Analysis of the Closing Scene of Conrad's The Heart of Darkness

The closing scene of The Heart of Darkness , Marlow's interview with the dead man's white Intended (a pale figure of delusion juxtaposed against the black Athena who had usurped her place for Kurtz at the Inner Station), leaves the reader with ambivalent feelings about Conrad's chief narrator. The paradoxical ending of The Heart of Darkness has caused considerable critical consternation, if not outrage. That the novel should end with a lie should be told to a beloved amazing, that the lie should be told in a novel ostensibly directed towards a bewaring of the nefarious nature of the human heart almost astounding; that such a lie should be practiced by modern Buddha absolutely preposterous. The ending has therefore been criticized as being ‘a botched scene’, ‘a fatal blunder’ and even as ‘the final flaw in a flawed novel’. Yet a contextual reading of the novel would almost lead a discerning reader to a radically different conclusion. The conclusion would be that even though the ending does not satisfy the human desire for the  whole truth or for a satisfying rounded final, the ending is not only appropriate, but also something devoutly to be wished for . 

Every aspect of the ending is stepped in grandeur, pervaded with touch of the ethereal. Read More Novel The setting suggests magnificence and splendid idealism: the drawing room is ‘lofty’, the windows are long and luminous, the tall marble fireplace has monumental whiteness , the piano is grand and stands massively looking like a somber and polished sarcophagus and the door is high. The lady is described in an almost equally idealized and hollowed manner:

“She has a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering… this hair, this pale visage this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me. Their glance was guileless, profound, confident and trustful.”

She was dressed in black although it was almost a year since Kurtz’s death, and this unceasing mourning is revelatory of the fact that she was ‘girlish’, that ‘she was one of those creature who were not the play thing of time’. Her attitude towards Kurtz, her reverence for him is flawless. Illumined by the inextinguishable light of love and belief, she declares, ‘it was impossible to know him and not to admire him.’

The grandeur of the scene is shattered when Marlow lies to her. Marlow’s lie gives a lie to the carefully crafted and meticulously woven façade of glory. The answers to Marlow's motivation are to be discovered in the nature of the lie itself and in the nature of the liar. Lies, of course, have proven indispensable to fabulists ever since Cain lied to God in Genesis and Odysseus slipped out of one disguise into another in The Odyssey. Read More Novel  But Marlow's lie is neither as wicked as Cain's (especially since it acknowledges his need to be the keeper of his spiritual brother's memory) nor as self-serving but justifiable as Odysseus's. When the beloved declares that she would have treasured every sigh, every word, every sign, every glance of the dying Kurtz, and laments that there may not have been anyone to hear his last words, Marlow unwittingly states that he had heart ‘ his very last words’. When pressed to reveal the final words of Kurtz , the self reviling and desperate Marlow can only utter a lie:’ the last word he pronounced was your name” the final victorious truth expressed in articulo mortis by Kurtz---‘ The horror! The horror!’- is thereby suppressed.

The questions remain as to why Marlow tells an untruth. Such a lie may be explicable in the case of an inveterate liar, but not in the case of Marlow since it made it abundantly clear that lies are abhorrent to him. When he speaks about lying early in the novel, he says ,’lying appalls me,’ it is exactly what I hate and detest in the world,’ it makes me miserable’ and sick like biting into something rotten wound’. Read More Novel As Garrett Stewart points out in 'lying as dying in The Heart of Darkness ' , ‘his strict ethical theorem, the equation of death with lying,is even in the early context no stray remark, for it threads untruth to death in the casual nexus of the European experience in Africa.’ All through the novel his one endeavour has been to know the truth about himself, and it is inconceivable that a man so meticulous about knowing the truth should lie to others.

The answer might be one of the various proffered—that he was being merciful to the Intended whom he admired , that he was generally mild and protective towards women as they were cocooned from reality, and that he wanted the truth only for himself. Read More Novel That Marlow may be tempted to hide the hideous truth fro the lady whom he found to be a veritable paragon of virtue, one who was about to dedicate her entire life to Kurtz, is quite likely. That he does so because he desires to shield all women from the unbearable truth of the darkness of the human heart too is plausible in view of his earlier remark about woman, ‘it is queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own…’ Marlow would be the last to shatter the fragile edifice of their make- believe world. If Marlow’s assertion seems to deny women the right or need for the quest for the truth, one might go further and suggest that Marlow’s was a journey of self-discovery and that therefore he was never interested in telling her truth.

Even though the reasons preferred may contain some truths, perhaps the greatest truth behind the lie is something different. It is not merely designed to provide relief to a particular women or even to all women and certainly his purpose could never have been the selfish one of attaining the truth only for himself.Read More Novel Much more likely is his realization that not only cans mankind ‘not bear too much reality’, but also the mankind must be saved from the reality. Society can exist only if there is some idealistic basis, even if it is an allusion. It is only save mankind from devastating truth about itself, that Marlow makes the supreme sacrifice of telling a lie, something foreign to his nature, alien to his spirit.


Klein, Herbert G. "Charting the Unknown: Conrad, Marlow, and the World of Women."
Lynn, David H. " Heart of Darkness : Marlow's Heroic Cry." The Hero's Tale. Narrators in the Early Modern Novel .
IGNOU Study Guide MA English

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