'There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies' (Marlow in Heart Of Darkness). Discuss the role of lies and self-deception in the novel.

Heart Of Darkness persists as one of the most closely analysed texts of the twentieth century. It has been read as allegory, political indictment, and psychoanalytic paradigm, amongst other dissections. One thing that virtually all agree upon is that there is more contained within its few pages than a simple fictive 'truth'.

We receive the tale through the recollections of the listening seaman, in turn through Marlow's own perceptions and recollection, and it is evident within a few pages that a distance is drawn between author and narrative. For, even as that distance is deceptive, the framing is periodically drawn to our attention by Marlow's reverie or lack of articulation.

Successive generations have been led to ask: To what extent is Conrad representing or misrepresenting his own perspective in the narrative? What does Conrad define as 'truth', and can he offer a 'solution' to the inadequacy of language? These are amongst the principle questions I intend to investigate within this essay.

When Marlow declares from the outset: "I don't want to bother you much with what happened to me personally"[1], this serves to demonstrate Conrad's awareness of active content impedance and that the declared focus of narrative will frustrate the direct discussion of his involvement as an author. Nevertheless, Michael Echeruo offers a conventionally interpretive reading of Heart of Darkness alongside other texts with African settings:

If there is anything 'true' of such novels, it is not essentially (or properly) in its setting or in its depiction of character and personality, but in the accuracy of its reflection of the imaginative temper of the author's culture.[2]

However, this reading is only one of those which lays claim to identification of a kernel of 'truth', and does so by precluding any two-way dialogue between culture and its description. Conrad himself postulated: "history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting—on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer truth"[3], and the post-colonial author Edward Said suggests of works 'representative' of foreign cultures that "texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe."[4] In this way, travellers visiting the Congo took with them preconceptions based upon the recollected experiences of those who went before them; the subjugation of natives by Leopold in times previous served to inform their on-going treatment as 'creatures' less than human, perpetuating those convenient stereotypes and external definitions. Even a text such as Heart of Darkness, which lends itself to supporting readings deploring exploitation, must communicate through "preexisting units of information"[5], refuting previous dogma whilst incorporating the fact of its existence. Since we process present information rather than that unknown, the ready awareness of a set of negative assumptions must in some way impinge upon our reading and construction of an alternative. When Marlow pronounces, "they were not inhuman"[6] it is insufficient for him to state 'they were human' without some form of emphasis (indeed, those three words bereft of any italicisation offer no comment; that they are unremarkable must go remarked precisely because of the preconceptions to be highlighted.) Closely related to this are the implications for scientific observation inherent to Heisenburg's principle of uncertainty: Observation alters and constructs as much as it 'objectively' views, and Marlow is implicated in the shaping of the society to which he returns by influencing records and textualisations of the Congo experience; in particular, he destroys Kurtz's postscript on the versions of the report which he allows to circulate, never explicitly challenging the peroration supporting conversion of the natives under duress.

Perhaps it is the purposefully complex layering of style and methodology that leads some critics to label not just Marlow but Conrad as racist, but I feel it would be a mistake to conclude, as does Chinua Achebe, that Conrad approves of Marlow's implied racism simply because he does not explicitly and textually declare otherwise.

Given that that Conrad's readership was predominantly white, middle-class and British, (his short story An Outpost of Progress was controversially published alongside cosmopolitan celebrations of colonial empire), it is rather understandable that whatever contribution he sought to make to the disputed colonial discourse had carefully to be weighed, to ensure both its publication and its audience not discarding it part-read. A narrative that is culturally semi-complicit is often necessary for its coded messages to be validated in any way by the ideological value system it challenges; Conrad must speak the vernacular of the 'untruth' in order to subvert it.

I believe that accusations of Conrad's complicit acceptance of racism as social truth may be lain to rest by examining the material of his contemporaries, which he employed throughout his own naval and writing careers: In particular, he was well versed in the material of H. Stanley, who quoted in a speech the William Pitt of 1792:

It has been alleged that Africa labours under a natural incapacity for civilization ... Allow of this principle as applied to Africa, and I should be glad to know what it might not also have been applied to ancient and uncivilized Britain.[7]

(It is possible also that Conrad also realised the irony that Roman legionnaires—including North Africans—historically arrived in Britain before the Angles and Saxons[8].) An obscuring device, which Conrad uses with great effect, is displayed in his initial representation of Marlow as 'untypical' ("he did not represent his class"[9]), and comparing him in description as an exotic 'idol' or 'Buddha'. To the majority of a contemporary audience, Marlow would have been a figure to be either daringly and partially agreed with or dismissed out of hand was he not discoursing upon a subject close to their business and commercial interests. Where Marlow perhaps rates highly with this audience is in his integrity and declared resistance toward lies, even if his interpretations might be deemed suspect. However, though Marlow is not given to vocalising what he recognises as untruths, this does not dissuade him from manipulating a situation through the device of selectivity: He misleads on two crucial occasions during the text. He allows the brick-maker to assume his influence with the Company is great, protecting Kurtz before knowing him in the hope that he might, and the tale ends in a more explicit lie. Both stem from fellow feeling, contact with which makes him "miserable and sick"[10] and feel his own mortality most keenly.

