Marlow is a British seaman whose obsession with Africa brings him into the interior on the Company’s steamboat.
Marlow’s feelings on the mysterious Mr. Kurtz go through several evolutions. Let’s start at the beginning. When we first hear of Kurtz through Marlow, the man is described with apathy; Marlow is not "very interested in him." It is not until he hears the story of Kurtz turning back to the jungle that he becomes fascinated. This is when he "[sees] Kurtz for the first time," as a solitary white man among black men.
Shortly after, Marlow confesses that he is excited to see the man soon – a far cry from the indifference displayed only a few pages earlier. Marlow even goes so far as to say that, for him, the journey has become entirely about speaking with Kurtz. The boat, he says, "crawled towards Kurtz – exclusively."
Now that’s interesting. What was it about that story of Kurtz returning to the jungle that grabbed Marlow? Well, we’ve already seen our storyteller become utterly fascinated by the jungle and its people. But at the same time he is drawn in by this primitive wilderness, he is terrified by it. It is a thrill, he says, but it is also horrifying. Kurtz has done what Marlow can only dream of: refuse to return to the luxury and comfort of Europe and choose instead to pursue fortune and glory, danger be damned.
Yet it doesn’t end there. Marlow’s feelings for Kurtz eventually turn to bitter resentment once he actually meets the man. Marlow is made uneasy by the cultish adoration that the harlequin and, apparently, all the native Africans, hold for Kurtz. "He is no idol of mine," Marlow declares, in what seems to be an attempt to differentiate himself from the brainwashed men around him. He also notes that, of all the elements of the wilderness the harlequin has encountered, his devotion to Kurtz is the most dangerous. Marlow becomes angry that he’s at the mercy of Kurtz, which stands quite in contrast to the awe and admiration he felt earlier.
So what’s next? Marlow begins to see Kurtz as childish, a helpless and selfish man who has ignorant dreams of becoming rich and powerful. Not only is the man infantile in his thoughts, but in his physicality, too, as Marlow carries him as though he is a child. Despite this, Marlow does again express a certain admiration for the man, this time for the famous words he utters on his death bed: "The horror! The horror!" Marlow appears to believe these are words of self-realization, when Kurtz may finally be facing the horrible nature of his own deeds – and perhaps the depravity of human nature in his mind. Marlow respects Kurtz for summing up so eloquently (and succinctly!) his realizations. "Kurtz was a remarkable man," Marlow says, because he "had something to say" and simply "said it."
Whatever the feelings, Marlow still declares that he "knew [Kurtz] as well as it is possible for one man to know another." But there is an interesting part following this, where Kurtz’s Intended asks Marlow whether he admired Kurtz. Marlow begins to answer, but gets interrupted. We are left unsure as to what he would have said. When the fiancée suggests that Marlow loved the man, Marlow is left in "appalled dumbness." By the end of the narrative, what does he really feel toward Kurtz? Good question.
Marlow experiences a rather complicated range of emotions toward Kurtz, as you might have noticed. For Marlow, things with Kurtz should be pretty simple. He thought he admired the guy, and then he found out the man puts heads on sticks, so he stopped admiring him. Great. Let’s go home. But, it doesn’t quite work like that. Go home if you want, but you’ll miss out on what makes Heart of Darkness so powerful, fascinating, and famous. Instead, we’re going to suggest a wild idea here: Marlow is like Kurtz. Oh, the horror! Yes, that’s right; our protagonist, our loveable, sympathetic Marlow, is similar to the crazed, cult-inspiring, heads-on-sticks-owning devil-man. We’ll start with the basics.
Like Kurtz, Marlow comes from an upper middleclass white European family. Both nurture a certain arrogance. Marlow considers himself above the manager, the uncle, and the brickmaker while Kurtz establishes himself in an unparalleled seat of power among the native Africans. Both have streaks of obsession in them; Marlow becomes obsessed with Africa and finding Kurtz, while Kurtz stops at nothing to acquire as much ivory as possible. Both have powerful connections (Marlow through his aunt) that allow them access to positions of power within the Company.
It gets even better, as both men have eerily similar reactions to their forays to the interior of Africa. Marlow and Kurtz, despite their desire to conquer the wilderness, become victims of it. To make this point as clear as possible, Conrad uses some very specific instances to tap, if not beat, us on the head. When Marlow observes native Africans dancing at the shore, he wonders why he doesn’t go ashore "for a howl and a dance." Later, he discusses Kurtz in the context of some "midnight dances" that ended in "certain unspeakable rites." Both men are described as gods – Kurtz as Jupiter and Marlow as Buddha. Both men lose touch with reality – Kurtz in the fantasy of his own power and Marlow in the dream-like world of the jungle.
So of course, the million-dollar question is whether or not Marlow is ultimately able to differentiate himself from Kurtz. What do you think?
For the most part, Marlow comes across as a nice guy, if not a particularly ethical one. He’s no saint, or he’s a helpless one, as he does nothing about the horrible scenarios of black slavery he encounters. But he does do little things that show compassion. He attempts to give a biscuit to a starving slave. He treats his own cannibals decently. When the helmsman dies, he makes sure he won’t be ignobly eaten by the native Africans on board. So, the surface level, Marlow is a decent guy who, as a product of his times, isn’t about to start a civil rights movement in the late nineteenth century.
But, like most things in Heart of Darkness, it’s really not that simple. What causes Marlow to feel such compassion for the native Africans? How does he see them in relation to himself? How does his foray down the Congo change the way he thinks? Here we go.
