Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Marlow, the narrator and impartial observer of the action who becomes the central figure of the story. Because he is an observer and never centrally involved in the action of the story, he survives to tell the tale. He tells his listeners about his childhood passion for maps and about his declared intention to go, someday, to the heart of Africa. This thoroughly British Everyman describes how, years later, he signs on for the journey, with the help of his aunt. An accident has befallen the steamer that he was to have commanded, and the previous captain was murdered. Because of the damage done to his intended vessel, Marlow waits months for repairs that eventually allow him to command his steamboat. He then makes the difficult and perilous trip upriver to retrieve a sick agent, Kurtz, who dies on board shortly after being rescued. Marlow’s voyage into the heart of Africa becomes, symbolically, a journey into the core of his being as well as into the evil at the center of human experience. After talking with Kurtz, with whom he identifies, he is able to see deeply into his own being. Even after returning to Brussels, Marlow is haunted by the memory of Kurtz.
Kurtz, a powerful and intelligent man who manages an inland trading station in the Belgian Congo. His fame is based partly on the fact that he brings in more ivory than all the others put together, and his station is surrounded by heads on stakes....
(The entire section is 487 words.)
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Themes and Characters
Heart of Darkness is a tale of many voyages. Charlie Marlow's voyage into the depths of the "Dark Continent" parallels his voyage into the heart of an immense darkness, into the collective unconsciousness of the human race. At the end of his quest Marlow hopes to find Mr. Kurtz and through him learn the meaning of intelligent life in an alien and brutal universe; instead the voyage becomes a descent into an underworld in which Kurtz is both captive and creator, and from which Marlow barely escapes. Many years later, as Marlow tells his story to listeners on the yawl Nellie, one of his listeners, whose narrative frames Marlow's, takes on the burden of attempting to make sense of Marlow's discoveries.
Conrad has referred to all his novels and short stories as "autobiography as fiction." Heart of Darkness is based upon the author's journey of 1890, first aboard the Ville de Maceio from France to the Belgian Congo and then on the SS Roi des Belges up the Congo River. Conrad narrates the story through both the "frame" narrator and Marlow, a veteran sailor who, like his listeners—the Director of Companies, the lawyer, the accountant and the unnamed narrator— has spent his life at sea. Conrad, whose own father died when he was young, employed Marlow—an older and widely experienced father figure—as the principal narrator of several of his works of fiction in addition to Heart of Darkness, among them Youth and...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
Conrad has referred to Heart of Darkness and all of his fiction as "autobiography as fiction," and this tale is based upon his own Congo journey of 1890, first aboard the Ville de Maceio from France to the Belgian Congo and then on the S.S. Roi des Beiges up the Congo River. In large measure Conrad is his own narrator in the persons of Marlow and the "frame" narrator; this makes him a chief character in two guises in addition to his authorial role. Next in importance is Marlow, a veteran sailor who, like his listeners — the Director of Companies, the lawyer, the accountant, and the unnamed narrator, perhaps a writer — has followed the sea. Marlow's (and Conrad's) voyages form the basis for many of Conrad's tales, so that Marlow's experiences and acquaintances become the ostensible subject of the narratives. Interestingly, Conrad, whose own experience of his father was virtually nonexistent, creates an older and widely experienced father figure as his principal voice. This father figure, a sometimes garrulous and opinionated man, who is concurrently a wise and ironic sage, explores and charts the regions of Conrad's experiences, sensations and ideas.
The much heralded Kurtz is the object of Marlow's speculations, aspirations, and anticipations on the voyage out and up the Congo. He is enshrined by the Belgians back home as a being of supreme intellectual power and the principal representative of the forces of civilization in the Congo. In fact, Kurtz...
(The entire section is 322 words.)
The Aunt uses her influence to help Charlie Marlow secure an appointment as skipper of the steamboat that will take him up the Congo River. Echoing the prevailing sentiments of the Victorian day, the Aunt speaks of missions to Africa as ‘‘weaning the ignorant millions from their horrid ways.’’
The Chief Accountant
The Chief Accountant, sometimes referred to as the Clerk, is a white man who has been in the Congo for three years. He appears in such an unexpectedly elegant outfit when Marlow first encounters him that Marlow thinks he is a vision. Both the Chief Accountant's clothes and his books are in excellent order. He keeps up appearances, despite the sight of people dying all around him and the great demoralization of the land. For this, he earns Marlow's respect. ‘‘That's backbone,’’ says Marlow.
See The Chief Accountant
The Company Manager
See The Manager
The Doctor measures Marlow's head before he sets out on his journey. He say he does that for everyone who goes ‘‘out there,’’ meaning Africa, but that he never sees them when they return. The Doctor asks Marlow if there's any madness in his family and warns him above all else to keep calm and avoid irritation in the tropics.
The Fireman is...
(The entire section is 2895 words.)