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Character Analysis in Heart of Darkness

Marlow: Narrator and main character of Heart of Darkness, Charlie Marlow is defined by his obsession with a man named Kurtz. Though he is described as wise and knowledgeable beyond his years due to his extensive traveling and experience at sea, Marlow follows his curiosity on a dangerous mission to find Kurtz. A key element of Marlow’s character includes his skeptical attitude towards European colonization and its capitalistic goals. However, a discerning reader should note that Marlow is no shining light for the rights of indigenous people. He feels colonization is justified if it aims to ‘civilize,’ or assimilate, native peoples. His journey into the “darkness” of the Congo in search for Captain Kurtz affects Marlow so dramatically that he returns to Europe a man haunted by the chilling reality of humanity’s inner darkness.

Kurtz: Kurtz initially desires to ‘civilize’ the native people by importing European values and beliefs into their society. However, upon arriving in the Congo, Kurtz quickly abandons his original quest, and instead elevates himself to the level of a God in the indigenous community. We learn that his great ability to source more ivory than others is due to his use of absolute force, and that his time in Africa has turned him into a bloodthirsty, morally-corrupt man. In this way, Kurtz comes to symbolize the darkness in the human soul. Kurtz is often cast as the symbol for European greed and lust which reflects the heightening sense of imperial guilt felt for the perceived economic exploitation of foreign resources by European centers.

Character Analysis Examples in Heart of Darkness:

Chapter 1

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"and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .”..."   (Chapter 1)

European colonialism was often justified as an effort to save (enlighten, improve, etc.) native people in other lands—people who were considered backwards, ignorant, and uncivilized. Marlow is only comfortable with colonialism (taking the earth "away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves") insofar as it serves the better interest of the people being colonized.

"‘He is a very remarkable person.’..."   (Chapter 1)

Kurtz troubles the philosophy of nineteenth-century British colonialism. Great Britain, among other European nations, justified its invasion of third-world countries as an act of goodwill: the white man considered himself to be the epitome of civilization, so it was his moral duty to "save" uncivilized native people from the darkness of ignorance. Kurtz, however, is in the Congo for financial reasons—saving the native people is only a secondary priority. Kurtz's character invites us to locate the hypocrisy in so-called benevolent colonialism and expose its foundation of greed.

"He was just a word for me..."   (Chapter 1)

Marlow has not seen Kurtz yet, so he cannot understand Kurtz as a fully-formed human. Marlow places an importance on materiality, and since he does not have any real experiences with Kurtz, no tangible reference points, Kurtz remains a disembodied, incorporeal figure.

"like biting something rotten..."   (Chapter 1)

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad provides a wide variety of sensory experiences aside from simply imagery. He uses aural and olfactory cues, and he even appeals to the sense of taste. In this passage, Marlow uses taste, a bodily, physical experience, to relate the feeling of being lied to, an experience rooted in the material realm. Lying disrupts the stability in physical experience that Marlow seeks because it can conceal the bad, the “rotten,” with something that appears to be good.

"I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie..."   (Chapter 1)

Marlow claims to be against deceitful behavior. This character trait is supported by his previous statements of the hollowness that he finds in the European colonizers, most notably when he calls the brickmaker a “papier-maché Mephistopheles.” Take note of whether Marlow is as honest as he expects those around him to be.

"their show of work..."   (Chapter 1)

Marlow is critical of the men’s work ethic—or lack thereof—because it is hollow, without substance. The men profess to have a sort of Protestant work ethic, but they are not really productive. Their “work” is fueled by greed, whereas Marlow seeks work because it provides a material link to reality. He is more interested in what is actually in front of him, as opposed to the men who dream about the ivory they will probably never see.

"the rest were nowhere..."   (Chapter 1)

This manager is one of the several men in the Congo who make an impression on Marlow. Marow’s Eurocentric statement comments on his command of space, as if he were a vacuum subsuming everything around him. The relationship between man and space is explored throughout Heart of Darkness, as colonialism is an extreme form of man absorbing space and everything in it.

"ten days—an eternity..."   (Chapter 1)

The perception of how time passes in Heart of Darkness often seems warped. While narrators typically use time to provide readers with a reliable way to measure duration, its distortion here reflects the instability of the situation and Marlow’s uncertainty in his actions. This also reflects on the unreliability of the chain of information traveling from Marlow and then through the unnamed narrator before reaching the reader.

"to see..."   (Chapter 1)

Marlow is characterized as being complacent and blind to the atrocities of his situation. He chooses ignorance, and he is only made aware of the Europeans’ wrongdoings when he is forced to confront them.

"The fingers closed..."   (Chapter 1)

Notice how Marlow distinguishes and separates the man's fingers from the rest of his body and being. He engages in this sort of partitioning of people in several other places in the text. By recognizing the parts instead of the whole, Conrad characterizes Marlow as being somewhat short-sighted or myopic, a trait that seems to be ailing all of the Europeans as they misunderstand the implications of colonialism.

"carried off her feet..."   (Chapter 1)

While some women are shown to be complacent citizens, Marlow’s aunt (and others) base their enthusiasm for colonialism on rousing stories in the press. This still, however, characterizes all women as being ignorant about current affairs, as well as ties into a larger cultural notion that women are easily swayed by what they read. The women in Heart of Darkness may be passionate about affairs in the Congo, but since they have not actually been, the scope of their knowledge is narrow and their eagerness shouldn’t be taken seriously.

