Outstanding Essay: 2014

The “Horror”

by Monique Darling

In his poem, “The Wheel,” W.B. Yeats describes the way in which people wait for a season to come, and when it does come, still wait in anticipation for the next season. He portrays this waiting as a sort of dissatisfaction, as if when the anticipated season comes, people will always desire the next. At the end of the poem he concludes that what we do not know is that “what disturbs our blood” is not the dissatisfaction or impatience with the seasons, but a “longing for the tomb” (lines 7-8). It seems as if he is implying that some people will never be completely satisfied until they die. This idea that humans subconsciously long to die because life is not satisfactory enough is portrayed in both Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The characters, Ivan Ilyich and Kurtz both have terrifying experiences in their deaths, which they describe as a “horror”. At first, it appears that this phrase is a reference to their fears of dying or how tormenting their impending deaths are.  However, through a close analysis of what they are really calling a “horror,” what they are reflecting on when they say these words, and the kind of lives they lived, it becomes clear that “horror” may actually refer to their lives and not their deaths.

Tolstoy’s main character, Ivan Ilyich, is portrayed as the average middle-class man. He works as an official in the court bureaucracy of St. Petersburg where he makes a good living. He has an average wife and two children, a boy and a girl. Even with his pleasant life, Tolstoy makes it clear that Ivan is not satisfied. He is very materialistic and is always buying new things in order to impress other people. In fact, that is how he gets the injury that ultimately leads to his death. Ivan Ilyich puts up curtains in their drawing room one day in order to make it more elegant and better looking than anyone else’s, and this is when he falls and hurts his side (65-66). The injury only gets worse and ends up affecting his entire life and causing Ivan to feel miserable.  Once the pain of the injury is almost unbearable and Ivan finds out that it is also incurable, he realizes that he is dying. This realization puts Ivan in a daily state of panic and woe. When Ivan begins to question his death he asks why this is all happening. When he reflects on his own life, he asks, “Why all this horror? What is it for?” (Tolstoy 120). Ivan is asking about the process of dying at this point, but it is a certain part of the process of death to which he refers.

In contrast to Ivan Ilyich, Mr. Kurtz of Heart of Darkness is anything but ordinary. He works in the interior of Africa as an agent for the Company and is deeply involved in the ivory trade. Mr. Kurtz is somewhat of a celebrity and this is made evident through other workers’ accounts of him. Kurtz is a man who has been corrupted by ambition and the need to thrive in the Interior by acting like a god, leading the natives to civilization. However, his greed interrupts that goal, driving him to exploit the African villages in search of ivory. Marlow even describes him as the very thing he is trying to gain. He says, Kurtz’s head “was like a ball—an ivory ball” (44). Even when he screams his last words, he has the “expression of somber pride” on his “ivory face” (64). When Kurtz dies, his final words are “The horror! The horror!” (64). He is also not referring to death.

Even though both characters lead very different lives, the similarities in their characterizations of death implore us to examine what is happening when each man is dying. When Marlow finds Mr. Kurtz in the midst of dying, it is interesting that Kurtz tells him that he is “waiting for death” (64). Much like the assertion in Yeats’ poem, “The Wheel,” in this moment Kurtz is actually anticipating death. Marlow describes an overall negative change that has come over Kurtz. According to Marlow, Kurtz is wearing an “expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair” (64). However, this despair doesn’t seem to come from Kurtz’s realization that he is dying. When Marlow tells us that Kurtz “live[d] his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge,” it is implied that Kurtz is doing some self-reflecting. Right after Marlow insinuates that Kurtz is pondering his life, come Kurtz final words, “The horror! The horror!” Conrad is asserting that these words are in reference to Kurtz realizing the truth about the life that he lived. Since Marlow is the main narrator in Heart of Darkness, we only get his point of view. But because it is through Marlow’s point of view that we get the only characterization of Kurtz in death, his view matters. Marlow describes Kurtz’s final “cry” as “an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions” (65). Marlow calls Kurtz’ exclamation a “moral victory” because he notices that when Kurtz dies, he realizes and confesses that his own accomplishments in life were not as great as that may have appeared and were actually horrible achievements.

As mentioned already, Kurtz’s life was characterized by greed. He comes to the African interior to acquire ivory and ends up having more than all of the other workers combined. Mr. Kurtz’s has an incredible desire for power and he exerts this power over the natives in Africa. They almost worship him like a god. In fact, Kurtz also acts like a god, killing anyone who goes against him on a whim. Kurtz has gone as far as to have the heads of his victims on sticks surrounding his camp. He has been gaining more power over the natives to the point of becoming a god to them. He also kills any native who rebels against his authority. This is evident when Marlow approaches Kurtz’s home and sees the shrunken heads that surround his camp. We learn that Mr. Kurtz also tries to satiate his passions and desires by participating in the immoral “unspeakable rites” of the natives (65). Marlow describes Kurtz as “hollow at the core” (50) and this is why he “struggled with himself” (61). Marlow illuminates Kurtz’s internal turmoil when he tells us, “Oh, he struggled! He struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his inextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression”(63). Kurtz is being haunted by the memories of his own life. Kurtz’s life is full of “primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power” (63). He did not spend his life on anything meaningful.

