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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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Extended Character Analysis

Charles Marlow is thin and weathered; he resembles a religious or spiritual figure, at first looking like an “idol.” By the conclusion of his tale, he resembles a meditating Buddha, sitting cross-legged. Marlow is unusual for a sailor because he is motivated by his desire to explore different lands, whereas other seamen are content with life on the open sea. He recalls his time in the Congo as he and his companions are sailing down the River Thames and out to sea.

Marlow admits that he has always wanted to see as much of the world as possible, especially unexplored regions. The Congo river, extending into the center of the African continent, fascinates Marlow, prompting him to get a job in the ivory trade just to be able to sail up the river and see it firsthand. His conversation with his aunt foregrounds the idealism with which Europeans approached the colonization of Africa. He is uncomfortable with the idea that he is going to “civilize” the Africans; he views his journey as a business venture, not a moral crusade. His aunt’s idealism is quickly shown to be unfounded, as Marlow witnesses the horrific treatment of the enslaved Africans and the disorganization of the Europeans in charge of the ivory trade.

Unbeknownst to Marlow, his aunt’s connections set him in the footsteps of Kurtz, bringing idealism and competence to the trade stations. This expectation leads the men he works with to treat him differently. The reverence and awe that the other Europeans show toward Kurtz fascinates Marlow, and he becomes increasingly intrigued by his mysterious predecessor. This growing fascination leads him to occasionally forget that his journey is primarily motivated by ivory, not Kurtz.

According to Marlow, most of his introspection and reflection occurred after his journey to the Congo. In the moment, he was fully focused on the task at hand, whether it was getting to the Central Station, fixing the steamboat, or heading to the Inner Station. Marlow thinks very little of most of the people he encounters in the Congo, whether they are European or African. He refers to virtually no one by name, except Kurtz, a narrative feature that adds to the detached and eerie tone of the novella.

Although he considers the Africans primitive and simple, Marlow is often shocked into acknowledging that perhaps the Africans and Europeans are not all that different. These moments occur when the supposedly simple Africans exhibit complex behavior, such as the cannibals’ refraining from eating other people, the helmsman’s attempting to keep Marlow safe from Kurtz’s followers, and the African woman’s grief when Kurtz is taken. He also points out the irony that the supposedly civilized Europeans are too disorganized to send the right supplies at the right time. In further displays of barbarity, the Europeans use meaningless tasks to keep the African slaves in check, and treat the Africans brutally in the name of helping them be more civilized. As he recounts his experiences, Marlow expounds at length about the absurd behavior of most of the Europeans, comparing the dark and treacherous Congo to what London must once have been like.

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List of Characters