Socrates Drinks His Hemlock, Marlow Wimps Out

It’s too bad we had to rush the end of today’s discussion on why Marlow lies to Kurtz’s fiancee. I think Trish made a good point that Marlow hates lies and wasn’t necessarily lying–at least not to the men on the boat that he’s telling this story to. The argument was also made that Marlow wants to give her something to believe in and that we have to keep these revelations (“veils”) hidden to have purpose in our lives and deny that we’re just insignificant blots in the universe.

I agree with the arguments posed, but I feel like Marlow’s lie is also more personal than that. I think he ends his story in defeat. When Kurtz has this “supreme moment of knowledge” and finds that there is ultimately nothing, he dies (69). He dies with the true belief that there is no greater reason or power and that he has nothing to live for, nothing to be remembered by, and nothing to await on “the other side.” He almost accepts death because of this revelation. Marlow, on the other hand, agrees with Kurtz but has a “hesitating foot.” He “remained loyal to Kurtz to the last, and even beyond” because Kurtz died with the full knowledge that there is no truth; he died by his belief (70). Marlow isn’t willing to go that far. When he lies to the Intended, then, it’s because he knows disclosing the truth would mean full acceptance of Kurtz’s revelation. He would be saying that his own life is meaningless and something he could easily toss away, which is a fear that overpowers his hatred of lies.

Conrad could have ended the book soon after Kurtz’s death or even when Marlow finds Europeans petty when he comes back home. We get this scene with the Intended instead, and Marlow seems angry at his betrayal of Kurtz’s last words in the penultimate paragraph. I don’t think he lies for the Intended’s sake, he lies for his own. He wonders if “the heavens would fall upon [his] head” if he had “rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due” and shows his fear in facing the emptiness of his own mortality (77). Marlow feels defeated because he would not go as far as Kurtz for his belief and sees himself as weak.

I guess the biggest argument I could make against the one I just posed would be that Kurtz was, arguably, unwilling to accept his death and too scared to die. (Though why would he want to keep living after this particular moment of truth?) I was hoping for more thoughts on this scene, particularly contrarian ones. I’m not sure if I’m digging too deep.

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3 Responses to Socrates Drinks His Hemlock, Marlow Wimps Out

  1. patriciafox17 says:

    Monique, I really liked your point about the personal aspect of Marlow’s lie. I had always considered the lie in terms of only Kurtz and his intended, but your analysis opens up an entirely new avenue of discussion–I don’t think it’s an example of digging too deep! For the sake of argument, I’ll try to be the devil’s advocate for your other interpretation that Kurtz is afraid to die, which insinuates weakness on his part. One detail about Kurtz that really stuck out to me was the fact that Marlow says that Kurtz’s “intelligence was perfectly clear,” but “his soul was mad” (66). Shortly thereafter, Marlow also says that Kurtz “struggled with himself” and possessed a soul “that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet [struggled] blindly with itself” (66). I got the sense that Kurtz intuitively knew that his conduct in the Congo was unacceptable by traditional European standards even after his isolation had driven him into a kind of insanity, yet allowed his moral compass and method of “checking” himself to be corrupted. Could it be that Kurtz’s final words referred to his impending fate? Did he cry out “The horror! The horror!” because he foresaw a kind of purgatory–a place reserved for the not entirely corrupted yet not entirely righteous: the ones who didn’t have the will to fight off the darkness, yet were fully aware of it? I’ll refer again to the point made in class that Marlow’s lie was to protect Kurtz’s Intended. Marlow himself was able to avoid sinking into the darkness to which Kurtz fell victim. From this viewpoint, Marlow was the stronger man. Kurtz had ultimately surrendered himself to and was destroyed by the darkness; Marlow, albeit a changed man, survived realtively intact. Not wanting to disturb the fiancé with this revelation, he lied so that the Intended might gain a sense of peace. I hope my interpretation made some sense in the context of your argument!

  2. Beth says:

    I think both of these arguments are really good ones in regard to the scene with Kurtz intended. I think there is definitely multiple ways that his intentions could be interpreted. On one side, it does seem that Marlow did it to give her something to live for, and to convince her that Kurtz really did care for her. But on the other side, it seems that Marlow could have done it for his own benefit. He made it seem that he was doing it for the intended, but what if he was doing it, simply for himself. Maybe he felt by telling her that his last word was her name, maybe he thought that HE was the one giving her something to live for. I understand that view may be a stretch, but just something that crossed my mind.

  3. elizabeth829 says:

    I think the point you’re making Monique is actually really intuitive. I hadn’t thought about it like that but re-reading the last page, Marlow says “It would have been too dark, too dark altogether….” (Conrad 77) and I think the point here is that he doesn’t want to accept Kurtz’ revelation because then it does give him nothing to continue on for, additionally why would he want to bestow this dark realization on the Intended either? So when he says that “the heavens would fall upon his head,” (Conrad 77) I originally thought he meant that repeating Kurtz’ last words would just be so groundbreaking that metaphorically the “sky would fall,” but I think what he means is that admitting this truth would literally bring him closer to death (heaven). I wonder if at the end when the narrator says “the tranquil water way…seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness,” (Conrad 77) he realizes what Kurtz’ last words meant and now he sees the same meaningless-ness in life that Marlow does?

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