"the Continent..."   (Chapter 1)

Marlow is British, so this refers to Continental Europe, not Africa. Note Marlow’s disdain for the Continent. He seems to be put off by the other, even if the other is also European. His life as a sailor has made him somewhat xenophobic, preventing him from identifying or sympathizing with any group. His position as the nomadic outsider makes him a somewhat more reliable narrator.

"a Buddha preaching in European clothes..."   (Chapter 1)

There are several references to Buddhism in Heart of Darkness even though none of the characters are Buddhist, and it isn’t set in a predominantly Buddhist region. Conrad seems to be making a statement about imperialism and borrowing from other cultures. Marlow does not deliberately mimic Buddhism, but he unconsciously engages in imperialistic habits.

"the secret not worth knowing..."   (Chapter 1)

The saying “ignorance is bliss” applies here as the narrator reveals a flaw in Marlow: a tendency to extrapolate; to make conclusions from very little information. This flaw dictates how he interacts with unfamiliar people and places and may influence his reliability as a character.

"their country—the sea..."   (Chapter 1)

Heart of Darkness is famous for its ambiguity concerning issues such as imperialism and nationalism. Notice how the narrator describes Marlow as a wanderer with no ties to any single nation or ideology. This does not discount, however, the fact that Marlow is European, giving him a certain lens through which to view the world. Marlow occupies a liminal space between European and not, allowing him to criticize some aspects of European culture, while accepting others at the same time.

"The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own...."   (Chapter 2)

Kurtz continues to trouble the nineteenth-century philosophy of saving the native people. Kurtz was wildly successful, both in trade and among the colonized. The "powers of darkness" that "claimed him for their own" are those of Africa itself: Kurtz, like all white men, was supposed to provide light to the native people—not be drawn in by them.

"the unbounded power of eloquence..."   (Chapter 2)

Conrad suggests that there is power not in brute force, but in effective communication. Kurtz does not need to reveal himself as a corporeal reality to wield power because his poignancy and reputation alone are enough to garner reverence and support. Think back to the images of ships and men firing blindly into the jungle. Those physical attempts to dominate were futile whereas Kurtz’s ability to spin a narrative is more successful. Contrast Kurtz’s ephemeral quality against Marlow’s need for material reinforcement of his reality.

"do you understand?..."   (Chapter 2)

Marlow has continually sought comprehension and clarity amidst the chaos of colonial efforts in the Congo. For example, he is drawn to manual labor because he believes it gives him a material sense of reality. He frequently asks his crew on the Nellie if they understand him because he must be reassured of his existence.

"All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz..."   (Chapter 2)

Conrad turns Kurtz into a larger-than-life character, making him more of a legend than a man. He represents the culmination of European history, values, greed, and entitlement, and thus the perfect figure to lead an expedition into the “heart of darkness.”

"My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—..."   (Chapter 2)

Notice Kurtz’s repetition of the word “my.” It reflects his intense greed and gluttony, as well as his large, subsuming presence. Kurtz is sometimes considered the eponymous “Heart of Darkness” because his greed is representative of European colonial greed in general. Kurtz’s personal connection to his work, however, distances him from the other Europeans so that his malevolence is more ambiguous.

"a talk with Kurtz..."   (Chapter 2)

Just as material objects and work ground Marlow in reality, being able to talk with Kurtz would provide Marlow assurance in his existence. It is not necessarily a matter of having a meaningful conversation or achieving some sort of revelation through conversation, but rather of being certain that Kurtz is real, of his existence.

"they were not inhuman..."   (Chapter 2)

Marlow recognizes a basic kinship with the Congolese that terrifies him because if he can recognize the humanity they share, it will be more difficult for him to treat them poorly. The Three-Fifths Compromise regarding slaves in the United States is an example of how denying another’s humanity has been used as an effective mode of oppression and exploitation.

"monkey tricks..."   (Chapter 2)

Conrad has described colonialism with a great deal of imagery related to farce, folly, and show. In this instance, Marlow refers to himself as a sort of performer, removing himself further from the reality of the situation. Marlow’s work on the steamer grounded him, but since he no longer has that work to tether him to reality, he begins to lose his sense of identity, performing meaningless “tricks.”

"I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether. . .”..."   (Chapter 3)

Marlow struggles to reveal Kurtz's dying words ("The horror! The horror!") to his Intended. Instead, he tells her that Kurtz's last words were her name. Though Marlow feels very conflicted about lying, he can't bring such darkness into her civilized world; "It would have been too dark—too dark altogether..."

" But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad...."   (Chapter 3)

Kurtz looks inwardly—deep within his soul—and discovers the darkness that resides in every human heart. When Marlow describes Kurtz's struggle as a madness of soul instead of a madness of the mind, he invites us to contemplate a darker side of human nature: the inclination toward selfishness. Kurtz has, in a way, exchanged his soul for power in the Congo—he is idolized by the native people and has become the center of his own world.

"carved out of old ivory..."   (Chapter 3)

One’s engagement with their labor has a great deal of influence on their identity. Kurtz has become so engrossed in his work of obtaining ivory that he seems to have literally become it. This relates to Marlow’s need to work as both men find meaning for their lives in the work that they perform.

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