"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." (The Phrase Finder) In 1887, Lord Acton said this in a letter to Bishop Creighton. This thought appears to be exemplified in the classic tale Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The above quote by Acton seems to have sprung from another by the French politician Alphonse Lamartine, when he stated that “It is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free... the master himself did not gain less in every point of view,... for absolute power corrupts the best natures.” (The Phrase Finder) Though it is hard to pin down the thoughts and personalities of Conrad’s central characters Marlow and Kurtz, it seems that this idea catches up with each of them at some point in Darkness. Marlow’s ideas of honesty and efficiency, compassion, ignorance, and even his view of the world he resides in are very dynamic and ever changing. His drive to see and experience Kurtz is what drivess the whole story, as it is more a psychological journey than a physical one.
Throughout the story, Marlow is thought to be honest to the core, all the while viewing the “company” as inefficient and cold. However, we find that though Marlow appears to be honest, he is driven by his own selfish desires. Throughout the story, Marlow is dismayed at the fact that the native Africans are treated no better than livestock and are beaten into compliance, yet he never even voices his thoughts and frustrations to try and better their civilization. There are two scenes especially that provide evidence of this. One is when he arrives at the first inland station and sees the slaves being treated as less than men. He sees chain gangs and the “grove of death,” and is appalled by this. Even though he gives himself the attributes of virtue and honesty, he never speaks out for them or shows his disappointment to the company men. Later, at the second station, a supply hut goes up in flames in the middle of the night. In his frustration, a company man begins to beat a slave, saying he caused the fire, but really he just needs an outlet for his anger. Marlow witnesses the whole incident from his steamer, but he never makes a move to interrupt the violence. He claims to care for the natives and be upset by their treatment, but his actions prove differently.
“The horror…” (112) The above ideas of compassion and honesty clash above, and while there isn’t a clear winner, later, it appears that compassion begins to lay claim to a larger part of Marlow’s conscience, and he lets honesty fail. Just before reaching Kurtz station, Marlow’s steamer is attacked by a local tribe that Kurtz controls. Marlow’s friend and helmsman is impaled by a spear. They have cannibals aboard that beg to feed upon the helmsman’s body, but Marlow refuses, even though the helmsman himself was a cannibal. By this point, Marlow’s visions of reality and right and wrong are set askew, and he doesn’t know what to think, but he holds onto enough of himself to put the helmsman overboard, and its here that his morals and ideals are revealed again. At the close of the story, Marlow goes to Kurtz’ Intended in London to tell her of his death. She wants to know exactly how Kurtz died, and especially how he lived in his last hours. Though Marlow knows of the travesties Kurtz committed, he can’t bring himself to tell the Intended the truth. She asks what Kurtz’ final words were, hoping it was her name. Marlow senses this, and not being able to break her internally, he tells her that that is exactly what happened. However, Kurtz never mentions her in his final moments, instead he talks about how horrible it is for him to die like he, considering his deeds were great, though terrible. Marlow’s very ideas also make him hard to identify with, as they are ever changing. Mr. Kurtz is only a name to Marlow, as it is to you. From the start, Marlow only to took this job to combat boredom and to see more country, but after a while this all begins to change, and Kurtz becomes much more to Marlow. As Marlow is waiting for rivets, he has lots of time to meditate, and occasionally thinks of Kurtz, but he says “I wasn’t very interested in him. No.” (55) Yet not even 10 pages later, Marlow says that his steamer “crawled towards Kurtz – exlusively.” (61). He has become quite fickle in his thinking, and it is easily apparent, and this is due to the effect the jungle has on him. Just as the jungle changes Marlow, it also changes Kurtz, which is only one of their similarities. At the very beginning of Darkness, Marlow is sitting on a ship in a position resembling the god Buddha, while early depictions of Kurtz portray him as godlike as well, but he represents the all powerful and wrathful Roman god, Jupiter. Yet even in his adoration of Kurtz, just before he is physically presented to Marlow, Marlow states that “Mr. Kurtz was no idol of mine.” (95) This cannot be though, as Marlow has repeatedly thought to himself that the only reason he continues on this mission and delves deeper into the jungle is to see this man. Obsession grips both of them, Kurtz in his unstoppable hunt for ivory, and Marlow with his relentless quest for Kurtz.
Conrad’s literary style is somewhat different from most, as he introduces his protagonist and describes him in depth at the start of the story, both physically and mentally. By the end of Marlow’s tale, however, we aren’t sure exactly who Marlow is. The jungle changed him; in exactly the same way it did Kurtz. It is this ambiguity that makes it impossible to identify and classify Marlow, as his peace was disturbed and now he will never be the same. Hugo Weavings character “V” in V for Vendetta is highly relatable to Marlow’s character, and this is easily seen when V says that “There is a face beneath this mask, but it isn't me. I'm no more that face than I am the muscles beneath it, or the bones beneath that.” While Steve Moore’s character V had a physical mask to cover the scars on his face, Marlow, and each of us, wears a mask, a mask that portrays him differently than he really is and that covers the truth. Though these aren’t always immediately noticed, once they are, the lives we live fall apart.