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Marlowe as an Unreliable narrator

A character narrator is unreliable when he or she offers an account of some event, person, thought,
thing, or other object in the narrative world that deviates from the account the implied author would
offer--- James Phelan

Charles Marlow is Conrads famous narrator who appears in several of his works, including Heart of
Darkness and Lord Jim. The setting of the frame tale in Heart of Darkness, however, is presented by an
unnamed narrator, who also introduces Marlow. Marlow is famous for spinning yarns, but it seems that
he does this mainly for his own pleasure while the others simply tolerate him. His introductory comment
about England once being a dark place is not met with either surprise or an angry countering, and in the
course of the narrative some of his companions will even doze off. Nevertheless, Marlow continues
spinning the yarn about his African journey, which he undertook aiming to reach the Inner Station and
its chief, Kurtz. Being neither a typical seaman, nor a typical storyteller, the yarn Marlow spins becomes
more than an attempt to amuse his fellow travelers by recounting a string of exaggerated and highly
improbable occurrences. Marlow is struggling to narrate a story the meaning of which he himself cannot
clearly discern. Looking back to Phelans classification, we can say that Marlows unreliability does not
stem from his misreporting or underreporting; on the contrary, his reporting is meticulously precise and
detailed. His trouble lies in interpreting and evaluating certain events and characters, eventually leading
him to start doubting the possibility of talking about anything at all.

Marlows narration proceeds mostly in chronological order, in rather long sentences, which may strike
readers as too long and elaborate for an oral narration. It is occasionally interrupted by the side remarks
of his listeners, but also by his own comments, observations and thoughts on various subjects, for
instance: I hate, detest, and cant bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply
because it appalls me (Conrad 1999: 54). Although he will later admit lying to Kurtzs fiance, this first
statement is not entirely disproved in the course of the novel. Relying on Werner Senns analysis of
Conrads narration, Stampfl notes the ambiguity of Marlows relation to the people he meets: As an
honorable man, he wants to tell the truth whatever the consequences; as a co-conspirator, he needs to
perpetuate the lies that have always been used to justify imperialism (Stampfl)

Beginning his account Marlow focuses on adventures and experiences prior to his African travels, but
from the first mention of Kurtz, every character, conversation and event will be one way or another
connected to the chief of the Inner Station, which points to Kurtzs story as a centerpiece of the
narration. Peter Brooks notes that Marlow is not only a teller but a reteller (of Kurtzs story), but he also
narrates about how he got to know it, and eventually it is less Kurtzs story that he tells than his own
story inhabited, as it were, by Kurtzs story (Brooks 1996: 82). Still, Marlows narration touches on
much more general issues of colonialism and human nature so that both his and Kurtzs stories
eventually turn out to be baits used to draw audiences attention to more serious questions.