Marlow and Human Limitations



By Geoff Peters, October 11, 1999


            In Heart of Darkness Marlow takes us on a journey into the heart of darkest Africa, at a time when explorers and treasure seekers were venturing up the Congo River in search of the riches of ivory. What separates Marlow’s tale from a mere adventure story, however, are the uncomfortable truths about civilization and humanity that Marlow uncovers during his voyage. One of the inescapable truths he runs up against concerns the basic limitations of the human species. While humans may become so utterly confident in our civilization’s prowess, and sometimes even believe we can act like gods, the truth is that we are still human and are bound by the basic human limitations that are inherent to our world and species. Although in a rush of confidence we humans may believe ourselves to be immortal, omnipotent, and omniscient, Marlow realizes the reality is that humans are limited by death, have weaknesses, and sometimes must contend with knowing less than the absolute truth. It is Marlow’s contending with human limitation and weakness that provides a major focus for Heart of Darkness.


            In the following passage, Marlow states his attitude towards the human limitations implied by the act of lying. In order to reach an understanding of the significance of lies to Marlow it is important to note how he finds in lies “a taint of death”:

“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies,—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget”[1]


This quote shows how the inevitability of never knowing the absolute truth because of lies is linked together in Marlow’s mind with the limitation of mortality. Marlow wants to forget that there is a taint of death in the world because he would like to forget that as a human he must face the death of others and eventually his own death. In lies he finds a “flavour of mortality” because he is reminded by lies that humans are not immortal godly beings.

            In Heart of Darkness, Marlow has much opportunity to face both death and human weakness. His experiences in the jungle give him glances into the face of death, from the violent spearing of his boat pilot to the slow process of Kurtz’s death. At times during the process of Kurtz’s death Marlow feels that his is closer to his own death: “And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also were buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast. The smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night. . . .”[2]

            Kurtz’s grave is full of unspeakable secrets about his weaknesses and the weaknesses of humans in general, but one of the most shocking secrets of Kurtz’s weakness was the way he established himself in the jungle. Kurtz set himself up as a god, inspiring fear and adoration into the hearts of the natives. Clearly this was a man who not only “lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” but also believed himself above all basic human limitation. In Kurtz’s eloquent report for the “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs”, he “. . .began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings – we approach them with the might as of a deity.” This was Kurtz’s eloquent justification for his corrupt and savagely inhumane relations with the natives, which involved putting heads on stakes to inspire fear, and the infliction of “thunder and lightning”[3] through his various firearms.

            When Marlow relives his experience through the telling of his tale to the men aboard the Nellie he is able to reflect upon and seek significance in the death and human weakness he has seen in the jungle. Marlow takes on the role of a storyteller, but he also becomes a teacher and a seeker of the truth. In reliving his experiences Marlow himself reaches a higher spiritual and moral state. Through the eyes of the frame narrator we have an opportunity to see Marlow as he tells his tale: “Marlow sat cross-legged. . .he had. . .a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards resembled an idol.”[4] “. . .with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.”[5] Through the posture of a Buddha Marlow’s role as spiritual teacher and seeker of the truth becomes apparent. But in a way, through his posture Marlow is escaping the world of mortality for a while, and while reliving his experiences takes on the role of a higher spiritual and moral being. But unlike Kurtz, who also tried to become a kind of “supernatural being”, Marlow is well aware that he is human and must contend with the limitations of being human, even as he tells his tale.

In the telling of his tale Marlow becomes frustrated with the human limitations of communication, the fact that words can only merely gesture at the truth. Through words alone it is impossible to be sure one has communicated what one wants to convey:

“Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation. . . It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone. . . .”

While Marlow is aware of his own limitations as an imperfect storyteller and interpreter of the truth, he is also aware that he has uncovered much horrific truth while on his voyage. Luckily, Marlow is able to remain sane during the voyage, even though he encounters truths that threaten to subvert and topple his world.

            For Marlow the reality of the jungle is “the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention…[a] mysterious stillness watching [him] at [his] monkey tricks.”[6] The jungle is utterly indifferent to human values and is filled with “lurking death, … hidden evil …[and] the profound darkness of its heart.”[7] Nature has an immense force of its own that demands to be reckoned with. “We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly…”[8] Marlow is faced with the uncomfortable blending of what is animal and what is human: on the shore Marlow sees a savage man who “…had horns – antelope horns on its head.”[9] Upon seeing several Africans Marlow writes, “…the worst of it [was] this suspicion of their not being inhuman…they howled, and leaped and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was the thought of their humanity…”[10]

            Marlow must find a way to avoid confronting the overwhelming truth of the jungle “monstrous and free” because doing so would mean certain madness. As a defense against the powerful jungle Marlow turns to his duties aboard the steamer. Through absorbing himself in the “surface truth” of the difficult task of piloting the steamer up the river, Marlow is able to keep himself safe from the “inner truths” that threaten him. “When you have to attend to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality… fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily.”[11] While Marlow watches the steering and circumvents snags, he is saved from becoming mad due to the reality-wrenching inner truths that become exposed. He speaks of his duties aboard the steamer: “There was surface truth in these things to save a wiser man”[12] Through absorbing himself in his work and through devoting himself to the efficiency of work, Marlow finds an escape from the jungle’s inner truths.


