Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is written as an unnamed person’s narration of the protagonist’s monologue; the unknown narrator retold Marlow’s speech detailing a period of time he had spent exploring the Congo and the consequences of imperialistic rule. Marlow had an audience of four, including the unnamed narrator, though the story reaches an innumerable amount of people through the narrator’s retelling. This duplicity is significant in understanding Marlow’s motivation to lie throughout the novel. Marlow claimed he hates lying, equated it to death, however he constantly lied to the people in his story.
I would not have gone so far as to fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to lie. 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. (Conrad 129)
Additionally, Marlow sometimes admitted to his audience that he was lying. Marlow’s most significant lie, a statement made to Kurtz’ Intended, is evidence that he believed one has a moral obligation to lie. To Marlow, lying is justified when the truth has negative connotations. The contradiction between his statement concerning lying and his apparent belief is reason to assume that he also lied to his audience at times. Marlow is trustworthy because he wanted his audience to know he was lying. The coupling of Conrad’s layered style of narration with Marlow’s deceit suggests that Marlow lied with purpose, making him a reliable narrator.
Marlow lied throughout the novel both actively and passively. Marlow’s most significant lie, which suggests he felt morally obligated to lie in situations where the truth would be painful, concerns a man he greatly admired. To tell the truth would be to tarnish Kurtz’ memory. Kurtz’ Intended requested that Marlow tell her his last words, to which he replied that it was her name. In actually, on his deathbed Kurtz realized his wrongdoings and was disturbed by it; after suggesting that Kurtz relived his life again in detail, Marlow repeated his last words, “The horror, the horror!” (Conrad 178). Marlow said he lied to her because the truth “would have been too dark- too dark all together” (Conrad 186). Similarly, Marlow made passive lies, or lies by omission. The Intended made various statements about Kurtz’ good character that Marlow either agreed with or ignored, passively lying. Marlow also inertly lied when the Intended claimed she knew him best. In the context of Marlow’s story, it is evident that Kurtz was a bad person, as he enslaved native people of the Congo to acquire ivory. The Intended was unaware of this, as well as the affair Kurtz had with an African woman. Because Marlow did not correct the Intended he was inadvertently lying. Marlow also lied to Kurtz; though this was a man he revered, he did not tell Kurtz the truth. When Kurtz said he was laying in the dark waiting for death, Marlow mollified him with a lie by saying it was nonsense. Though Marlow claimed he hates lying, Marlow felt it was acceptable to honor a man he admired and pacify his lover through deceit.
Furthermore, the unnamed narrator stated that to Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze…” (Conrad 105). This is symbolic of Conrad’s duplicitous narration style; the inside ‘kernel’ is Marlow’s monologue, the outside is what the reader experiences through the unnamed narrator, as Marlow interacts with his audience. Marlow spoke to his audience about various things in addition to his story about the Congo. He made a pointed statement about imperialism at the story’s beginning. “What redeems it is […] an idea at the back of it […] and an unselfish belief in the idea- something you can set up, and bow down before…” (Conrad 107). It is apparent that this is a lie for various reasons. First of all, Marlow does not include what the idea that redeems imperialism is. His lack of evidence suggests he did not believe what he was saying. Secondly, Marlow’s monologue detailed Kurtz’ position while in the Congo; he set himself up as a God to the native people, who bowed down and worshiped him. This regiment clearly failed, which was also included in Marlow’s story. The narrator’s description of Marlow’s storytelling style, the ‘outside’ as more important, suggests that the reader must consider the context of the statement more so than what was said. When considering the story Marlow told, it is clear his defense of imperialism is a façade.
In conclusion, though Marlow was deceitful throughout Heart of Darkness, he is reliable as a narrator. Marlow lied with a purpose; he wanted the audience to know he was lying so they would analyze his statements further and determine the truth of what was said. “The mere incidents of the surface, the reality […] fades. The inner truth is hidden…” (Conrad 137). The truth is obscured within the layers of Conrad’s narration. Because the unnamed narrator includes not only Marlow’s monologue but also his mannerisms and commentary on it, the reader is able to determine what is fact and what is a lie. Marlow claimed to detest lying and admitted to the lies he told to make the audience pay closer attention to the truth of what he was saying outside the monologue; a technique he used explicitly highlighted by the unnamed narrator. Through analyzation of the ‘outside’ of Marlow’s story as given by the unnamed narrator, it is clear Marlow had a motivation to lie, to lead his audience to the truth, and therefore is trustworthy as a narrator.