In Heart of Darkness Conrad tries to deal with issues which are almost inexpressible. The mysterious effect of the jungle wilderness on Kurtz, and on Marlow himself, puzzles the imagination and bewilders the understanding. We might ask why Conrad chooses to tell the story through the character of Marlow, rather than simply to set it as a first person narrative. The story is, in fact, about Kurtz, and about the way that contact with the primitive touches on the reality beneath human civilization, but it is also part of Marlow’s autobiography.
Marlow is a character, not just a narrative voice, and his characterization enables us to judge and understand what he tells us. He stands for certain impressive values – the practicality of the seaman’s life, the belief in the value of work, the refusal to judge too quickly, and the calmness of mind which allows him to consider and respond to the ambiguities in Kurtz’s experience. With his detached and skeptical manner, the fruit of a life among practical things, he makes the extraordinary story as believable as is possible. We do not identify with him exactly, and he is not simply the voice of Conrad, but he is a convincing and unpretentious narrator who offers us glimpses into the ineffable.
Much of the earlier part of the novel is concerned with establishing Marlow’s character and credentials as a narrator. The actual narrator who speaks on the first page tells us that Marlow is the sort of seaman who is “trustworthiness personified” (5). But he is “not typical” (8) in that “to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale” (8), which perhaps prepares us for Marlow’s attempt to convey to us the scale of his experience and its importance. The maritime traditions and habits of mind are central to Marlow. He values work over fantasy. At the jungle station “I went to work… In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life” (33), which is a vital and mature desire in him. His instincts are to reject nonsense and absurdity and stick to the real.
It was a relief, he says to get back to the work of repairing the steamboat, not because he actually likes labor, “but I like what is in the work, – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality…” (41). A powerful moment for him is the discovery in the riverside hut of Towson’s manual on seamanship, which, in the middle of the chaotic world of the jungle, gives him “a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real” (54), for the real is what he longs for, as the guarantee of sanity and purpose. It reassures him that the book has been studied and cared for, the spine “lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread” (54) and the margin annotated with what he thinks is cipher but later discovers to be Russian.
If Marlow’s integrity and devotion to the real is created thoroughly, so are his attitudes to what he experiences before he meets Kurtz. Conrad gives him a style that is consistent. He is skeptical, a little sardonic, and down-to earth. He tells how he worked on his relations to try to ensure that he could go to Africa:
The men said “My dear Fellow,” and did nothing. Then – would you believe it? – I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work – to get a job. Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: “It will be delightful…” (12)
The voice is familiar, humorous and unaffected, and we feel every reason to trust what he says. His devotion to the real makes him immediately sensitive to dishonesty and cant. His view of “progress” is justifiably jaundiced. The captain whom he replaces has been killed; “I heard the original quarrel arose from a misunderstanding about some hens” (13), and he is sure that afterwards “the cause of progress got them, anyhow” (14). His charge is “a two-penny-half-penny river steamboat with a penny whistle attached” (18) and he feels that his aunt talks “rot” when she describes him as “an emissary of light” (18). He records the bizarre sight of a French warship lobbing shells into the jungle to destroy “enemies” (20).
He is bewildered by the sight of the accountant at the station in his “high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers…” (25) working alongside the black workmen who are dying in the grass. He encounters a white man who has the job of maintaining the road. He is drunk, and “Can’t say I saw any road or any upkeep, unless the body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole in the forehead, upon which I absolutely stumbled three miles further on, may be considered a permanent improvement” (29). The man who tries to put out the fire in the store shed carries a bucket and declares “that everybody was ‘behaving splendidly, splendidly,’ dipped about a quart of water and tore back again. I noticed there was a hole in the bottom of his pail” (33).
Everywhere Marlow’s shrewd and ironical intelligence spots the signs of decay, corruption and self-deception. The whole establishment at the jungle trading station is “unreal” (35), and when the manager starts canting about Marlow being “of the new gang – the gang of virtue” (36) “I nearly burst into a laugh” (36). The whole experience has for him the insane logic of dream, “that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams…” (39).
Such judgments and descriptions strike the reader as immensely observant and yet modestly expressed. Marlow feels fundamental decencies being abused by the colonial trading world, and it is hardly surprising that he becomes increasingly interested in Kurtz, who is clearly feared as well as despised by the other agents, largely because he has some sort of vision, a commodity seriously lacking in the ivory trading world. Marlow’s convincing honesty and down-to-earth qualities even make Conrad’s symbolism easy to approach.
The Fate-like knitting women in the Brussels office are entirely real as well as allusive. One wears a dress “as plain as an umbrella cover” (14). Marlow notes how the two women introduce many “to the unknown… these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall” (16). It is a rare and powerful effect, not clumsy, as it might have been, because we are so convinced by Marlow’s practical and realistic attitude.
When it comes to the encounter with Kurtz we are therefore ready to give Marlow the benefit of the doubt as he reveals his own complex attitude to the man, and tries to explain what it is that Kurtz has seen and felt. It is Kurtz’s idealism that first interests him, here in this nightmare place of unreason. The other agents laugh at his hope that “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanising” (47). At the same time Marlow cannot escape the thought that the savage figures seen on the bank are not inhuman, “the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (51) and we can see how he might understand how Kurtz’s own soul has been captured by the darkness.
He finds that he wants to talk to Kurtz, even though he realizes as soon as he gets to Kurtz’s station that “He had taken a high seat among the devils of the land” (70), something Marlow knows will be almost impossible for his audience to understand; “How could you? – with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours…” (70). This is where Marlow’s story moves into the area of the incredible and the only partly expressible Kurtz’s high-minded writings end suddenly with the savage cry “Exterminate all the brutes” (72). The “brother seaman” talks of how Kurtz has inspired him – “I tell you…this man has enlarged my mind” (78). But Marlow can only conclude “Why! He’s mad” (81) despite the Russian’s protests.
The skulls are the evidence of his total breakdown, that the darkness “had whispered to him things about himself that he did no know” (83). The spell of the wilderness had awakened “forgotten and brutal instincts” (94) in him and dragged his soul “beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations” (95). Marlow is able to see Kurtz’s story as a tragedy. His aim had been to “Live rightly, die, die” (99) but he had not known what was in himself, and Marlow’s readiness to stand by him at the end, even to rescue him in a way, rests on an awareness that Kurtz was not despicable, and that he himself might well respond in the same way.
“He had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot” (101). Back in Europe, like Gulliver, he is disgusted by his fellow man, “like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger” (102), and he lies to Kurtz’s “intended” because neither she nor anyone else would be able to comprehend the truth.
Marlow does not claim to know or understand everything. It is the unassuming nature of his narrative stance that convinces us. The “real” narrator calls the whole thing “one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences” (10). But no one could be omniscient with such a subject; Marlow only glimpses one of the great mysteries, and none of us is ever granted more than that. What Conrad has done is to choose a narrative method and a type of narrator which conveys as well as possible immensely difficult things.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.