Conrad drew attention to the last pages of ”Heart of Darkness” in his letter of 31 May 1902 to William Blackwood, in which he says that ”the interview of the man and the girl locks in—as it were—the whole 30000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life, and makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the Centre of Africa” (. . . emphasis added). Instead of concluding in the heart of the Congo, the tale comes full circle to its point of origin, the Thames, by way of Marlow’s return to the sepulchral city and subsequent encounter with Kurtz’s Intended.
Conrad’s impressionistic depiction of Brussels, both early and late in the narrative, externalizes the sham and hypocrisy he sees at the heart of Western civilization. On the second visit, Marlow takes offense at the “irritating pretense” of perfect security reflected in the faces of the insignificant citizens. Yet here, in the heart of the city of untruth, Marlow lies to conceal the horror of Kurtz’s degradation and, apparently, to reinforce the Intended’s “saving illusion.” True, Marlow does admit his contempt for lies early in the narrative, but his African nightmare transcends conventional polarities such as truth and falsehood, good and evil, appearance and reality. He finally recognizes truths as convenient fictions, useful in matters of survival, but totally invalid in terms of understanding the nature of life. Marlow lies (at least, so he tells us) to preserve the Intended’s opportunity for affirmation and survival. He also lies because he perceives something of Kurtz in himself as well as in the Intended. The melodramatic interview ends with Marlow bowing before the inscrutable enigma of existence. Conrad insinuates throughout this crucial locking, or summarizing, scene that in order to sustain life one must project one’s own illusions for living. Self-deception, the essential condition for happiness, becomes a kind of existential higher understanding, and thus Conrad invalidates all conventional truths and moralities in his iconoclastic narrative of the truth of fiction and the fiction of truth.
Conrad’s critical attitude toward verbal expressions of truth in “Heart of Darkness” closely parallels Nietzsche’s skeptical outlook. As critics have noted, Conrad and Nietzsche adopted similar attitudes toward language. Conrad views language as an imprecise—if not deceptive—means of communication, as does Nietzsche in his essays “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” and “On the Prejudices of Philosophers.” In the former essay, Nietzsche argues that the mind is an arbitrary instrument of knowledge more concerned with flattering deceptions than with perceiving the truth beyond appearances. Defining man as an assemblage of masks, roles, poses, and postures, he sees the vanity of the human race as dependent on the capacity for self-deceit. External reality mystifies the modern individual, who remains imprisoned within a self-deceiving consciousness that decrees, in accordance with “linguistic legislation,” that truth must be always agreeable and never damaging to the ego: “And, moreover, what about these conventions of language? Are they really the products of knowledge, of the sense of truth? Do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” Language is general and conceptual, but each experience is particular and unique, and therefore words fail to communicate without equivocation: “[T]ruths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.” Truth, debased and defrauded into surface truths, no longer functions as anything but an agent for conditioning and conformity: “LT]o be truthful means using the customary metaphors—in moral terms: the obligation to lie according to fixed convention, to lie herd-like in a style obligatory for all.”
In his essay “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” he further contends that since reality is unknowable through conventional means, primarily logic and language, existence would be impossible without a consistent falsification of the world as it is. Recognizing “untruth as a condition of life,” one can no longer seriously entertain questions of truth or falsehood; instead, what really matters is the affirmation or denial of life. If illusions are necessary to preserve and promote life, Nietzsche maintains, the human ego will abandon the search for true judgments and explanations of existence in favor of conventional fictions, that is, the specious consolations of language, logic, and other formulaic systems of reference.
Although I am not arguing that Nietzsche’s linguistic skepticism directly influenced Conrad, some of Nietzsche’s works may have been available to Conrad before he began writing ‘ ‘Heart of Darkness.” But what Nietzsche was propounding in theoretical terms Conrad expressed in the fabric of his fiction, becoming one of the first major twentieth-century authors to challenge the efficacy of language as a vehicle for transmitting meaningful communication. More specifically, Conrad targets the deleterious effects of the labeling function of language. Words and things are not synonymous. Or, as Djuna Barnes puts it, writing almost four decades after the publication of “Heart of Darkness” : ”Life is not to be told, call it as loud as you like, it will not tell itself. . . . There is no truth, . . . you have been unwise enough to make a formula; you have dressed the unknowable in the garments of the known.”
