Throughout Heart of Darkness, Marlow goes through a series of introspections prompted by Kurtz’s nebulous character. British imperialism is at its height in the setting of the book, and race relations between white nobility and black savagery are strongly featured. The title of the book itself forces a strong duality upon the reader. The Darkness of the jungle is continually juxtaposed with the light emanated from the constructs of British bourgeois hyper-reality. Marlow, himself seems to criticize the imperial nature of ivory hunting not because it slowly destroys the inherently good culture of the natives, but because it slowly corrupts the well-conditioned structures of British society (e.g. Mr. Kurtz). Yet every man who looks into the abyss eventually sees that the abyss stares right back.
In the middle of the book it is remarked that, “it would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot”. In Heart of Darkness, this is exactly what we get. In fact, the spiraling down from light into darkness that is its crescendo (a sort of Luciferian fall) is seen even in its dialogue: It becomes more and more difficult to ascertain exactly who is speaking as paragraph breaks are used for anything but transition between interlocutors.
Once Marlow leaves the heart of darkness and reenters normalcy, he finds his old life disdainful and petty. Everything that people spend their time doing in high-culture is worthless. It is the lie. The pseudo-reality that is placed in front of our eyes is nothing but a simulacrum. We hide ourselves from the real world, the traumas of decay and death, of misery and agony, by allowing the powers-that-be to insert a prettier picture into our heads. The Lacanian “Real”, which is the only actual world, is what Marlow finds in the heart of darkness, and in Mr. Kurtz. When one looks deep into one’s own subjectivity, understanding the inevitable futility of the univocity of being, there he finds the heart of darkness; a place where only evil abides. “The horror! The horror!”, Kurtz cries before his demise. The truest statement a man ever spoke.
So what is the hero to do? The romantic hero must bring the truth to the people. If he must run 25 miles to Marathon, then this is the price that must be paid. But for Marlow it is much easier. His chance to speak the truth to the world is set up like batting practice; all he has to do is swing. But the lie is too strong. “There is too much at risk”, Marlow must be thinking. To tell the world the truth would be too dangerous. Just look at Kurtz. His epistemological crisis killed him, and he was a much stronger man mentally than most in Britain. So the allure of the lie continues to perpetuate itself.
In the end, Marlow is given the chance to be the great prophet, but instead he opts for the lie. “It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head”, he says. “But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen… if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t… It would have been too dark – too dark altogether….”