Many people journey through life hoping to discover their true identity but few really find themselves. For most people, the reality of existence is too intimidating, and far too uncertain. Most people live instead, a lie, an illusion, that makes life much simpler. Some cannot discover what they are truly capable of or who they really are unless put in a situation where they must choose. What they decide usually determines whether they will be accepted or rejected by society. This is evident in both Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, and the Captain, in The Secret Sharer. Both are placed into very difficult situations, where they must choose whether to do what they believe is right or what is considered morally right by society. Kurtz and the Captain both choose to follow their own beliefs, and with this decision, they journey a path to discover their true identity, which leaves them isolated from society.
It is clear from the beginning that Kurtz, when he first comes to the Congo, is essentially a good man. He is eloquent, powerful, a persuasive speaker, and especially a civilized human being. He has the potential for great success, and at one point is adored by all the inhabitants of the jungle. Everyone from the innocent natives to the employees of his corrupt company are in awe of him. Indeed, when Kurtz first arrives in the Congo he is an ideal European gentleman, manifesting the best qualities. Kurtz is made out to be an icon, an idol, a deity. From the first person who mentions Kurtz, the Company's accountant, who describes him as "a very remarkable person"(p. 29), to the Company that describe him as the "best agent, an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the company"(p. 36), Kurtz is seen as an outstanding man. They are made aware of the nature of his remark ability, which is even evident in the location of his station, "the farthest point of navigation"(p. 10). But from the moment Kurtz arrives in the heart of darkness, the great and mysterious jungle, he is put to the test to prove whether he is worthy of the qualities he possesses. Kurtz is faced with the decision of whether he will stay focused and civil or become corrupt, greedy and evil. His enlightened ideals and ambition is tested by the dark powers of the wilderness, and he fails the test.
Kurtz is quickly corrupted by the evil which is involved in the entire ivory trade operation. Kurtz goes to the jungle for many reasons, but mostly to make money. Greed is what keeps him out there so long and clouds any of his previously noble ambitions. Spending so long in the savage jungle dehumanizes him. He loses sight of that thin line between goodness and corruption, as did others before him. Kurtz ends up "raiding the country"(p. 94) on his frequent ivory expeditions. He does this by becoming worshiped by the natives. The darkness and evil get "Ã¢ÂÂ¦into his veins, (consume) his flesh, and (seal) his soulÃ¢ÂÂ¦"(p. 81). The "Ã¢ÂÂ¦powers of darkness (claim) him for their own."(p. 82) Kurtz comes to value money over people, and thereby wealth over humanity. His greed is his prison. He has been living in an uncivilized land for too long and the land's savagery affects him.
Every man has inside of him a heart of darkness. Kurtz journey into Africa is an unveiling of the inner darkness which all men are afraid to face. Kurtz inner darkness is what separates him from society. He is admired and envied up to the point where the truth reveals him. His inhuman savage actions bring hatred upon him. Even while lying on his death bed, he is so corrupt that he would rather die than be brought back to civilization and lose his power and wealth. But perhaps Kurtz fully recognizes what he has become. In his last tragic words, "The horror! The horror!"(p. 118) Kurtz realizes the truth but it is too late to change. It is as though he cannot face the reality of what he is responsible for. At the end of this journey for him lies not ivory, but instead the true inner self - the heart of darkness.
Like Kurtz, the captain is faced with searching his soul to identify himself. His story begins at sea. The captain is very uneasy when he is thrown into the position of captain of a ship. The captain begins to feel insecure about running his ship and questions his ability to lead the crew. During one of the first nights on board the ship, the captain demonstrates his thoughts of insecurity and self-consciousness when he does something that a captain would not normally do: he plans to take the night watch. "I felt painfully that I - a stranger - was doing something unusual when I directed him to let all hands turn in without setting an anchor watch" ( p. 139). The captain is so self-conscious and insecure about his actions that he reacts almost painfully to the crew's judgment of his orders. He also states that he perceives himself to be a stranger amongst the others. Among his insecurities, the captain thinks, "But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself. The youngest man on board (barring the second mate), and untried as yet by a position of the fullest responsibility, I was willing to take the adequacy of the others for granted" (p. 138). The captain is young and does not feel he really knows himself. This insecurity leads him to believe he is not fit to lead others if he does not even have confidence in himself. The captain begins to change when he harbors a criminal with whom he can relate. Here the captain shows that he chooses to decide what he feels is right by accepting the criminal, and therefore isolating himself from society, because if anyone were to find out, it would never be accepted.
Through a close and secret relationship with the Secret Sharer, the captain begins to find his identity and transforms into a very confident and able captain. The Secret Sharer is even referred to as the captain's "double". The captain starts to identify with the Secret Sharer, which helps him feel comforted and understood on the ship of strangers: "I had become so connected in the thoughts and impressions with the secret sharer of my cabinÃ¢ÂÂ¦" (p. 166). Near the end of the story, the captain realizes he is in complete control and is confident as a leader of his vessel. After choosing to risk the life of himself and his crew in order to save the Secret Sharer, the captain skillfully guides the ship out of harms way and gains the respect of the crew. His newly discovered trust in his abilities will help him in the rest of his journey and the rest of his life.
Both men become isolated from society through the choices they make on their journeys. In both situations their experiences change them forever and help them live a reality. In Kurtz's case, deep in the heart of the jungle, he learns through corruption, power, and greed what he is truly capable of, and discovers the heart of darkness within himself. The captain, through his relationship and experiences with the Secret Sharer, changes from an insecure and inexperienced ship's captain, to a more confident and secure individual. But the journey to self discovery is a path sometimes painful, always truthful, and full of obstacles along the way. We as individuals, must decide whether to take the path, or hide from it.