What Does Marlowe learn?

When a novel is written in narrative form like Heart of Darkness it’s easy to forget the narrator is a character, too, because the protagonist of his tale takes center stage. However, if we pay attention carefully enough, we may realize that we can learn as much from the narrator himself. Marlowe introduces the story by telling us that his encounter with Kurtz is a highpoint in his life:

It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me--and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, too--and pitiful--not extraordinary in any way--not very clear either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.

As readers we should want to learn what throws “a kind of light on everything about me--and into my thoughts.”

Whatever truth Marlowe found, he actually foresaw it a thousand miles before he saw Kurtz.

I've had to resist and to attack sometimes--that's only one way of resisting--without counting the exact cost, according to the demands of such sort of life as I had blundered into. I've seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men--men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning.

Perhaps the reason most of us remain unaware of this kind of folly is precisely because it is so insidious. When we’ve been surrounded by wealth most of our lives we’re probably unaware of the true cost of producing that wealth. I could never have imagined that the neighbor’s beautiful ivory carvings I admired so much as a child came at such a heavy cost. I doubt I could ever see them in quite the same light after reading Conrad’s story.

A thousand miles later Marlowe discovers how greed and absolute power have affected Kurtz, the very embodiment of European culture. We see it clearest when Kurtz, near death, tries to return to the natives in the middle of the night despite his illness and Marlowe’s attempt to stop him:

I tried to break the spell--the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness--that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations. And, don't you see, the terror of the position was not in being knocked on the head-though I had a very lively sense of that danger, too--but in this, that I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him--himself--his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air. I've been telling you what we said--repeating the phrases we pronounced--but what's the good? They were common everyday words--the familiar, vague sounds exchanged on every waking day of life. But what of that? They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares. Soul! If anybody ever struggled with a soul, I am the man. And I wasn't arguing with a lunatic either.

Even in death Kurtz seems drawn by the wilderness, by the “awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.” The most striking image to me, though, is the one of a man who had “kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone…” As long as Kurtz was in his own society he was the “model” man, conforming to society’s rules. When the natives feared him like a god, though, he indulged his “brutal instincts.”

Marlowe asserts that “being alone in the wilderness” has driven Kurtz’s soul mad.

Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear--concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance--barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn't so good, on account of unavoidable noise. But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had--for my sins, I suppose--to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it--I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. I kept my head pretty well; but when I had him at last stretched on the couch, I wiped my forehead, while my legs shook under me as though I had carried half a ton on my back down that hill. And yet I had only supported him, his bony arm clasped round my neck--and he was not much heavier than a child.

I found it interesting that at the climax of the story Marlowe focuses not just on Kurtz but on himself when he says, “I had--for my sins, I suppose--to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity.” What are Marlowe s sins? Earning a living? Are we all guilty of the same sins? How is Marlowe different from Kurtz? What saves him from the same fate? Marlowe certainly seems to imply that without the restraints of society, faith and fear (of legal punishment), the human soul cannot resist greed and hatred of those who oppose it.

When we look at Kurtz, we have to ask if we are subject to the same ambitions that he was:

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 unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas--these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.

It’s hard to imagine any society putting more focus on wealth and fame than ours does. Kurtz had apparently been rejected by his intended’s family because he wasn’t wealthy enough, and originally he had gone to Africa to earn his fortune. In that sense, he reminds me of The Great Gatsby who pursued wealth in the vain hope that Daisy would love him then. In the end, even the noblest goals can be debased when they rely on greed or hatred for their fulfillment.

At first glance, it seems quite strange that Marlowe can find anything to admire in Kurtz. Unlike many, Marlowe’s not impressed by the fortune in ivory that Kurtz managed to accumulate. No, what Marlowe admires is Kurtz’s final insight when faced with death:

I was within a hair's breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up--he had judged. 'The horror!' He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth--the strange commingling of desire and hate.

Simply put, Marlowe seems to admire Kurtz’s ability to look into the human soul, the human predicament and see “The horror,” the horror of “the strange commingling of desire and hate” that is at the heart of man.

With this knowledge, Marlowe suddenly sees members of the company in a new light:

Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance. I daresay I was not very well at that time.

Unlike Marlowe, these people didn’t see the danger they were facing, didn’t realize they were only an opportunity away from Kurtz’s fate.

In the end, I think it’s that knowledge that makes Marlowe appear like a “meditating Buddha:”

Marlowe ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. "We have lost the first of the ebb," said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

He sits “apart,” not just because his listeners are shocked by his tale but because he’s the only one that realizes the full import of the tale. Notice the Director’s reaction to the tale, “We have lost the first of the ebb,” we’re missing work. That greed still seems “ to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”

I’ll have to admit I’ve always been more optimistic than Conrad seems to be — I’ve wanted to believe humans are more benevolent than he reveals them to be.

Unfortunately, recent political trends in America have made me question much of what I used to, and want to, believe. It seems incredible to me that so many people have so little regard for those who have less than them. Incredibly, even those who claim to be Christians seem to have turned on the poor, denying them medical care, even food stamps “because they are all selling their food stamps to buy drugs.” The rich protest they’re overtaxed, though an executive who makes 53 million in stock options will end up, a year, later paying a lower tax rate than my wife and I do because he’ll be taxed at 15% under capital gain rules. Greed is in the saddle and rides our society!

One thought on “What Does Marlowe learn?

  1. I always have trouble accepting the premise that without societal or religious constraints we will all fall into a pit of total moral absence. Having never been a follower of conventional religion, I find that is not true for me.
    I wonder if what Conrad is really suggesting is that society encourages us to put our moral beliefs to one side in order to gain the goals it deems to be important – wealth, power, etc. The Society in this story tells us the ends justify the means, especially if those means are affecting natives in far away Africa. They liked to think they were “helping” the natives but just the opposite was true.

What do you think?