Interestingly, despite the paucity of female characters, over 150 instances of the pronouns "she" and "her" occur throughout the novel. I would hesitate to make such sweeping pronouncements on the matter of gender as others do on race, but Marlow's comment "[the women] should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse"[11] seems to attach to a notion of his character as a traveller without ties, given primarily to associating gender with boats. Again, I would suggest that this stems principally from the conventions of his target audience and inscription of the distrustful sailor stereotype, rather than any specific prejudice on the part of the author, who further subverts social conventions by noting that Marlow's aunt is the most influential route to employment. "[Guarding] the door of Darkness"[12] women may be; they remain the ones sage enough to stay on the right side of it, with or without his white lies to conceal a truth in any case unutterable.

Likewise, the infamous line de-humanising the native boatman as "a dog in a parody of breeches"[13] to me suggests a sympathy that the natives have not been allowed to progress to this situation 'under their own steam', as it were. They have been denied the chain of logic and social development which would lead from fire demon to mechanism, and so persist in viewing it as supernatural, but this need not be the case. He explicitly asks the readership to imagine their response to his "invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilise you."[14] Of the actions of the dark-skinned worker with the gun he declares: "This was simple prudence, white men being so much alike at a distance",[15] drawing interesting parallels with the casual racism of 'civilisation' and making the subversive statement that no appearance can be trusted. This and other subtle and not-so-subtle reversals that occupy the opening of the novella draw further into question simple readings of Conrad's use of derogatory racist terminology as anything other than ironic. Then there is even subtler duality of language; Conrad's use of the phrase "the germs of empire"[16] at a time of populist medical interest and increasing awareness of bacterial propagation must have elicited a few wry smiles. It is in his silences, however, that Conrad is truly eloquent: "He [Kurtz] was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do"[17] This coincides with a break in the narrative, drawing attention to the incommunicability of experience, which will be my next area of discussion.

The essayist Hansson quotes Thomans Brook's remark that "Conrad's art approaches the truth...not by stating it but reminding us of the lie that accompanies every effort to name the truth."[18] However, that a 'lie' is defined by a deviation from truth is problematic, since one of the primary readings of the focus of the narrative is that such actualities resist communication. The word 'truth', semiotically, defers meaning through a chain of culturally constructed synonyms for 'real' or 'correct', much as Corad's frequent use of the conditional 'like' proposes meaning only ever by association. Seeming is not to be believed: The book annotations that "looked like cipher"[19] are actually Russian, and this revelation reminds us of the potential for deception by the narrative perceptions and voice. Marlow could easily have stated that the code was foreign language at the same moment he addressed the jottings. He could later have said simply 'my crewman was shot', but instead Conrad chooses for him to defer explication and perpetuate the defamiliarisation as a comment upon the trust automatically placed in speech ("I saw my poleman give up the business suddenly, and stretch himself flat on the deck, without even taking the trouble to haul his pole in.[20]") Nowhere are words immutable; there is the ironic persistent use of 'pilgrims' to describe the colonisers, and there are 69 separate uses of the conditional word 'seeming' throughout the text. Even the most common true noun ("Kurtz" or "Kurtz's" appear in 98 instances) is suggested to be subversive: "that means 'short' in German — don't it? Well, the name was as true as everything else in his life — and death. He looked at least seven feet long."[21] The suggestion that conventions may be deceiving is more dangerous than may initially be apparent, for it contains the suggestion that any convention may be so. Language is thus more than ineffectual; it can easily be turned to abuse. Indeed, in description of Kurtz, Marlow says:

Of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a real sense of presence, was his ability to talk, his words — the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.[22]

(my emphasis added)