            We have seen how Marlow must live with the fact that he is human and is bound by the basic limitations of the human species, even though through his experiences he faces many potentially subversive truths. Even though Marlow later tries to convey some of these truths to his listeners aboard the Nellie, he knows that words themselves can distort and hide the truth. His attitude towards lies, or more specifically the reason why he is appalled by lies is in part because of his unwilling acceptance of the fact that as imperfect beings, humans do lie. But what even more accounts for Marlow’s attitude towards lying is his realization that like all humans even he himself must sometimes lie in order to protect the world of assumptions in which he lives. Before Marlow ventures out on his voyage he chats with his aunt, the woman who arranged Marlow’s position with the company. His aunt, with the popular ideas of many Europeans, justifies Marlow’s start into colonialism with the theory that he could be “like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle.”[13] Marlow himself says that the only thing redeeming “the conquest of the earth. . .is the idea. . .at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea.”[14] Marlow says that the idea redeeming colonialism has to be such an elevated belief, “. . .something you can set up and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .”[15] Clearly the only way people at this time could justify their plunder of the “dark continent” was through the idea that white people were accomplishing the spreading of glorious civilization and “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.”[16]

            As a reaction to his Aunt, and this uncomfortable truth about civilization, Marlow goes on to say,

“It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.”[17]


But Marlow himself shows that it is not only the women who are living in a world out of touch with truth. When Marlow returns from his voyage and is back in Europe dealing with the legacy of Kurtz, he lies to a company man about Kurtz, assuring him that “Mr. Kurtz’s knowledge, however extensive did not bear upon the problems of commerce and administration.” [18] It is not a direct lie, but it is an attempt to keep the male world in a beautiful state as the female one. In addition, Marlow chooses not to reveal the truth of Kurtz’s downfall by handing the company representative Kurtz’s report on the “Suppression of Savage Customs” “with the postscriptum torn off.”[19] In tearing the postscriptum off Marlow is preserving “the shade of the original Kurtz” – the part of Kurtz who was efficient, morally equipped, eloquent, and civilizing.

But Marlow’s lie to Kurtz’s Intended, after having made such a big issue of how much he “detests and can’t bear a lie” shows the extent to which both the male and female worlds of civilized Europe are “out of it—completely”[20] The visit to the Intended is in effect like a visit to the heart of Europe itself, like a journey into the depths of a tomb. The images of Europe’s Brussels -- as a “sepulchral city”[21] coincide with the images of death that surround the Intended – the piano like a sarcophagus. Marlow’s lie to the intended then takes on additional significance, if we imagine his visit to the house of the Intended as a visit to the “house” of all Europe.

Marlow remains loyal to Kurtz to the last: “…it was ordered I should never betray him – it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.”[22] In remaining loyal to Kurtz, Marlow is remaining loyal to European civilization. In replacing the name of the Intended for Kurtz’s terrible “the horror, the horror”, Marlow is saving the beautiful world of Kurtz’s intended and the beautiful world of European civilization from  utter destruction in the blows of destructive truth.


Through lying about Kurtz, Marlow closes off not only a sentimental lady but also himself and all of Europe to the unbearable truth of Kurtz’s descent. Marlow knows that with a lie he kills off a apart of his own self-knowledge. But he deliberately lies, submerging himself in the detested taint of death and mortality, for the greater protection of civilization and humanity from the subversiveness of naked truth. Marlow comes to the realization that he must live and sometimes bathe in the appalling waters of human limitations in order not to disrupt the whole human world.

[1] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, London, Penguin, 1995, 49-50.

[2] Conrad, 101.

[3] Conrad, 92.

[4] Conrad, 16.

[5] Conrad, 20.

[6] Conrad, 60.

[7] Conrad, 58.

[8] Conrad, 62.

[9] Conrad, 106.

[10] Conrad, 62-63.

[11] Conrad, 60.

[12] Conrad, 63.

[13] Conrad, 28.

[14] Conrad, 20.

[15] Conrad, 20.

[16] Conrad, 28.

[17] Conrad, 28.

[18] Conrad, 115.

[19] Conrad, 115.

[20] Conrad, 80.

[21] Conrad, 114.

[22] Conrad, 104.


This work copyright 1999 by Geoff Peters, Simon Fraser University.