Yet Conrad’s ending involves more than Marlow’s lie and its motivation. In particular, Marlow’s saving falsehood gains new significance in light of the intricate series of corresponding words and phrases that pervade the final pages of the novella. These correspondences are sometimes superficial, as when Marlow compares Kurtz’s “ebbing” life to the swiftly running ”brown current.” In the last paragraph, Conrad’s narrator reports the Director’s announcement ”We have lost the first of the ebb,” and states that”the tranquil waterway .. . seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” This takes us back to the opening of the narrative, when the Nellie waits ”for the turn of the tide” at ”the beginning of an interminable waterway.” Conrad’s nautical imagery suggests that Marlow and his auditors must share Kurtz’s fate, an implication that seems substantiated by the name of their cruising yawl, the Nellie, perhaps a comic diminutive of death knell, as the geographical reference to ”Gravesend” may corroborate. Employing death as a metaphor for disillusionment, or spiritual extinction, Conrad chronicles the failure of human intentions and lofty aspirations. At the heart of darkness, Marlow, who has been linked to Kurtz as one of the new breed of agents, finds himself ”numbered with the dead.” Conrad again identifies Marlow with Kurtz in the final scene when Marlow rationalizes his visit to the Intended as an attempt to give up everything that remains of Kurtz. But the meeting does not unfold as Marlow imagines, and he finally accepts the burden of insight as a permanent part of his psyche. Marlow must live with the memory of Kurtz’s horror for the rest of his life.
Kurtz dies before the locking scene begins, but he reappears as a phantom to haunt Marlow in the sepulchral city, speaking through the mouthpiece of the Intended to dumbfound him once again. Conrad hints at the correspondence of Kurtz and the Intended by punning on the word expression. In Marlow’s estimation, Kurtz’s greatest attribute is his “gift of noble and lofty expression,” and while admiring the Intended’s portrait, Marlow remarks that “she had a beautiful expression.” Kurtz’s eloquent rhetoric corresponds to the beauty of his fiancee’s countenance. But we must also keep in mind that Marlow interprets Kurtz’s cry ”The horror” as ”the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth.” Much earlier, Marlow had digressed to discuss the ”flavour of mortality in lies”; however, Conrad asserts that truth can also be appalling, as in Kurtz’s shock of recognition (“The horror!”) preceding his death. The “flavour of mortality” also becomes manifest in the final scene, when Marlow begins a sentence and the Intended finishes it, substituting her own words and feelings for Marlow’s:
“Then before the appealing fixity of her gaze that seemed to watch for more words on my lips I went on, “It was impossible not to …” “Love him,” she finished eagerly, silencing me into an appalled dumbness. “How true! How true!” ”
Truth can be appalling more often than appealing whenever it negates life. The example of misunderstanding above suggests that knowing the truth about Kurtz might destroy the Intended’s sentimental cocoon. Marlow seems no more capable of enlightening her than he was with Kurtz when he attempted to speak common sense to him at the Inner Station. Conrad’s linking of Marlow with Kurtz and Kurtz with the Intended implies that we are prisoners of our own preconceptions about life. Truth and falsehood have little to do with the affirmations and negations that render existence purposeful or pointless.
Conrad also links Kurtz to the Intended by emphasizing their mutual capacity for belief. In Europe, a journalist tells Marlow that Kurtz “had the faith. He could get himself to believe anything—anything.” Marlow echoes this assessment in much the same language when he describes the Intended: ”She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering. The room seemed to have grown darker as if all the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead.” Here, light and darkness do not correspond to truth and falsehood. Rather, the “sad light” represents a diminishing beacon of faith in a devouring chaos of darkness. Moreover, Conrad often calls attention to the Intended’s “ashy halo” (an arresting oxymoron) in this scene: “[W]ith every word spoken the room was growing darker, and only her forehead, smooth and white, remained illumined by the unextinguishable light of belief and love.” Fidelity, whether well-founded or unfounded, seems the sole alternative to the psychological paralysis of unmitigated despair. Conrad transmutes the metaphysics of despair into a poetics of immobility and blindness when he immerses Kurtz in “impenetrable darkness” on his deathbed to contemplate the harrowing thought of his own emptiness. In similar fashion, Conrad stages the interview with the Intended in a room that gradually succumbs to dusk and darkness. As the room grows darker, Marlow realizes he must keep secret Kurtz’s withering words: “The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. ‘The horror! The horror!'” By lying, Marlow does not give Kurtz the justice he had requested:”I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether. … ” Yet, by attempting to save the Intended from the despair that consumed Kurtz, Marlow affirms Kurtz’s original intentions, rather than the actual consequences of those intentions. Marlow keeps the darkness within himself, refusing to extinguish the Intended’s dim light of belief. His lie functions as a surface truth that preserves life at the price of deceit.
