Marlow and the "necessary fiction" of morality in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim

This thesis explores the moral evolution of Joseph Conrad's protagonist, Marlow, in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Marlow appears uniquely in literature as the omnipotence of cloistered Victorian moral ideals began to fade and just as the shattering of all forms of ideals that would come to characterize Modernism as a literary movement began to emerge. I show how Marlow transforms what would ordinarily be characterized as nihilistic lies into affirmations of life in order to sustain the illusion that traditional notions of Western morality are still in tact. Until Marlow reveals the truth about his lies and the corrupt European imperialism that they conceal in Heart of Darkness, he tells a series of untruths that effectively perpetrate for European bourgeois culture the myth that "civilizing" is benevolent. In telling lies that appear to compromise Marlow's own moral fidelity so that the existence of vast evil is concealed, Marlow comes into the "hard wisdom" that conventional morality is a facade. Despite Marlow's revelation about this, some twenty years later his aiding the criminal Jim in Lord Jim continues to sustain this illusion about morality. This is because in Marlow's collision -- and collusion -- with the European imperial enterprise in the African Congo, he learns that in the moral vacuum of "civilizing" lies that have a saving and stabilizing power are preferable to the truth that barbarism, and not benevolence, is at the "heart" of civilization. In illustrating this thesis, I show how Marlow's lies function as part of a Nietzschean "revaluation" of his rigid Victorian morality. In this process, Marlow reinterprets the traditional values that he associates with notions of "good" and "evil" so that his lies, once considered equivalent to death, are transformed into acts of "good" that sustain European colonial progress. These lies initially appear to compromise Marlow's own fidelity to his Victorian values because they make him what he has always loathed to become, a liar. However, these lies are really the hallmarks of Marlow's "revaluation." Marlow skews the truth in such a way that for a time his lies successfully function to confirm his allegiance to what he thinks is redeeming about the idea of a moral system - the efficiency and progress that sustain civilization.