As Charles Marlow and his steamboat crew descend deeper into the African jungle in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this experienced sea captain grows increasingly cynical regarding his country’s role in Africa. Imperialism was usually framed in terms of racial, cultural and intellectual superiority over the “savages” and “natives” of whatever territory was targeted for its resources, and those resources, be they diamonds, gold, ivory, or whatever, were the deserved rewards for those strong and courageous enough to take them. As he journeys down the long, winding Congo River and gets closer and closer to the object of his own personal obsession, the legendary Kurtz, Marlow views firsthand the cost of empire, reflected in his references to the “savages” native to the land (for example, “that complete deathlike indifference of unhappy savages”; “I had to look after the savage who was fireman”; “the glimpse of the steamboat had for some reason filled those savages with unrestrained grief,” etc.) and to the waste in men and treasure associated with enforcing their edicts and exploiting the natural resources of the lands they colonized.
It is Marlow’s personal sense of integrity that makes him grow cynical towards his mission and towards those who dispatched him to this distant, hostile place. It is in this context that he declares his position with regard to truth and its opposite, lies:
“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 appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget.”
Marlow’s obsession with finding Kurtz is grounded at least in part by the purity Kurtz represents. The most successful of all the ivory traders in Africa (“Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of a trading post, a very important one, in the true ivory-country . . . Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together”), Kurtz’s all-consuming drive to produce for the company and his sustained social isolation by virtue of his long tenure deep in the jungle has created around him the aura of invincibility and incorruptibility. Marlow seeks moral integrity. As he notes early in his voyage,
“The idleness of a passenger, my isolation among all these men with whom I had no point of contact . . . seemed to keep my away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.”
Lamenting the everyday mundane tasks associated with piloting a steamship along a long, winding river and the effects of such mentally-demanding tasks, Marlow notes the following:
“When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, hidden. But I felt it all the same.”
Conrad’s protagonist in Heart of Darkness has grown weary of the lies that surround him as a company man. In his search for Kurtz, he finds truth an increasingly elusive commodity. He hopes that arriving at his destination will prove a corrective for all that.