The unreliable narrator in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

If James Joyce’s Ulysses marks the end of the novel, that is the narrative form related by a reliable narrator, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness shows us how and why its death was inevitable.  Heart of Darkness was first published in 1902, at a time when Freud’s theories of the unconscious had become public, when the horrors of ‘the scramble for Africa’ were being exposed and the Enlightenment values of the power of human reason, “natural rights” of individuals  and the progressive improvement of society were being subjected to pressure. However, Heart of Darkness is a work of art that goes beyond the worlds of philosophy, politics, or moral values and to reduce it to their level is an injustice to the work.   The novella is told through the persona of Conrad’s creation, the unreliable narrator, Marlow. His unreliability, which is the focus of this essay, evident through his dependence on third party hearsay, and irony, is proven to be such in his creation of the subject of his fascination, the mysterious Kurtz. This unreliability crystallises in his fanciful interpretation of Kurtz’s few brief, enigmatic utterances. Marlow’s attempts to breathe context into a voice whose words are isolated from  context, confront language that foreshadows Beckett’s later works, which  appears as disembodied strings of words that exist in their own right, free of obvious association to events of the existential world . When confronted by these crises either his imaginative process demands he take liberties with the text – which do not stand up to scrutiny – or his obligation to justice reveals a breakdown in the narrative.   

Marlow weaves a picture of Kurtz that has been garnered from various sources encountered before they meet, three quarters of the way through the novella. To the accountant he is ‘a very remarkable person’; to the agent, ‘…he will be somebody in the administration before long’; the bricklayer calls Kurtz ‘a prodigy’. On the other hand, Marlow, eavesdropping on a conversation between the manager and his nephew, grasps snatches of them speaking disparagingly of a man he, Marlow, believes to be Kurtz. They accuse him of ‘impudence’ and think his influence ‘frightful’, and later say that his methods are ‘unsound’. In drawing from ambiguous, second-hand sources Marlow’s representation of Kurtz, built largely on hearsay evidence, is heavily prejudicial of the Kurtz the reader eventually meets and cannot be logically justified by the narrative in which Marlow sets him.  Marlow, in a telling indictment of the reliability of the narrator, admits, though he detests lies, he had become ‘in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest.’   

The conundrum that is at the core of Heart of Darkness is in what Kurtz says, and to a lesser degree, allegedly, writes, and in how Marlow struggles to put Kurtz’ disembodied words, that are outside context, in a context of his  making.   Marlow’s desire to tell the good story compels him to infer sense and meaning in Kurtz’ few Beckettian remarks. His first encounter with Kurtz is through his [Kurtz’] report written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, to which he [ Marlow] refers in hindsight.  Quoting  from Kurtz’ report ‘… by the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded’, Marlow admits, ‘from that point he soared and took me with him’[…]The peroration [conclusion] was magnificent though difficult to remember [author’s italics], you know[…] was the unbounded power of eloquence – of words – of burning words.’ The contradiction comes in the less than magnificent scrawled note, written at the foot of the last page ‘terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a blue sky’: ‘Exterminate all the brutes’. We are led to assume that Kurtz wrote the note, although, according to Marlow ‘he had apparently forgotten all about that valuable postscriptum.’ Noteworthy here is Marlow’s foreshadowing  of his response to Kurtz’ intended at the end of the book [ see below] as,  neatly switching the focus from the postscript  he says ‘he repeatedly entreated me to take good care of my pamphlet [he called it], as it was sure to have in the future  a good influence upon his career.’   Marlow chooses to evade discussion on the scrawled postscript [musing, instead, on his part in the care of the pamphlet and the protection of Kurtz’ reputation]. For sure there are many possible interpretations to be drawn from the cryptic note. Are the brutes the African rebels, or the natives in general, or the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, or the Ivory traders ; who is meant by all – only the brute element among  those intended for extermination – or is it implied that everyone of that category  is a brute? Marlow is confronted by an aporia, an irresolvable internal contradiction, that he chooses to disregard, uncharacteristically for one who draws imaginative interpretations from most of Kurtz’ other, equally nebulous remarks.  