Marlow’s very first words are fascinating. So much so, in fact, that we underlined, highlighted, and circled them, as well as dog-earing the page and putting three sticky notes on the top. In case you were not quite so over-zealous, we’ll tell you straight-up that his first words are: "And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth." This is the part where we all say, "Oooh." Oooh indeed. Marlow is about to tell the story of a dark and primitive Africa which the Europeans are so kindly "civilizing." But he reminds you that Europe, too, was once a dark and primitive place.
From the start, Marlow takes this whole noble imperialism bit with a boulder of salt. He would tell the men that "strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others." He also notes that "This conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion […] than ourselves, is not a pretty thing." He also questions everyone’s use of words like "criminal," "enemy," and "rebel" in talking about the native Africans.
So Marlow isn’t quite so comfortable with viewing the world in black and white, both literally and figuratively. Naturally, things get even more complicated when he starts becoming like a "savage" himself. After talking to the manager at the outer station, Marlow is treated like a native African man, not given a seat or any food. His response? "I was getting savage," he says, unable to converse with the man as a normal, cultured European would do. Hmm. Rather than civilizing the "savages," it seems, Marlow and others begin to become like them.
Marlow’s most interesting discourse on the "savages" occurs shortly after his confession that the African cannibals really aren’t so bad after all. He peers from his boat toward the shore and sees the native Africans dancing and howling. But he doesn’t see them as strange creatures – no, instead he says that they are "not inhuman." Interesting. First of all, let's talk about how he says "not inhuman" instead of just saying "human." This is a nifty little device called "litotes," which is sort of like a double negative. It’s as though Marlow isn’t quite ballsy enough to call them human, so he’ll say it more weakly by affirming its opposite. We also see that Marlow calls their sort-of-humanity "thrilling." He is buzzed by the "remote kinship" he feels with these people. In other words, he is like them. The comparisons keep coming. Marlow becomes a part of the jungle and its people when he cannot distinguish the beating of the drum from his own heartbeat.
Marlow, of course, is scared to death by the thought that he is like these men. He seeks to explain it somehow, and does so (maybe successfully) when he discusses his kinship with the helmsman. This camaraderie only surfaces when the helmsman dies. Only then does Marlow recognize his dependence on this guy, the fact that the helmsman, despite being black, was a man, too. For Marlow, the "pilgrims" and the "savages" are linked together by the one thing they have in common – their mortality.
You might have noticed that Marlow makes a huge deal out of lies. He says he hates, detests, and can’t bear a lie, that lies are reminiscent of death. So why does he lie to Kurtz’s fiancée at the end of this whole story? Well, he claims it is because "it would have been too dark." This might be about Marlow trying to protect the woman from the scary world of reality. Or it might be that he thinks that, by pretending the darkness and the horror of Kurtz’s last words don’t exist, they will somehow go away. If this is true, Marlow fails utterly; the darkness still remains despite his best efforts to hide it.
Marlow adds the further question of justice. To have told the Intended the truth, he claims, would be to have "rendered Kurtz […] that justice which was his due." After all, he tells us, Kurtz said that all he wanted was justice. What has justice come to mean in this novel, anyway? How can there be justice at all in a world where men put heads on sticks and are revered for it anyway? It seems to us as though this ending raises more questions than it answers.
We feel that Conrad started to paint a subtle picture, where Marlow sits "cross-legged" telling his tale in a position only vaguely reminiscent of a spiritual teacher. But then he thought we wouldn’t get it, so he told us straight out that Marlow was like Buddha. Then he thought we might have missed it the first time, so he made a big deal out of telling us again. English-majory people would probably tell you that Conrad frames the story with a mention of Buddha at the beginning and then again at the end. Who knows?
The point is, Marlow is made equivalent to a spiritual figure, and in particular to a spiritual figure whose job it is to teach other people things such that they might learn and get enlightened. So, of course, the big questions are: What does Marlow teach the men? Do the men get it? Is anyone enlightened by this tale? We’re not going to answer these, but we’re thinking that Marlow’s enlightened knowledge has something to do with the very first line he utters.
One last thought: The nameless narrator tells us before the story begins that it will be an inconclusive tale. Does this fit with the Buddha imagery, or stand in contrast to it? What kind of teacher is inconclusive, anyway? (Did you notice that we’re ending this section inconclusively?)
Even as a child, our protagonist Marlow is driven by curiosity. He wants to be a pioneer in some sense, to map the uncharted blank spaces on maps and to explore the "darkest" and most unknown of all places – Africa. His penchant for curiosity remains consistent. As a boy, he grows curious about unexplored places. As an explorer for the Company, he becomes curious about a man named Kurtz. In fact, his curiosity often has a way of becoming an obsession. When it gets to this point, Marlow stops at nothing to satisfy his curiosity; he is willing to listen in on private conversations and even sacrifice some of his men along the way.
Interestingly, because of Marlow’s story-telling tendencies, we experience events the way he did. That is, with much confusion and fog, both literal and metaphorical. When he starts ruminating on past events, our nameless narrator tells us that Marlow is not a typical seaman. He is, instead, a "wanderer," and his story is told with the sense of a wanderer penetrating the dark unknown. The story itself is revealed as if the meaning is "outside" of the tale, brought out "as a glow brings out a haze." Hmm…are you curious yet?
As much as we like Marlow, it seems that the guy is something of a chauvinist. Twice in the novel, he mentions women and always sees them as somehow divorced from reality, as living in another world. To him, women are naïve and idealistic. But here’s the rub: he seems to want them to stay that way. For example, he lies to the Intended about Kurtz’s final words. To some extent, this behavior is a chivalrous attempt to protect women from the brutal realities of the world – like slavery and imperialism. Not to mention those two women in black, who have a strange sense of power over Marlow. What was up with that? Shmoop on.Charlie Marlow Timeline