The horror! The horror!


This phrase is found in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” This is the final judgment of Kurtz on his own life, actions and generally on humankind and imperialism, when in part third of the story he says, The horror! The horror!” Through this line, Kurtz also points out his fate that looks profoundly affected by the events he faces during his escapade to Congo.


Many critics have raised questions about the interpretation of this phrase. Generally, it implies the horror Kurtz witnesses in Africa, the horror could be the exploitation of Africa, evil practices of humans, his crumbling sanity, an illusion of understanding and hope, etc. Simply, it conveys what West did under colonization in the name of progress and under the guise of civilizing the natives. Darkness prevails, when he dies. It symbolizes his actions were evil. Thus, it is Kurtz’s realization about bitter and absolute truth of his life.


The use of this phrase is not common in everyday life. However, you may find it in literary texts and movies. You would notice, wherever this line appears, it conveys the meanings of threat,  evil deeds, fear of evil actions, pointing alarming situation, as if someone or something catches fire, foreign invades come or a war breaks out etc.

Source of Origin

Kurtz speaks this line as his final words in Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.” Marlowe describes how he utters the final words;

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “‘The horror! The horror!”

(Part III, Page 12)

During his time spent in Africa, Kurtz becomes corrupt and writes the words “Exterminate all the brutes!” Here he refers to his own and his comrade’s brutality in Africa which was carried out in the name of progress and civilization. He induced native Africans to worship and adore him, set up rituals worthy of a brute or a tyrant. Therefore, by the end Kurtz reflects on his life, which is basically flashing before his eyes in the last moment and let the readers think about the meanings of “the horror.”

Literary Analysis

The narrative comes to an end, when we find Marlowe and Kurtz moving back to England, meaning returning to the “civilization” from Africa. Kurtz is not stable mentally and physically, while he is also slowly falling to death on his boat. There he realizes he is near death, utters this phrase as his last words which carry deep meanings. In fact, he refers to all things witnessed and done throughout his stay in Congo. It tells us the experiences, and brutality of Europeans that Marlowe has seen through his eyes. It also sums the experiences and deep-rooted evils in the hearts of civilized people.  Their hostility makes them blind to their surroundings. In addition, the ultimate downfall of Kurtz was due to his own evil actions during his years spent in Congo for the European Company.

Literary Devices

  • Symbolism:  Phrase symbolizes the frightening reaction and fearful utterance after witnessing evil acts.

1 comment for “The horror! The horror!

  1. David Upham
    January 31, 2016 at 10:41 pm

    Re-enter Macduff:
    O Horror, horror, horror ! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee
    (Macbeth, Act II, Scene III)

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