Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "Kurtz's Legacy" by Cheng-Hao W. (Spring 2014)

"Kurtz's Legacy" by Cheng-Hao W. (Spring 2014)

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is, on the surface, a story of the journey of Charlie Marlow as he makes his way from European “civilization” into the depths of the African Congo, a place of complete and savage wilderness. This physical journey is a metaphor for the deeper psychological journey which Conrad is truly writing about, the journey into man, humanity’s, own heart of darkness. This entire process is presented in the novel through the eyes of Marlow, and through his actions and thoughts we see how the wilderness changes the people exposed to it. Marlow himself is an extremely interesting example of such change. A specific focus of this change is Marlow’s own stance on lying. At the beginning of the novel, Marlow states that “You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie”, and that there is a “taint of death, and a flavor of mortality in lies”(Conrad 42). Yet, at the end of the novel he seems to betray his own philosophy by intentionally lying to Kurtz’s Intended, telling her that Kurtz’s dying words were her name. The exact purpose of Marlow’s lie and what it means to the novel’s message has been a controversial point of debate for many scholars and critics of Heart of Darkness. While the many varied claims all put forward valid points, they also have individual as well as shared weaknesses to their argument. I believe that the key to understanding Marlow’s lie ultimately lies in the significance of what Marlow learned from Kurtz in the wilderness. What exactly is so important that it drives Marlow to lying, something which he professes that he hates?

Before getting into the impact of the lie then, we must first determine what it is that Marlow learned in the wilderness which he was so ready to lie about. Kurtz’s Intended believed that he was a noble and charismatic man, and it is this illusion which Marlow lied to protect. Charismatic he might have been, Kurtz was certainly not a noble man. In order to procure large amounts of ivory, he was merciless and immoral in his methods. He was willing to, and did, kill and enslave others to achieve his goals, as shown in the novel when he almost killed the Russian adventurer for his ivory. Kurtz, and the other European pioneers, came to civilize but instead found themselves becoming savages instead, finding within themselves a “heart of darkness” previously hidden in society. Kurtz “regressed” into becoming a savage.

This idea of regressing to nature, of atavism, is the particular focus of the novel’s message, and Kurtz is Conrad’s ultimate example of that concept, as argued by critic Michael Levenson in his article “The Value of Facts in the Heart of Darkness”. Kurtz is “the degradation of a virtuous man”, and a symbol of “voluntary atavism” (Levenson 272). Society, with its institutions of morals and values, is what keeps our individual “darkness” in check, and what Marlow and also Kurtz discovered in the wilderness is that these constructs of society are merely illusions. They are illusions in the sense that once society is taken out of the equation, like what happens in the wilderness, previously “civilized” men such as Kurtz find so-called voluntary atavism a much more attractive option to living by the values of society, because the values which society create for us to live by are not our own, and so we discard them once society is not there to enforce them. Without restraint, living only for his blind passions, we see how Conrad, in the earliest parts of his novel, describes Kurtz as being driven by a “rapacious and pitiless folly”(Conrad 24). However, that is only half the story of Kurtz. For on his deathbed, Kurtz achieved a “moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats” (Conrad 119), one which inspired Marlow to make his choice of nightmares.

While Marlow looked upon Kurtz on his deathbed, he “saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself”. If Kurtz was truly living his life free of society’s morals and only indulging blindly in his passions, where did such “restraint” come from? If society’s values are insufficient for us to live by, and living purely according to blind pursuit of passion can only lead us to self-destruction, as shown by Kurtz, what then is the right way to live? The ultimate message of Conrad’s novel is found again within Marlow’s observations of the dying Kurtz, as he remarked that the most which one can expect from life is “some knowledge of yourself”(Conrad 117). It is up to each and every one of us to determine where our morals and restraint should come from. We should not follow blindly the empty values of society, but we should also not give in to living simply for pleasure. Between the nightmares of conventional society, and the nightmare of our own passions, it was “something to have at least a choice of nightmares”(Conrad 104), to be able to decide for ourselves what to live for, and how to live. This is the truth which Marlow learned in the wilderness, and what he kept Kurtz’s Intended from knowing.

