Moral Ambiguity in Heart of Darkness
In _Heart of Darkness_, by Joseph Conrad, the character Marlow, through his actions and experiences, shows himself to be morally ambiguous in that he goes on the European’s malevolent expedition to Africa yet he seems to despise the events he sees there and in that he performs both noble and ignoble deeds. These experiences and actions drive Conrad’s theme of European influence and colonialism corrupting, in this case, Africa. Marlow is a sailor who is traveling through Africa on a steam boat and who works for a company that is attempting to gain riches for Europe.
His moral ambiguity is shown by the fact that he is participating in this heinous expedition yet, at the same time, he seems to despise it. Marlow, as he sailed along the coast, saw “a man-of-war anchored off the coast…shelling the bush…There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding… [which] was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden out of sight somewhere.
” (pg.18 ).
Marlow’s word choice depicts the corrupting influence of Europe because it speaks of how he saw a man-of-war, a French ship, attack natives who were, in his opinion, unjustly called enemies. What truly shows this to be a corrupting influence, however, is his use of the word “insanity” to describe the event; insanity here is meant to show that this event, caused by Europeans, is unnatural to Africa and disrupts its calm. Next, Marlow spoke of other Europeans who came to Africa such as the “devoted band…called…the Eldorado Exploring Expedition… To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire…with no…moral purpose at the back of it” (pg. 42). The Eldorado Expedition, as Marlow saw it, was the typical devoted European band which he felt was nothing but a bunch of dirty thieves -with no regard for the greater good- who, through their actions, would desecrate Africa by ripping away its riches. Finally, Marlow, as he was walking with Kurtz’s admirer, saw “heads on stakes…They showed that Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts.” (pg. 81).
Kurtz is a European who was sent by the company to get the treasures of Africa for Europe and to colonize it, but, when Marlow sees what Kurtz does he says that Kurtz is unable to restrain his lust. This, in and of itself, may seem unimportant, but, it infers that all the Europeans going to Africa are driven by lust and the main function of lust is traditionally corruption, hence, the Europeans going to Africa will do nothing but corrupt it. In addition to utilizing Marlow’s experience, Joseph Conrad utilizes Marlow’s conflicting actions in order, not only to reinforce Marlow’s moral ambiguity, but to further depict the corrupting influence of Europe on Africa. The first thing the Conrad did was have Marlow take “the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower” (pg. 8 ) Here Marlow acts like Buddha, a symbol of someone who is enlightened and good, which makes it clear that everything Marlow says is true and that his ultimate opinion, that being that Europe corrupts, is an absolute truth.
Next Marlow empathetically said, “‘Nevertheless I think Mr. Kurtz is a remarkable man’” (pg. 88 ) Marlow’s action appears to contrast with the perfection given to him by his earlier Buddha pose because he is supporting and admiring Kurtz, the person who took his lust to the extreme and the person who represents the ultimate level of European corruption. Marlow, however, must be right about Kurtz’s remarkable nature in some way because he is portrayed as Buddha though, contrary to what one might think at the beginning of the book, this portrayal does not portend moral perfection on Marlow’s part as shown later in the book. The only way in which Kurtz is remarkable is in his excessive level of lust; hence, Marlow’s statement implies that Europe is a ceaselessly corrupting influence, varying only in the degree of corruption from person to person. Finally, Marlow, when observing Kurtz’s wife, sees, “the faith that [is] in her…that great saving illusion [shining] with an unearthly glow in the…triumphant darkness” (pg 107).
Marlow’s observation shows that in a world of corruption and darkness, the European world, Kurtz’s wife deludes herself by creating a world of light and good in her own mind, this fact is necessary in order to understand the importance of the exchange following this observation. The exchange between Marlow and Kurtz’s wife begins with Marlow unwisely saying, “I heard his very last words” (pg. 109) leading to Kurtz’s wife asking him to “‘Repeat them’…in a heart broken tone’” (pg. 109) and, although Kurtz’s true last words were “‘The horror! the horror!’” (pg. 109) Marlow told her that, “‘The last word he pronounced was – your name’” (pg. 109). The importance of this conversation is that it shows the reality of Kurtz’s vision, that being “the horror”, through Marlow’s noble lie.
It was already shown that Kurtz’s wife lived in an illusionary world, this, combined with Marlow lying to her when she asked for Kurtz’s last words, shows that what Kurtz saw of Europe, a horror, was the truth. Conveniently, Marlow’s act of not shattering Kurtz’s wife’s illusion contrasts with his support of Kurtz, which caused him to seem vile, thus making it impossible to legitimately argue that Marlow is wholly good or bad, only that he is right. Marlow, through his experiences and actions, is depicted as a moral ambiguity and this ambiguity is the tool with which Joseph Conrad develops his theme of European corruption on other peoples and places.
Marlow participates in the heinous European expedition yet his opinion of the events he sees are negative thus demonstrating the corrupting influence of Europe, and his actions, which present him as both enlightened and morally ambiguous, also emphasizes the corrupting influence of Europe through the expression of his opinion. Ironically, his ambiguity is symbolic of the ambiguity of the Europeans themselves in that go to other places, such as Africa, with intentions akin to enlightening the people they encounter but, despite the fact that they may succeed in enlightening those people, they corrupt them as well.
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