Why does Conrad speak about the Roman conquest in Heart of Darkness and why is Marlow is compared to Buddha?

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Joseph Conrad offers two starkly contrasting images in the lines that Marlow speaks and in the narrator’s description of the man. The military, aggressive domination of one society over the other is diametrically opposed to the spread of a belief system founded in the renunciation of elitism and in the...

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Joseph Conrad offers two starkly contrasting images in the lines that Marlow speaks and in the narrator’s description of the man. The military, aggressive domination of one society over the other is diametrically opposed to the spread of a belief system founded in the renunciation of elitism and in the spreading of peace. While Marlow has not been part of an invading army, neither has he been an apostle of peace. His physical attributes show that Marlow occupies the intersection of deeply conflictual value systems even as his experiences have intensified his inner conflicts.

Back home in England after his adventures in Africa, Marlow muses on ancient Roman military incursions into Britain. Two millennia earlier, the Romans were the hostile invaders, understanding themselves as “civilized” men. Marlow imagines a typical man’s experience:

Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men…. The fascination of the abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

In Marlow’s time, the narrator points out the British had assumed that role, heading out from the Thames. The parallels between the situations emphasize Marlow’s awareness of the violent domination that explicitly characterizes imperialism and a commonly held nineteenth century belief that the British were the newest manifestation of the classical “civilization” they attributed to Rome.

The narrator first describes Marlow as sitting “cross-legged” and looking rather unhealthy, with “sunken cheeks [and] a yellow complexion . . .” However, he also has “an ascetic aspect,” and in the way he held his arms and hands, he “resembled an idol.” A few paragraphs down, the narrator emphasizes this impression. When Marlow resumes his speech, he lifts

one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.

Marlow’s critical analysis of imperialism picks up steam. He seems to conclude that “an unselfish belief in the idea” of imperialism redeems the reality of “the conquest of the earth.” He then commences a long story, as he is apparently prone to telling, about a voyage that was not on the sea but up a fresh water river.

It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me—and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, too—and pitiful—not extraordinary in any way—not very clear either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.

Marlow, the narrator says, has “the pose of a Buddha,” but he is wearing “European clothes” and is not holding “a lotus-flower.” That is, his stance of a preacher is a posture; despite his “ascetic aspect,” he does not wear a simple monk’s robes, and he does not fully resemble the Buddha because he lacks the flower that symbolizes enlightenment. Thus the narrator’s description correlates with Marlow’s narrative. He was not enlightened: this “culminating . . . experience” was “sombre”; he repeats that although it “seemed . . . to throw a kind of light,” it was “not very clear.”

At the very end of the novel, in the last paragraph after Marlow finishes his extraordinary story, the narrator echoes his earlier description: “Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha.” This repetition of “the pose” emphasizes the earlier impression of an incomplete or inauthentic embodiment, and Marlow’s comments about the “sombre” experience are picked up by the narrator’s last words:

the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

The dark and light contrast established finalizes the matter; Marlow himself is well aware that he was not enlightened by his journey into the dark.

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At the beginning of Heart of Darkness, Marlow speaks about the Romans, who, in the past, sailed up the Thames, where Marlow is now. He likens the Roman soldiers to the Europeans in Africa and says, "darkness was here yesterday." By this, he means that England in Roman times would have been seen as savage, the same way in which the Europeans regard Africa as savage in Marlow's time. The implication is that Europeans are not that far removed from darkness and savagery.

Marlow is likened to Buddha, as he sits in a Buddha-like pose. Conrad implies that, like Buddha, Marlow has suffered greatly and that his suffering has brought him to a place of enlightenment. The story Marlow is about to tell is one in which Marlow can offer the perspective of someone who has been enlightened and ennobled, like Buddha, by witnessing suffering.

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Conrad's reference to the Roman conquest of Britain is allegorical. Marlow is like a Roman soldier traveling to the very edge of the known world, exploring a strange new land, dark and exotic. He reflects on what must have been going through the soldiers' minds when they first encountered ancient Britain,and all the various hardships they had to endure: lousy weather, precious little to eat, and being forced to drink water from the polluted Thames.

Yet Marlow understands that there are differences between himself and the Roman soldiers. For one thing, his experiences have made him more reflective, more philosophical about things. Hence his being compared to Buddha. The Romans were driven by the desire for conquest in their exploration of Britain; Marlow initially saw his own colonial adventure as having a more noble motivation, one characterized by an unselfish belief in a higher cause. However, Marlow soon pauses as he recounts his tale, remembering how thoroughly disillusioned he had become with the entire colonial project by the end of his terrifying adventure.

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At the beginning of the story, Marlow talks about the Roman conquest of England and what the area that is now London must have been like before the Romans came.  He does this to make an analogy -- he is talking about how England used to be barbaric and comparing it to Africa in his own day.  He is saying his journey in Africa was like that of a Roman soldier to England.

Marlow is compared to Buddha because his journey to Africa and his meeting with Kurtz has enlightened him.  He knows more about the human soul than he did before.

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