Now that we know what it is that Marlow lies for, we can better evaluate the arguments for why he does so. Michael Levenson argues that the moral growth which Marlow experiences as a result of his observations of Kurtz has led him to develop into a “Practical Moralist” who believes that whether a lie itself is immoral is grounded in what the reason for lying is. Conrad’s novel is an “assault on prevailing social conventions”(Levenson 275), such as honesty in not telling lies, with Kurtz as the prime example of how society’s values “arouses virtuous aspirations then proves unequal to the passion (they) excite”(Levenson 275), meaning that they are not worthy of following. However, since Kurtz’s fall also shows us that morals and restraint are necessary, Marlow “acts as the practical Moralist who overturns general ethical conceptions without overturning ethics”(Levenson 277), because he believes that while lying would be unethical by the standards of society, it is the act of not lying which is personally immoral to him, showing that Marlow has broken away from the “nightmare” of either choosing between following society’s values or following no morals at all by creating and following his own set of morals. To add on to that, critic Kenneth Bruffee in an article published by the Modern Language Quarterly claims that Heart of Darkness is Faustian in nature, drawing parallels between Kurtz and Faust, a fictional scholar who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge. Marlow, who accepted this knowledge which Kurtz sold his soul for, then comes to believe that “Kurtz’s Intended is nevertheless worthy, does nevertheless deserve not to have to face the truth about Kurtz”(Bruffee 326). She has not chosen to sell her soul for it, so to speak, and so to intentionally hide the truth from her would be a necessary act of kindness, to “relieve the suffering that she does not know she suffers”(Bruffee 325) in living by the false values of a society which she has been conditioned from birth to live by. Here, in a slight departure from Levenson, Bruffee places the emphasis of the lie on the Intended, effectively saying that Marlow lies not for the sake of his new morals but for the sake of the Intended. However, what Bruffee construes as “a necessary act of kindness” has also been taken by some critics to be sexist. Nina Strauss in her article “The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" argues just that, saying that this truth which Marlow discovers is intentionally hidden from the Intended purely because of her sex, that truth according to Conrad is “directed at and intended for men only” (Strauss 124). Why does the Intended need protection from the truth, if the men in the story are able to handle it? Marlow’s truth tells us that each of us as individuals need to establish our own individual morals, and can only live meaningful lives if we live according to these morals, and not simply listen to what society tells us how to live. Strauss, in accusing Conrad of sexism, calls Conrad out in thinking that women need someone, maybe a man, to tell them how to live.

Ultimately, each of the arguments for why Marlow lied are revealed to share a similar flaw. Marlow as the storyteller tells us at the start of the novel that he detests a lie, claiming that they have a “taint of mortality” to them. However, because Marlow is recounting the story to us, he already knows how his story is going to end, which is with a huge, intentional lie. Each of the theories for the cause of his lie described earlier provide reasoning for how Marlow might have been transformed in the wilderness from a man who hates lies into one who recognizes that lies can sometimes be necessary and even moral. The counter-claim here is that if Marlow has been changed by Kurtz and the wilderness, then it is the changed Marlow who is telling us the story from the start of the novel here. Why then would he go to the trouble of claiming that he hates lies, if the end of his story is simply going to reveal him as a massive hypocrite? Thomas Moser of Stanford University in his book Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline criticizes Marlow’s final lie by saying that “Marlow’s lie certainly weakens the scene; he has made the truth seem too important throughout the novel to persuade the reader now to accept falsehood as salvation.” (Bruffee 325) In the same way, Marlow’s initial claim of detesting lies take away from his supposed development as a character, and attempts to justify his final lies suffer greatly as a result of their inability to explain this initial claim of Marlow’s.

Annotated Bibliography

Key Words:

1. Stewart, Garrett. “Lying as Dying in Heart of Darkness” PMLA , Vol. 95, No. 3 (May, 1980) , pp. 319-331. Print.

This is a scholarly article talking about the significance of Marlow’s lie in Heart of Darkness, and mainly compares the act of lying in the story to the act of dying, a contrast between Marlow and Kurtz. Marlow’s lie is mainly shown in a negative light. I plan to use this as an argument source.

2. Bruffee, Kenneth A. “The Lesser Nightmare: Marlow’s Lie in the Heart of Darkness”. Modern Language Quarterly. Vol. 25 Issue 3, September 1964, pp322. Print.

This is another scholarly article, also about Marlow’s lie. This article argues that Marlow’s lie was borne out of necessity, and that in doing so Marlow is not being hypocritical or immoral, but is instead holding himself to even higher moral standards. Marlow is protecting the intended from a “suffering she does not know she suffers”. I plan to use this as an argument source, and to contrast with Pelikan’s argument (listed below).

3. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness (Case studies in Contemporary Criticism) Bedford/St Martins : New York. 2010. Print.

My exhibit source, the novel Heart of Darkness. I will be pulling many quotes from this book to either support or refute the ideas presented by the critics of Heart of Darkness which I am addressing in my essay, ultimately forming my own conclusion based on this interaction between criticism of the novel and the novel itself.

4. Strauss, Nina. “The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 20, pp 123-137. Winter 1987. Print.

Her article is extremely long, and deals with the entire Heart of Darkness, pulling out “sexist” themes and ideas presented by Conrad in the novel. She also compares Conrad to his contemporaries, calling all of them sexist in some fashion. I will mostly be using her article as an argument source, especially the parts where she mentions Marlow’s lie to the Intended, and her thoughts on the Intended specifically.

5. Levenson, Michael. “The Value of Facts in the Heart of Darkness”. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 40, Dec., 1985, pp. 261-280. Print.

His article provides an interesting and valid summary of the exact moral growth which Marlow experienced in the wilderness as a result of his contact with Kurtz. With this analysis, he comes to the conclusion that Marlow’s lie was indicative of his formulating new morals to live by, becoming a “Practical Moralist”. He shares many of the same ideas as Bruffee(listed above), but his conclusion is entirely new and shows Marlow from a different perspective compared to Bruffee.