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‘You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie’ (Marlow). Examine the significance of this comment in the novel as a whole.
On first inspection this comment seems rather straightforward; a reflection of the protagonist’s honest and open personality. It is only when the reader asks himself why it is that Marlow condemns lies so emphatically that it becomes a significant reflection on the rest of the novel. Marlow’s relationship with the truth is a complicated one, and whilst appearing to disagree with deception in general, he indulges in it himself on several levels. His role as narrator, firstly, gives him the freedom to convey certain person opinions (especially regarding the questionable virtues of colonialism), and although he is never wholly deceptive, his use of language is surely capable of manipulating his audience in a certain way. When applied to Marlow’s experience of the expedition into the Congo, the title quotation is interesting for different reasons, as it gives perspective into a situation in which human values are constantly being questioned and challenged. The contrast between the characters of Kurtz and Marlow also revolves around the idea of concealment and exposure.
At one point in the novel Marlow marvels at women’s ability to be ‘out of touch with truth’ (p.149). He appears to have the opposite aptitude, as he often sense whether something seems real or not, despite having little faith in his ability to transfer this to his listeners. He complains that ‘it is impossible – to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence’ (p.172). nevertheless, Marlow’s direct response to certain incidents is very telling. He enjoys watching the natives because ‘they had – an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there.’ (p.151). This is particularly appreciated by Marlow, who experiences the uncomfortable sensation of ‘feeling [like] an imposter’ (p.150). He also comes to feel strong affection for the old sea manual he comes across, simply because of its authenticity: he notes its ‘singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work which made these humble pages – luminous with another than a professional light’; and speaks of ‘a delicious sensation of having come across something unmistakably real.’ (p.189) The use of enthusiastic vocabulary such as ‘luminous’ and ‘delicious’ suggests that Marlow views truth as a tempting delicacy which rare but, once encountered, absolutely irresistible.
His disgust at falseness is made apparent in a similarly striking manner, through the use of imagery of sickness and decay. Marlow reflects on the greed of the ivory hunters by observing that ‘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 my life’ (p.166). This exclamation conveys his utter wonder at the potential superficiality of man. The description of one of the over ambitious agents as a ‘papier-mache Mephistopholes’ (p.171) is another instance of his frustration at people’s inability to possess integrity of character.
It is only when Marlow himself succumbs to lying that his most forceful opinions about deception are expressed. He is appalled by the ‘taint of death’ and ‘flavour of mortality’ which surround lies, and declares that the whole process makes him ‘miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do’ (p.172). This almost physical reaction is conspicuous in its intensity, and it is clear that Marlow is troubled greatly. The first of the two main lies to which he consciously gives way is surely a white lie. He exaggerates his influence in Europe to gain control of the greedy, probing agent described above, and to secure the acquisition of much needed rivets. Marlow’s confused description of this falsehood immediately conveys his troubled conscience:
‘I went near enough to [lying] by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims – I had a notion it would somehow be of help to Kurtz – ‘ (p.172)
He oscillates between condemning his own deceptiveness and trying, somewhat blindly, to justify it. A similar paradox is apparent later when, celebrating the promise of rivets with the foreman by ‘caper[ing] on the iron deck’ (p.176), Marlow hears ‘a deadened burst of mighty splashes and snorts – as though an ichthosaurus had been taking a bath of glitter in the great river’ (p.176). This is perhaps an example of pathetic fallacy: nature is reflecting Marlow’s distressed state of mind, and also representing morality and truth.
His second lie comes at the end of the novel, when he tells Kurtz’s Intended that her name was the final utterance made by the dying man, when in fact this was far from the case. Marlow begins to recount this incident long before its actual place in the narrative, suggesting that he is still upset by it:
‘I laid the ghost of his gifts at last with a lie,’ he began, suddenly. ‘Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of it – completely. They – the women I mean – are out of it – should be out of it – Oh, she had to be out of it.’ (p.205)
This floundering language of denial reflects Marlow’s panicked mood which has arisen from his guilty conscience. The reader is made to consider why Marlow feels it necessary to lit, given both the appalling effect it has on him and his apparently firm beliefs concerning dishonesty.
At the start of his narration, Marlow admits that he is excited by the notion of having ‘an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifices to’ (p.141). From the very beginning, it is clear that he is driven by ideals and a sense of duty, at whatever price. He speaks of a ‘devotion to efficiency’ which motivates him throughout the expedition, and certainly it takes very little to fill Marlow with awe. When he first meets the accountant, for example, the overriding emphasis of his description is on the man’s perfect appearance. ‘I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair – His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character.’ (p.158) Later it becomes apparent that the accountant is a rather selfish, unpleasant character, whining that the ‘groans of this sick person – distract my attention’. Marlow, however, is still entranced by the ‘miracle’ (p.157) of his efficient ways and fails to see past his exterior. In this case, Marlow’s tendency to focus on work and efficiency, even at the risk of concealing problems, is strikingly apparent.
He is far from blind to the problems of colonialism, however, and indeed conveys an enlightened view on the subject:
‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much.’ (p.140)
Looking at anything ‘too much’ is surely equivalent to discovering its true meaning, so Marlow is clearly aware of the potency of uncovering reality. He is not afraid of observing that the savages encountered on his travels are not as distant as it would be comforting to believe:
‘ – If you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise – And why not? – What was there after all? Joy, fear sorrow, devotion, valour, rage, but truth – truth stripped of its cloak of time.’ (p.187)
This understanding attitude towards the natives does not stop him from idolizing Kurtz, however, and the description of the relationship between the two characters is very telling when considering Marlow’s values. Kurtz seems at first to embody the efficiency so important to Marlow, and he is referred to as having ‘the might of a deity’ (p.203) when dealing with the natives.
Eventually it becomes obvious, though, that Kurtz has gained a real egocentricity when dealing with the ‘idea’ that Marlow has previously described as requiring selflessness. He is only interested in ‘My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas – ‘ (p.237), and it is indeed true that ‘you can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man’ (p.218). His dedication to his work and duty has backfired and revealed in him the inner savage, which explains his tribal display of ‘black, dried, sunken [heads] with closed eyelids’ (p.220). Kurtz’s moral value have disappeared at the expense of his wild greed.
Marlow’s relationship with the truth, then, is always overshadowed by this phenomenon. While he is capable of noticing and appreciating honesty and truth, particularly with regard to nature’s laws, there is always the unspoken thought that he will become a Kurtz-like figure. The frame narrative suggests that this never occurs, for he has moved onto a different venture, yet this extra dimension adds to the intensity of the novel, as well as to the reader’s understanding of Marlow. Perhaps Marlow is so ardently disgusted by lies, because he knows that he is capable of falling prey to them, albeit in the name of efficiency. The balance between his dedication to his work and his moral integrity is never fully sustained.
Edition: Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. New York, Oxford University Press, 1990.
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