Thus, there is the explicit suggestion that redemption stems from ignorance and denial of articulation, focus falling upon distraction from "burning noble words"[23]. To this end, "[Conrad] envisions paradise at the moment when he sinks deepest into the toils of the wilderness."[24], or as Marlow phrases it, "the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the [contamination] in — your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business"[25] Here, restraint from universal "forgotten and brutal instincts"[26] is key, and respect is most inspired in Marlow by the accountant, with his insular attention to books. In Kurtz, Marlow perceives "the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggled blindly with itself."[27]—A pain exacerbated by his simultaneous position within both the wilderness and the outside world of intellectual concepts from which he derives his power, and a traditional clash of emotion and reason. Wiley argues that, "the anchorite is [...] a figure who, in his retreat, offers a challenge to a ruling principle of order"[28], but Kurtz is not a true anchorite, for his reclusive introspection is not accompanied by either isolation or sublimation—rather, he is there to preach and to influence others. "He had something to say. He said it."[29]

Conrad likewise said his piece, and though "the capitalized Author"[30] may indeed by dead and buried, and Kurtz' summation, "the horror! The horror",[31] is fittingly imprecise for a 'truth' that so keenly resists hermeneutic location, one truth amongst many may be proposed from Conrad's personal description of his writing methodology. "In light of the final incident, the whole story in all its <detail> descriptive details shall fall into its place—acquire its value and significance." He goes on to specify of the story that

the last pages of Heart of Darkness where the interview of the man and the girl locks on—as it were—the whole 30000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life.[32]

By his earlier conjoining of lies and death, by refusing to warn the Intended of the consequences of Kurtz' exploration of the human mind, and by passing on the incomplete report, Marlow damns himself by his own criteria. The narrator suggests, at the onset of the text, that "we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow's inconclusive experiences"[33], and that meaning lay outside, but a universalistic "[howling] truth stripped of its cloak of time"[34] screams of the 'taint of death' attached to words and lies: "[mortality] is exactly what I hate and detest in this world—what I want to forget."[35] It is what Marlow cannot, precisely because he understands that "no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation"[36] In Marlow, Conrad has created an Everyman character, a Mariner without even the hope of redemption: Like the Faustus of Christopher Marlowe, the seaman is made separate from other mortals by his knowledge and self-awareness, which come at the cost of close fellowship. Raymond Chandler's later incarnation of a Marlow also protects others (also subjectively deemed weaker and/or more worthy) from corruptive knowledge, spinning them comforting lies as they move toward 'the big sleep'. For the Marlows of the world their surfeit of consciousness is a curse, felt every moment of their procession funereal.

"It seems that I have already used all forms of [apology], and I daren't or care not to produce the old excuses—so truthful after all, and so threadbare."[37]

—Conrad, to his publisher


Joesph Conrad, Heart Of Darkness, Penguin 1995/2000

Erdinast-Vulcan, The Strange Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad, Oxford 1999

ed. William Blackburn, Letters to William Blackwood and David S. Meldrum, Duke University Press 1958

Paul L. Wiley, Conrad's Measure Of Man, New York 1954/1966

Michael J. C. Echeruo, Joyce Cary and the Novels of Africa, Longman 1973

Statistics from e-text of Heart Of Darkness provided by Project Gutenburg


Chinua Achebe, An Image Of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" 1988, [seminar handout]

Karin Hansson, Heart Of Darkness: White Lies, University of Karlskrona/Ronneby, Sweden, http://film.tierranet.com/films/a.now/4-93.pdf

Karin Hansson, Joseph Conrad and the University Curriculum, University of Karlskrona/Ronneby, Sweden, http://film.tierranet.com/films/a.now/5-93.pdf

Rivkin & Ryan (ed.), Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, 1998

[1] HoD, p21

[2] Novels Of Africa, p5

[3] quoted in White Lies

[4] Literary Theory, p877

[5] Literary Theory, p877

[6] HoD, p62

[7] HoD notes, p128

[8] HoD notes, p128

[9] HoD, p18

[10] HoD, Gutenberg e-text

[11] HoD, p80

[12] HoD, Gutenberg e-text

[13] HoD, p64

[14] HoD, p21

[15] HoD, p33

[16] HoD, p17

[17] HoD, p50

[18] White Lies

[19] HoD, Gutenberg e-text

[20] HoD, p75

[21] HoD, Gutenberg e-text

[22] HoD, p79

[23] HoD, p83

[24] Measure Of Man, p81

[25] HoD, Gutenberg e-text

[26] HoD, p106

[27] HoD, p108

[28] Measure Of Man, p80

[29] HoD, p113

[30] Strange Short Fiction, p5

[31] HoD, p112

[32] Letters, p154

[33] HoD, Gutenberg e-text

[34] HoD, p63

[35] HoD, p49

[36] HoD, Gutenberg e-text

[37] Letters, p134