To explain why we need to go back to the author for an explanation. Conrad creates a crisis that cannot be narrated. The crisis revolves around the contradiction between Marlow’s eagerness to weave a narrative from hearsay, on the one hand and the straightforward fact of a cryptic note scrawled on Kurtz’ manuscript on the other. It is a damning body blow to the notion of the reliable narrative, because, here Marlow is confronted with a situation that, more than an aporia, is text without origin, beyond context, a mystery, even  to its presumed author. It is on the fact of this note, which he believes to have been written by Kurtz, that Marlow’s capacity to continue the narrative breaks down. The scrawled post script  rebuts Marlow’s gushing tribute to the pamphlet’s ‘ unbounded power of eloquence’ and  its hope  to exercise  a ‘power for good’  that soared and caused Marlow to ‘go with him’ and dispels any intention of exercising justice or goodness through its stark command.  The postscript cruelly rejects most of Marlow’s conjectures to a degree that renders him speechless. He pauses for breath, so to speak, by backing off the breakdown to muse on his responsibility in securing Kurtz’ place in history. But that contradiction between the eager narrator and the cryptic  untellable is a recurring theme through the work, as he admits  its inherent  absurdity to  his audience of sailors on the deck  of the Nellie in London : ‘This is the worst of trying to tell…’ Nevertheless Marlow indefatigably persists in fighting back from his setback by immersing himself in a revealing passage of narrative on  his initial meeting with the comical Russian harlequin who, though in thrall to him,  expounds contradictory accounts of Kurtz’ insights into love, life and justice; of the ruthless ivory hunter who threatened to shoot him, who was adored by natives but had wiped out one tribe who were ‘rebels’ and exhibited their skulls on poles around his dwelling.  The harlequin, who admits he is a simple man with no great thoughts, spins a meandering picture of Kurtz, retold at one remove by Marlow, that further justifies the accusation of unreliability argued by this essay

To get to the essence of the true Kurtz we need to see his actual words – not their interpretation   – as recorded by Marlow. We, suspending disbelief, trust the primary source because of his warts and all accounts gleaned from previous sources. The ill Kurtz’ first words to Marlow ‘I am glad’, are spoken in a voice which  the ecstatic Marlow takes it upon himself to describes as ‘grave, profound, vibrating, while the man did not seem capable of a whisper.’ We know from Marlow that Kurtz had ‘immense plans,’ that he said  ‘I was on the threshold of great things’ and from his account of Kurtz altercation with the manager : ‘ you are interrupting my plans now […] never mind. I’ll carry my ideas out yet …’However, Kurtz, through direct speech, gives no inkling of what these plans and ideas are. Marlow speculates ‘they were common everyday words – the familiar, vague sounds exchanged on everyday waking life,’ which they are, when set in the context of everyday life. However, these common words are incongruously foisted on the contradictions, ambiguities, and hearsay of the fanciful tapestry from which   Marlow’s creation, Kurtz, is woven. Conrad juxtaposes the hyperbolic language he attributes to Marlow against the  facts of Kurtzspeak, facts Marlow finds difficulty in accepting as such but insists on continuing to  see in them the ‘terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares,’  symbols that justify the Kurtz of his creation. The irony of hints dropped by the harlequin,  ‘you can’t judge Mr Kurtz as  you would an ordinary man’ and by his own  suggestion of the ethereal in ‘the whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold of an eternal darkness’ bear fruit in the denouement when he   ponders that ‘the voice was gone. What else had been there?’  

