Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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What do the opening descriptions of Marlow compare him to: an angel, Jesus, Buddha, or Neptune? 

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Conrad's opening description of Marlow, the protagonist of the story is compared to the Buddha. And it's not hard to see why. As he sits there on the steamboat, cross-legged in a lotus pose, leaning against the mast, his whole demeanor is suggestive of a religious ascetic. And with his arms dropped and the palms of his hands turned outwards, he looks for all the world like an idol.

The comparison of Marlow with the Buddha is entirely appropriate at this early stage in the story. By coming to Africa, Marlow has embarked upon a voyage of self-discovery, a quest for meaning in his life which he hopes will bring him spiritual enlightenment, the kind of spiritual enlightenment one normally associates with the Buddhist religion. The Buddhist practice of cultivating detachment from the material world is also relevant here. Marlow is in the world, but not of it. He's as much of a white colonialist as anyone in Africa, but is separated from the others, or so he thinks, by a disinterested perspective on life.

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Eleanora Howe eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The answer to this question can be found in one of Conrad's descriptions early on in the novel:

...[Marlow] began again, lifting 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... (10)

As you can see, Conrad very obviously compares Marlow to the Buddha. This comparison is significant because it sets him apart from Christianity, which, for most of the English sailors listening to his tale, would be the most familiar religious culture of the day. In this way, Conrad very subtly identifies Marlow as an outsider. Even more importantly, he identifies him as an "enlightened" outsider, one who sees into the true nature of things, as the Buddha is traditionally conceived to be an enlightened and wise being who studies the complex threads of existence. Thus, through this small and seemingly simple description, the astoundingly dense nature of Conrad's writing becomes apparent, as he's able to convey immense amounts of meaning within the span of a single sentence. 

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