There is also the question of how Marlow can be convinced that he knows the truth about Kurtz. The Intended asks for Kurtz’s last words, but Marlow was dining in the mess room at the time of his death. It is possible that in his delirium Kurtz could have spoken almost anything without being overheard Marlow cannot be sure that Kurtz’s last words were “The horror! The horror!” And even if they were, what do they really mean? The secret lies with Kurtz, not with Marlow, who expatiates on the topic ad nauseum without providing a clear-cut explanation. Does Kurtz’s cry “The horror!” signify his recognition of the abominable evil he has committed? Or is it an acknowledgment of his inner emptiness? Like Ahab’s doubloon in Moby-Dick, Kurtz’s outburst has as many meanings as interpreters. Ultimately, the meaning of this stirring exclamation must be determined subjectively, and individually, by each reader and on each reading of the novella.
Throughout the locking scene, the Intended represents the image of light threatened by darkness, of order besieged by chaos. In the dusk, her “pale head” seems to float toward Marlow, as if disembodied from her black garments. Conrad calls attention to ”the last gleams of twilight,” the ”glitter of her eyes,” and the “glimmer of gold” hair that “seemed to catch all the remaining light.” When the Intended assumes a posture of supplication that reminds Marlow of Kurtz’s other woman, his native mistress of inextinguishable faith, he describes her as “stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness.” Conrad’s light and darkness correspond to affirmation and negation, not to truth and falsehood, for ”Heart of Darkness” unfolds as a journey to the brink of cosmic nihilism and back again to a broken world of dim beliefs. Marlow ultimately views the Intended’s delusion as a sanctuary from the snares of experience, as he finds himself ”bowing my head before the faith that was in her, before that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her—from which I could not even defend myself.” His lie forges a solidarity of belief among himself, Kurtz, and the Intended. Marlow’s compassionate act may serve as a temporary triumph for life set against the backdrop of the inevitable triumph of darkness. A case can even be made for the view that Marlow’s real lie is his attempt to rid himself of the burden of Kurtz at the Intended’s doorstep. Marlow realizes that he cannot dispose of the memory so easily, and he departs with the “truth” and the trauma still within him. He confesses to a “feeling of infinite pity” for the woman who had more faith in Kurtz than Kurtz had in himself. Given a ”choice of nightmares,” Marlow ultimately selects the lesser of two negations—the appalling “lie” instead of the annihilating “truth.”
Conrad presents Marlow’s visit to the Intended as a ghostly reunion with Kurtz; every detail gives the impression of a posthumous existence. Even her street resembles a ”well-kept alley in a cemetery.” Unable to cast off his memories, Marlow envisions Kurtz “on the stretcher opening his mouth voraciously as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind.” The voice that Conrad accentuates throughout the tale intimidates Marlow even long after Kurtz’s death. Marlow imagines Kurtz staring at him from the panel of the door “with that wide and immense stare embracing, condemning, loathing all the universe.” The white and black piano keys suggest the disparity of Kurtz’s idealistic rhetoric and his rapacious lust for ivory.
But Conrad also employs more subtle tactics in this scene. The Intended suddenly materializes, dressed in black, as if Kurtz had died only the day before. Catching sight of her, Marlow also feels that time has stopped since the death of Kurtz:
“I saw her and him in the same instant of time—his death and her sorrow—I saw her sorrow in the very moment of his death. Do you understand? I saw them together—I heard them together. She had said with a deep catch of the breath, “I have survived”—while my strained ears seemed to hear distinctly, mingled with her tone of despairing regret, the summing-up whisper of his eternal condemnation.”
Beneath the rhetoric of late-Victorian melodrama, Conrad implies that the Intended embodies Kurtz’s short-lived intentions as an apostle of idealism and that the phantom whisper represents Kurtz’s well-deserved damnation, his total psychological inversion in the heart of Africa. Marlow apprehends this duality as the general condition of mankind, not as an isolated eccentricity of human nature. Earlier, he had remarked that the human mind is capable of anything. Marlow even perceives this duality within his own identity, when he faces the failure of his misguided mission as an emissary of light and realizes that company officials have lumped him with Kurtz as practitioners of advanced methods of colonialism. But Marlow most distinctly hears this judgment against the hollowness of humanity in the disconsolate words of the Intended: “[T]he sound of her low voice seemed to have the accompaniment of all the other sounds full of mystery, desolation, and sorrow I had ever heard . . . the faint ring of incomprehensible words cried from afar, the whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold of an eternal darkness.” Seeing Kurtz in the glowing face of the ever-faithful Intended, hearing Kurtz’s insane whisper in her trembling voice, Marlow recognizes once again the inescapable phantom he had earlier called the “initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere.” It dwells within him, within all humankind. Kurtz literally is the nowhere man; his ancestry stems from all over Europe, and his corpse lies somewhere in a muddy hole. His shade is everyone’s shadow. Marlow understands this implicitly and realizes the futility of all ego-oriented actions. His lie temporarily preserves his integrity and the Intended’s illusion, but like the ”life-lie” in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck the deception does not ensure salvation but merely survival.
