How does Marlow evolve as a character throughout Heart of Darkness?

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Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) presents the reader with a classic heroic quest in his novel Heart of Darkness. Narrator Charlie Marlow seeks to search for truth and knowledge in his soul based on his experiences in life. He looks to find the meaning of life on his journey to Africa....

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Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) presents the reader with a classic heroic quest in his novel Heart of Darkness. Narrator Charlie Marlow seeks to search for truth and knowledge in his soul based on his experiences in life. He looks to find the meaning of life on his journey to Africa. Conrad structures his novel in three parts broken down into two time frames: the present, where Marlow relates his story, and the past, where he works his way up the river toward the evil ivory trader Kurtz.

As the novel unfolds, Marlow is an honest and moral experienced seaman on a quest to find his self. He wants to discover the light in his soul. He desires to rid his soul of the darkness found deep inside human beings. As he relates his tale, the reader learns that his journey’s end “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Marlow sails for the African coast on a French steamer and on the voyage he is disturbed at the mistreatment of African natives:

“They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.”

When Marlow finally reaches the central trading station, he witnesses even worse abuses of the native residents and begins to peer into the darkness of the human souls of the abusers and becomes even more disturbed: “I had to wait in the station for ten days—an eternity.”

At the station, Marlow meets Kurtz, the trading post agent. Although he is surrounded by starvation, Marlow learns he had come to the Central Station years earlier and initially had good intentions. However, the traveler becomes suspicious since everyone seems to hate Kurtz. They wish him ill-will and even death. At this point, the protagonist still feels sympathy for him as a victim of such hatred.

After arriving at his African destination, Marlow witnesses still more atrocities. He learns that Kurtz has ordered attacks on innocent pilgrims and natives. His underlying goal was not to aid the native peoples, but to collect ivory at any cost for trading and profit. He also took advantage of natives who looked upon him as a god. The natives worshipped Kurtz by performing “unspeakable rites.” From Kurtz’s house, Marlow notices “barbarous ornaments.” Kurtz has surrounded his house with a fence. Upon the fence posts, he sees human heads mounted.

Upon his return to Europe, Marlow recognizes the ignorance of the supposedly civilized people. He found them to be pompous and totally unaware of the real nature of human beings.

Marlow changes by the novel’s end. When his quest begins, he is naïve, much like Kurtz. He realizes that Kurtz originally had good intentions as an idealist who planned to reform the natives. However, greed and the lust for wealth and power were inside him and corrupted him. Marlow resists Kurtz’s fate, but he knows there are no simple answers and life’s meaning is difficult to find. Life is a moral struggle and,

“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.”

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As Marlow's telling of the story is used as a framing device, we are given an impression of a completely developed character before we see him as he was at the beginning of the narrative. While the character is very much the same man, there are quite a few interesting contrasts. At first, Marlow is decidedly a more simple person. Since he was a child, he has longed for exploration, wanting only to visit parts of the world that had previously been untouched by man. Furthermore, he had a very naive view about the nature of man, dividing all of humankind between those that are civilized and those that are savage.

Marlow's time in the Congo changes him, to say the least. Most importantly, he is profoundly affected by the transformation that he sees in Kurtz. No longer does he believe that there are "light" and "dark" places in the world. Instead, he begins to see all of civilization as a blanket of lies that cover up the true darkness of humanity. In the framing device section of the book, he refers to London as a dark place, understanding that the same darkness that transformed Kurtz lives inside all men, just waiting to be fed.

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Initially, Marlow tells his story in retrospect and is described as a "meditating Buddha," which illustrates his wisdom and enlightenment. When Marlow was a young man, he wished to travel to Africa to visit the "blank spaces" on the map. Marlow was intrigued with the enigmatic atmosphere surrounding the unknown. He joined the Company, which traded ivory from the Congo. Throughout Marlow's journey, he witnesses the inefficient, insincere employees of the Company. Marlow began his journey with certain idealistic impressions of European civilization and held onto the naive belief that Europeans were bastions of civility and morality. However, Marlow's perception begins to change after he gradually witnesses the chaotic nature of the Outer and Central Stations. Marlow's interactions with important employees reveal the debased nature of the Company and are an indictment of imperialism. The Manager is depicted as a scheming liar while the Accountant is portrayed as a greedy, prejudiced individual.

As Marlow continues his journey into the middle of the Congo, he rests his confidence on the mysterious Mr. Kurtz. Marlow is fascinated by the stories of Kurtz's success and hopes that Kurtz will turn out to be a benevolent ambassador of European civilization that will justify the Company's goals. However, Marlow discovers that Kurtz is a tyrant, who rules over the Natives as a god. Kurtz has abandoned his philanthropic ideals in exchange for power and influence. By the end of Marlow's journey, he gains insight into the "heart of darkness," which describes humanity's inherent wickedness as well as the unknown Congolese jungle. Marlow evolves from being a naive, impressionable young man, to a jaded, insightful individual, who has experienced the worst of human nature. Marlow truly understands that "The mind of man is capable of anything - because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future." 

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There is a definite sense in which Marlow changes dramatically as a result of his experiences with Kurtz and what he learns and witnesses. In one sense, Marlow, by the end of the story, seems to have much in common with the ancient mariner in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in the way that he seems fated to talk about and share what has happened to him. Note how Marlow describes his feelings and attitudes towards life after he returns to Europe from Africa, finding himself once again in the "sepulchral city" which he went to before accepting his commission, with people who continue to "dream their insignificant dreams":

They treaspassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew... I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance.

Marlow's character therefore irrevocably changes because of the "heart of darkness" that he witnesses in the character of Kurtz, and this is of course strengthened by the recognition that this "heart of darkness" is in all humans. Marlow glimpses a hidden truth, and, to a certain extent, he is unable to re-enter normal life once again in the same way precisely because, having seen the truth about the human condition, he cannot participate in the same "meaningless" activity that he sees everybody else engaging in.

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