Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers
by Joseph Conrad

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How does Marlow's journey into the "heart of darkness" symbolize a voyage of self-discovery?

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Charlie Marlow's search for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness symbolizes a voyage of self-discovery because Marlow is forced to come to terms with who he is and who he is not as he travels farther and farther up the Congo River. Joseph Conrad, the author, contrasts Marlow's choices with those of Kurtz to show how the two men emerge on the other side of their experiences with different conclusions. 

Kurtz and Marlow represent two different possibilities of what a man can be. Their relationship is first shown when Marlow and Kurtz are said to belong to the same gang; this is because they were both vouched for by the same people to get their jobs. Marlow remains fixated on Kurtz even before they meet.

As Marlow learns more about Kurtz, he discovers more about himself. The trip up the Congo takes him away from the world he's inhabited in the past and gives him the opportunity to become something else. It would be relatively easy for him to go mad like Kurtz—but he doesn't. The deeper he gets...

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In addition to the answers above, an important aspect to consider is the effect of the Congo on isolating Marlow, in the same way that it isolated Kurtz. One of the themes of Heart of Darkness is what happens when someone leaves civilization and ventures into the unknown (in this case, the wild forests of Africa, which are juxtaposed with European civilization). Most of the time, our inhibitions are guided by civilization and its restraints. What happens when those restraints are removed? The self must then observe who it truly is.  

Like the previous answer suggested, Marlow initially had thought of himself as representing the European "beacon" of reason and enlightenment (along with Kurtz, a fellow European). This "reason" or a feeling of civilized superiority was initially the justification for the European colonization of Africa. However, when Marlow actually went to Africa, he realized that in fact, this justification was a lie. Kurtz, the European man who was supposed to have symbolized such reason, was found to be even more savage, greedy, bloodthirsty and exploitative than the "savages" the Europeans were supposedly colonizing.

In this way, Marlow was forced to confront not only himself, when placed in a foreign environment, but also the dubious basis of his European imperialist mindset.