Marlow does survive. He survives what Kurtz failed to endure in the heart of the wilderness. Marlow affirms that like ancient explorers in the great age of navigation modern individuals must learn ”to live in the midst of the incomprehensible which is also detestable.” The language of “Heart of Darkness” amplifies “the incomprehensible” with acute exaggerations of Conrad’s own account of his journey to the inner recesses of Africa. Conrad’s rhetoric, with its preponderance of superlative and indefinite abstractions, consistently dramatizes the gulf between human experiences and the imprecise linguistic representations of those events. “Heart of Darkness” unfolds as an excursion into the absurd, a penetrating scrutiny of nothingness, and a dramatic example of Conrad’s evolving articulation of humanity’s perennially frustrated search for meaning. The very novella itself, according to Peter Brooks, calls into question the ”epistemology of narrative” and demonstrates ‘ ‘the inadequacy of the inherited orders of meaning.” Truth remains elusive, and any effort to package it in linguistic wrapping seems doomed to failure. So why speak at all?
In the final paragraph, Marlow returns to his original posture, silent and detached ”in the pose of a meditating Buddha.” This ultimate parallel, Marlow as Buddha, actually conceals Marlow’s role as mediator between the benevolence of Buddha and the rapacity of Kurtz. Marlow plays the part of the man of action who turns to a life of contemplation, even though, paradoxically, he “still followed the sea.” The external narrator’s reference to Marlow’s “pose” as Buddha may suggest that he is mocking Marlow’s pontificating wisdom, yet Conrad’s unnamed external narrator does conclude the story with the image of the Thames, the civilized counterpart of the primeval Congo, leading to ‘’the heart of an immense darkness.” If the external narrator has any awareness of Marlow’s grim revelation, then he is certainly unique, for the other auditors never respond to Marlow’s interpretation of his experience, except by way of petty objections or stupefied silence. Enveloped in their own little word-worlds, invisible cocoons of catch phrases and slogans, they consider Marlow’s “inconclusive” narration a usurpation of their right to fritter away the hours playing dominoes. They function, in the more sophisticated “jungle” of progressive London, as counterparts to the worthless pilgrims who litter the deck of Marlow’s steamboat in the Congo. Like Kurtz, they exist on the fringe of egomania, fitting inheritors of Kurtz’s I-me-mine sensibility: “My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments.” The Managing Director’s utterance in the last paragraph—”We have lost the first of the ebb”—rings with the same hollowness. Even the Intended’s turn-of-the-century sentimentality is expressed in reflexive language. Each character speaks in the idiom of his or her cultural conditioning, from the minor figures to the Intended, Kurtz, and Marlow himself. None of them breaks down the barriers prohibiting authentic communication.
By happenstance or design, Conrad has fashioned in “Heart of Darkness” a logomachy, or battle of words. On one level, he constructs a semiotic framework whereby concrete signs stand for abstract symbols (e.g., the river is the inexorable stream of time; the wilderness, the irrationality of life; and the darkness, the vacuous heart of mankind). In juxtaposition to this scheme, he establishes a semantic pattern that undermines much of the particularity of the narrative. For example, most of the characters either have no name, like the external narrator and Kurtz’s African mistress, or are identified only by occupation: the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, the manager, the brickmaker, and so on. Or else Conrad links the character to a verbal tag, as in the case of the Intended, the Harlequin, and Marlow’s pose as a modern European Buddha. Conrad’s rhetoric, replete with superlatives and indefinite abstractions, consistently dramatizes the gulf between human experiences and the imprecise linguistic formulations that allegedly correspond to them. Conrad’s verbal tactics tend to render the whole narrative of Marlow’s journey as an amorphous cloud of moonmist and to alchemize abstractions such as “immense,” “unspeakable,” and “unknowable” into concrete form. The great fecundity of scholarly commentaries on “Heart of Darkness” testifies to Conrad’s genius in crafting such a multifaceted jewel for meticulous appraisal. Critics, like early explorers, must write ”in the midst of the incomprehensible.” And every attempt at a definitive interpretation of the narrative ultimately falls short of a full disclosure. By taking us to the heart of darkness, Conrad paradoxically uses words to demonstrate the inability of language to encompass the unfathomability of human existence.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Ted Billy, “The Clash of Nebulous Ideas,” in A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad’s Short Fiction, Texas Tech University Press, 1997, pp. 69-77.