Marlow the narrator is haunted by Kurtz’ overheard words to the manager:

‘Save me!  – save the ivory you mean. Don’t tell me. Save me! Why I’ve had to save you.You are interrupting my plans now,’

which may serve as a metaphor for Marlow’s predicament, i.e. the conflict between the imagination and straightforward facts. Save ‘the ivory’ i.e.  Marlow’s reputation, secured through the  injustice of Marlow opting to spin a fanciful tale rather than tell a true account of Kurtz, based on what he actually said and wrote.  The narrator’s ‘peddling little notions’ of telling a great yarn , Kurtz accuses, ‘ are interfering with me.’ Marlow’s creation of Kurtz has saved his reputation but has doomed Kurtz, interfered with him, as he admits when he tells Kurtz ‘you will be lost,’ I said – ‘utterly lost.’

Marlow had begun his narration feeling that he ‘belonged still to a world of straightforward facts’ and that ‘feeling would not last long’  a prediction ironically borne out when he   baulks  at  repeating , to Kurtz intended ,whom he meets in Europe,  the straightforward fact  of Kurtz’s last words ’The horror the horror.’  Instead, in a derogation of the responsibility of the narrator to relate the straightforward facts he struggles to lie to her: ‘his last words- – were your name’. In so doing, he ironically mocks the notion of the happy ending through admitting, presumably, that Kurtz never mentioned her name. and that the imaginative powers of the narrator had failed him when they were so needed.  More than that, it is the admission that his story is built on pretence.  Through it, Conrad administers the coup de grâce to the illusion of the reliable narrator that had been well-signposted through Marlow’s interactions with Kurtz.

It is in this final meeting, between Marlow and Kurtz’ mourning intended, that he realises the momentum of his narrative is unsustainable. Her passionate narration of Kurtz’ goodness that conflicts with the confusion in his , her assumption that he also knew of Kurtz’ vast plans, of his greatness, ‘his gift of the great… that drew men towards him by what was best in them,’ fills Marlow with something  like despair, dull anger and  chills him. He sees the pretence in her narrative mirroring that in his. Marlow, at last  is haunted by the literal impact of Kurtz’ words ‘I want no more than justice,’ and the logic of those words demands that he tell her, not just the last words that she wants to hear, but the arcane, stark truth of the few, disparate, disjointed murmurings privy to Marlow but rid of  the colour and context of his interpretations. He knows they can never amount to a story,  that the imaginative  powers of the narrator had  not just failed him when they were so needed but worse, in this moment of enlightenment, he realises he has been exposed as  the creator of a tale that is built on pretence. He has gazed into the abyss and has seen the horror of the abyss gaze back at him and he rejects what he sees; nor can he repeat to her Kurtz’ last words for they are the words of a disembodied  voice and must be left as they were said, untranslatable and understood as such only  by  Marlow. To repeat them would land her in a life of torment and endless frustration as she searches for the consolation of their meaning.  It  is at this precise moment that Marlow realises  the necessity of  telling the  narrative, even though he knows it is no more than  make-believe; that’s  what the world , represented by the crew of the Nellie, wants to hear, they, who  are so rapt  listening to him  that the ship misses the first ebb of the tide that would have begun their journey.

In Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad, the early Modernist, questions the credibility of the omniscient narrator of the realist novel. Marlow, the compelling storyteller, is shown to base his narrative on hearsay garnered from wildly disparate sources. Conrad has him admit to pretence, to the breakdown of his story, and face the contradiction between his fanciful tale and the enigmatic, arguably Beckettian, speech pattern of the ‘real’ Kurtz. For Conrad, although the narrative can only be unreliable it will still be read for the people want to hear stories.  All Kurtz can offer is the ‘whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold of an eternal darkness’, a whisper that rose to an audible sigh in the works of Beckett and Joyce.  

If you enjoyed this article by Dr Arthur Broomfield, you may also enjoy Surrealist Poetry, Deconstruction and Quantum Physics

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About the contributor

Dr Arthur Broomfield is a poet, Beckett scholar and critic from County Laois. His recent collection The Giant’s Footsteps at the Rock of Dunamaise [Revival] is available from the author.

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