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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 318-340

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Marlow's Morality

Daniel Brudney

"Good is a transcendent reality" means that virtue
is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness
and join the world as it really is.

—Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good


THE REPUTATION OF Conrad's sailor-narrator, Charlie Marlow, has risen and fallen through the years. Initially seen as a simple master mariner or at most as a technical device, a way to get a tale told, with the work of Albert Guérard he began to receive his due, becoming lionized as the true subject at least of Heart of Darkness, and of more than technical interest in the other stories. 1 In recent years, however, his reputation has slumped hard as his racism and sexism have come to the fore. In this article, I attempt no full-scale rehabilitation but simply point out that, despite his failings, Marlow possesses a virtue worth remarking and that his failings involve a failure to extend that virtue far enough.

I call that virtue attentiveness, and more specifically, attentiveness to the other. It has been neglected, at least by philosophers, although as a virtue it is utterly obvious. This is not surprising. The moral life is generally the sphere of the obvious and progress here often consists merely in noting what has been overlooked. The presence or absence of this virtue is revealed less by what the agent feels or doesn't feel or does or doesn't do than by her stance or orientation toward others. And as orientations are slippery things to describe (and this one more than most) there is an advantage in looking at literary characters: they show palpably the virtue (or corresponding vice) at issue. My focus in this [End Page 318] article is the forms that Marlow's tales (particularly Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness) show attentiveness to the other can take—and fail to take—in a human life.


Let's begin with Marlow's sexism, and specifically as manifested in his lie to Kurtz's Intended. She asks for Kurtz's final words, and Marlow replies not "The horror! The horror!" but "The last words he pronounced was—your name" (HD, p. 161). 2 Marlow says that the truth "would have been too dark, too dark altogether" (p. 162). But what doesn't Marlow want the Intended to know? That her beloved went mad in the jungle, became evil? And why shouldn't she know this? Because it would bring her pain? But Marlow insists that the Intended has "a mature capacity" for suffering (p. 157; a capacity to handle it, presumably, not a proneness to it). Anyway, Marlow's lie will perpetuate suffering, her mourning for her image of Kurtz: smash her idol and she might be able to get on with her life. In any event, the issue of suffering does not explain why the truth is "too dark."

Marlow does not class the Intended as "one of us" (LJ, p. 43). This is the phrase he, like Conrad, uses to characterize Jim in Lord Jim. It is usually taken to refer to national or racial identity or perhaps to membership in the merchant service. However, the phrase also has a biblical resonance. Genesis 3:22 says, "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil." I think the reason the Intended is not "one of us" is that she does not know good and evil—does not know that there are good and evil. That is the mystery into which Kurtz's final words would have initiated her.

"There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies," Marlow says, "which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget" (HD, p. 82). Yet he does lie, so there must be something he thinks worth saving even at the cost of siding with mortality. What might that be? In the beginning of Paradise Lost, Milton declares that he will sing

Of Man's first disobedience, and...


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