Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers
by Joseph Conrad

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In Heart of Darkness, what is Marlow's view of the meaning of life?

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Olen Bruce eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Marlow's conception of the meaning of life is that it lies in maintaining illusions, even against logic and reality. When he goes to the Congo, Marlow wants fervently to believe in Kurtz, the godlike figure whom everyone talks about and whom Europeans and locals alike regard as a deity (quite literally in the case of the local people). Marlow later discovers that Kurtz has cultivated a kind of cult-like status around himself and that he has had a relationship with a local woman. While Marlow wants to believe in Kurtz's greatness, Kurtz himself seems disillusioned, saying, "The horror! The horror!" before he dies.

Kurtz himself no longer believes in his own myth or the myth of the benign European in the Congo, as he knows that Europeans are perpetuating evil. However, Marlow's respect for, and awe of, Kurtz never dies. Even when Kurtz's fiancé asks Marlow about Kurtz's final words, Marlow can not bear to disappoint or disillusion her. Instead, he says the following:

"Yes, I know," I said with something like despair in my heart, but bowing my head before the faith that was in her, before that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her—from which I could not even defend myself.

Marlow knows that Kurtz's fiancé is laboring under an illusion about Kurtz's greatness, and even though he knows better, Marlow also labors under this illusion. Marlow won't disabuse himself of the notion that Kurtz represents something good and momentous.

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Asher Wismer eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Marlow has been changed by his experiences in the jungle, even more so by his meeting with Kurtz. Where once he was idealistic, even naive, he is now entirely a cynic, believing that man is meant to travel through life alone, and so die alone; further, the inner soul of a man cannot be transmitted to others, as they cannot hope to understand the individual plight. This comes partly from the way he finds Kurtz in the jungle, a man of immense power with no one to stand for him except in fear, and partly from the intense isolation he himself feels in the jungle, as if it is a living thing holding him away from civilization.

"...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence, --that which makes its truth, its meaning -- its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream -- alone...."
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness, gutenberg.org)

His feeling is echoed in the various events of the novel, from the native attack on the steamship -- which he sees at first as entirely random and meaningless, without a larger purpose or goal -- to Kurtz's own descent into madness. Had Kurtz been able to remain sane and become a force for progress instead of destruction, his effect on Marlow may have been more positive; as it stands, when he finally meets Kurtz, all of Marlow's pessimistic suspicions are validated.

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