The Harlequin Russian Soldier
The Harlequin Russian soldier greets Marlow upon his arrival at Kurtz’s compound. A Westerner, he seems half-crazed and maniacally obsessed with the worship of Kurtz as an exceptional being.
Kurtz is a Company employee of “unsound methods,” whom Marlow has been charged with retrieving from the depths of the Congo. Marlow becomes increasingly intrigued by the enigmatic Kurtz, eventually craving above all else to converse with him. What Marlow rinds at the end of his journey is a man dying of malaria. However, it becomes clear that Kurtz has become an object of some dread and worship among the local inhabitants, and that his ruthless “methods” of obtaining vast quantities of ivory have become brutal and inhumane. Kurtz represents the greed and cruelty of the imperialist exploitation of the Congo by the Belgian government that had colonized it.
Upon his death, Kurtz refers to his ”Intended,” his fiancee, a white woman living in London. At the end of the story, Marlow goes to visit her in her lavish home. The story ends with Marlow’s lie, that Kurtz had died with her name upon his lips. There is some sense that she knows Marlow is lying.
Marlow is the narrator of the central ”framed” narrative of the story. The character of Marlow appears in a number of Conrad’s stories, often in the role of observer and narrator of the central events of the story. Marlow is a sailor whose narrative relates his experiences under hire by an unnamed ivory company to take a riverboat down the Congo River in order to retrieve Kurtz, a maverick company manager. Marlow is appalled at the treatment of the African people by the Company; but he is also disturbed by the behavior of the Africans, which seem to him “mysterious.” Marlow eventually finds Kurtz, who is dying of malaria, and brings him aboard the steamboat. Kurtz dies shortly thereafter, and then Marlow himself is stricken with fever and illness. When he returns to England, he visits Kurtz’s “Intended,” his fiancee, to give her some of Kurtz’s personal writings. Although Kurtz’s enigmatic dying words were “The horror! The horror!” Marlow, who abhors liars, himself lies to the Intended, telling her that Kurtz’s final words had been her name. Marlow’s perspective on what he witnesses in the Congo is somewhat ambivalent, and is the source of much critical debate among literary scholars, particularly in terms of his perspective on the African people; the matter of whether or not Marlow’s, or Conrad’s, perspective is racist has been argued persuasively on both sides, and is a subject of ongoing debate.
The narrator of the story is a character only insofar as he relates to the reader a story told him by Marlow. He is therefore referred to as the “frame narrator,” because his narrative merely frames the central narrative, which is related by Marlow. For this reason, most of the seventy-five page story is written as a direct quotation from Marlow. The frame narrator only occasionally pauses to describe Marlow’s character and the small group of men listening to his story.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2001.