear that for the men who work for the Company, the ivory is far more than an elephant tusk.

It represents economic freedom, social advancement, and an escape from a long life of being just an employee. The word has lost all connection to any physical reality and has become an object of worship. The reference made of a” decaying corpse” of course refers not just that of a rotting elephant, but also that of dead African natives. Both have been slaughtered by the white men in pursuit of the ivory. Not to mention the fact that the entire enterprise is “rotten” to the core. The cruelties and the greed are both part of a greater, timeless evil, yet they are petty in the scheme of the greater order of the natural world.

Although Kurtz has broken away from the company by bending rules and ventures out on his own, he like Heathcliff is the biggest brute of them all. Near the end while Kurtz is very ill, the steamer breaks down. He becomes troubled because he starts to realize that he probably will not make it back to Europe alive. Worried that the manager will gain control of his “legacy”, Kurtz gives Marlow a bundle of papers for safekeeping. Kurtz rambles on about how he believes it is his duty to disseminate his ideas to the newspaper. Finally he admits to Marlow that he is waiting for death. It appears that Kurtz is eceiving some profound vision and the look on his face causes Marlow to turn away. Kurtz cries out “The Horror, The Horror! ” and dies. “The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time…. I saw the time approaching when I would be left alone of the party of ‘unsound method’”(Conrad 102). Kurtz’s final schemes which Marlow refers to as childish reflect Kurtz’s final desire for self-aggrandizement rather than any progressive social program.

His last words are paradoxically full of meaning yet totally empty. It is possible to read them as an acknowledgement of his inner darkness. It is important however to note both their eloquence and vagueness. True to form, Kurtz dies in a spasm of eloquence. His last words are both poetic and profound. Indeed, Kurtz is not so much a fully realized individual as a series of images constructed by others for their own use. In the end there seems to be no true Kurtz Yet Kurtz with his egotistical charisma and larger than life plans remains alive.


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