Ivan’s countenance changes when he is dying as well. When Ivan becomes ill this initially mild discomfort turns his usually good mood into an unpleasant one. He becomes so angry that he is incapable of enjoying anything, and his pleasant life becomes impossible. Tolstoy tells us that as “this discomfort increased and, though not exactly painful, grew into a sense of pressure in his side accompanied by ill humor. And his irritability became worse and worse and began to mar the agreeable, easy, and correct life that had established itself in the Golovin family” (72).  In addition to pain, Ivan Ilyich’s illness also brings him complete fear.  He too starts to contemplate the life he lived and whether or not it was well lived. Ivan Ilyich finds it difficult to reconcile himself with death. He looks at death like it is an injustice being done to him. Ivan thinks, "it simply was not possible that he should have to die. That would be too terrible" (94).  Ivan’s pain is so unbearable that he does not even want to live and feels like the only way out is death. Even so, the idea of death is so scary to him that he also does not want to die. Ivan’s contradictory desires are apparent when he says, “If only it would come quicker! If only what would come quicker? Death, darkness? No, no! anything is better than death!” (108). When Ivan is ill he finds himself completely alone except for his servant Gerasim. This gives him plenty of time to think about death and consider the life he lived. In Chapter 9 Ivan starts thinking about God, and this is when he asks why all of this is happening. He interprets it as punishment (119-120). When the idea enters his mind that he may not have lived the life that he should have, Ivan completely dismisses this thought (122). He does this on several occasions, and it is this recurring dismissal that shows that Ivan might be in denial and is aware that he is in denial. He is only trying to convince himself otherwise. Right after he asks “Why all this horror? What is it for?” Tolstoy writes, “And when it occurred to him, as it often did, that he had not lived as he should have, he immediately recalled how correct his whole life had been and dismissed this bizarre idea” (120). The reason why this thought occurs to Ivan often is because that thought is the source of the agony and the horror. Tolstoy even describes his life as “most simple and commonplace—and most horrifying” (49). The horror for Ivan is the realization that his life was not everything that it could have been.

Ivan comes to feel that his own life has been unhappy, in spite of how pleasant it seemed. Even worse, it has been meaningless (120). Ivan realizes that after some point he will cease to exist and that frightens him the most because his whole life he has only cared about himself. His constant desire to acquire material things is proof that he was also dissatisfied with his life. Ivan’s life was spent trying to satisfy desires that did not give him true fulfillment. Much like Kurtz, he wasted his life being discontent with what he had and does not realize this until right before he dies. Interestingly, Tolstoy portrays Ivan’s death as a relief, almost as if he was subconsciously “longing for the tomb” as Yeats claims. In the moment of death Tolstoy writes that Ivan “waited for it attentively” and realized that he no longer had a fear of death. When he finally dies, Ivan hears someone say “It is all over,” and he follows with an answer to himself that “death is over” (134). This response could mean that Ivan’s process of dying is over, meaning the period of time from when his health declined until he died is over. But since we can argue that we are dying as soon as we are born and that our entire life is the process of dying, this could be interpreted as him saying that life is a perpetual death. Life is over. We are no longer dying when we die. Tolstoy tells us that “Instead of death there was light,” and that Ivan calls death “bliss” (133). Ivan only felt dissatisfaction, unhappiness and pain in life, but death is portrayed as a kind of relief to him.

The factor that connects the lives and deaths of Ivan Ilyich and Mr. Kurtz is each man’s attempt at fulfilling meaningless desires in life. Even though Yeats’ does not address these kinds of desires in “The Wheel” he does address a general and continuous unsatisfied desire for something more. Ivan and Kurtz can very much be seen as those who:

                 …through winter-time…call on spring
                 And through the spring on summer call,
                 And when abounding hedges ring
                 Declare that winter’s best of all;

                 And after that there’s nothing good
                 Because the spring-time has not come— (lines 1-6)

And just like the poem ends, Ivan and Kurtz’s increasing desires do not end until they are about to die. It does not seem as though Yeats is saying that everyone has this “longing for the tomb” but only those who are never satisfied in life. Life becomes a horror when there is no true, meaningful, or lasting satisfaction, and death is the only thing that can quench those unfulfilled desires.  

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover, 1990. Print.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. New York: Bantam, 1981. Print.

Yeats, W. B. The Tower. New York: Macmillan, 1928. Print.