Is Mr. Marlow the Hero of Heart of Darkness?

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Mr. Marlow is the hero of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, overcoming the dark, forbidding wilderness of the wild Congo of late 1800’s Africa. Exactly what does Marlow do to become the hero of this story? He simply survives, just as everyday heroes do through character traits like integrity and humility.

Everyday heroes are people who can make your day memorable. It could be through making you feel good about yourself or doing something to humor you. Or, in the most common example, performing a selfless act of kindness. An everyday hero is someone who daily defeats the “heart of darkness” within each of us. They remain positive and set a fine example for the rest of us to remain positive ourselves.

The eventual antagonist of “Heart of Darkness”, Mr. Kurtz, gives in to the “heart of darkness” that is the Congo wilderness. He fell to both physical and mental infirmities, from neither of which he was ever able to recover. Kurtz does not seem to exhibit the qualities that allowed Marlow to succeed in the end. Sure, Kurtz had grand intelligence, many big ideas, and good intentions at the start. But, he lacked the integrity to keep his brilliant mind from the invasion of darkness.

Thus, integrity becomes the key attribute allowing Marlow to outlast Kurtz. Like many other unrestrained brilliant minds, Kurtz is swallowed up by his darker side. He then performs many atrocities. Kurtz becomes quite self-centered, acting as sort of a god to native tribes, using that position to his advantage. Only in the end does Kurtz realize how corrupted he has become. He dies cursing the atrocities he committed, now unable to do anything about them.

Marlow’s Optimism and Constitution

Marlow never gave in, though at many times he could have. Part of this was Marlow’s strong constitution. Then again, he wasn’t exposed to the jungle as long as many of those in the story had been. Indeed, Marlow felt the same emotional strain as Kurtz. But, rather than letting the evil attract him, he was outright revolted by what he was witnessing. He had no intention of joining an invasion nor the obvious exploitation of both the land and its native people.

Fortunately for Marlow, he was able to stick to his tasks. He didn’t letting his own disgust with the situation idle him. Marlow becomes the hero of this story by retaining a positive attitude throughout the journey. In his epic case, he remains positive mostly for his own sanity.

At the beginning of the story, we see Marlow begin this journey as a young man with an optimistic viewpoint on life. Being a hero depends so much on retaining positivity. He was able to keep a connection with his civilized self and was able to hold what was good and just in him together. This is the sort of integrity that Kurtz clearly lacked. In a more literal sense, Marlow is a hero by simply “winning” in the end by not being consumed by the primitive wilderness. It’s the depths of the Congo itself that become the true villain of the novel.

The trip down the Congo River begins like your typical adventure story. But, through Mr. Marlow’s narrative, we learn this journey affected him deeply. Both physically and metaphorically, he lives his way through a nightmare. He journeys into a primordial land where basic instinct thrives. 

Only by remaining single-mindedly focused on his tasks at hand can Marlow keep his composure and faculties. These tasks include repairing the boat, captaining it, and proceeding on his mission to retrieve Mr. Kurtz. At times, he’s under considerable strain which may have broken many lesser men.

Marlow found Kurtz, once considered a great man, reduced to a sick shadow of a man, broken both in body and mind. All around him, people were so very corrupted. But, Marlow’s integrity prevented him from giving in to this corruption around him.

Marlow is a Hero of Integrity

Sometimes, we can find it hard enough to stay cool in civilized society in our own life. Picture in your mind if you were far removed from what we know as civilization and put in a world of lawlessness and chaos. No doubt, you’d find the “dark side” within each of us extremely difficult to resist. It takes tremendous integrity to remain focused in an alien world where it’s so easy to give in to your darker side and lose all civilized manners forever.

Still, even with all his integrity, Marlow is forever a changed man from the epic journey. Such hardships must be overcome for one to become a hero. Marlow truly overcomes some great calls of instinct to which many other human beings would fall victim.

As great as Mr. Kurtz was, he could never be a hero because he succumbed to evil. In Marlow, Conrad created a wonderful hero and a man of great character. Indeed, his story itself is a memorable one. If we can put ourselves in Marlow’s shoes, we can learn a little bit more about ourselves. 

Marlow says himself of the journey:

“It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me – and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, too – and pitiful – not extraordinary in any way – not very clear either.”

Even though he found it impossible to put his exact thoughts into words, the story itself is an epic hero’s struggle with darkness.

Through their hardships, a hero can better understand people and human nature itself. It’s through hero stories that we learn so much. It’s through such stories that one generation passes on their values to the next. Through Marlow’s example, we see how staying focused on your tasks and remaining true to yourself can get you through many difficulties. This can even be true when faced with horrors as monumental as those of Marlow’s experience in the Congo.

But, even the most “good” of mankind are attracted to power. Marlow found that he liked Kurtz quite a bit, even as corrupted as he’d allowed himself to become. Kurtz became very selfish, and with all the power he had gained, with no one to stop him, who could blame him? Marlow and Kurtz are quite contrasts in character. It’s interesting to note that Kurtz had come to the Congo with quite a bit of positivity himself. Still, he could not hang onto it in the way Marlow is able to in the end. Kurtz becomes the pathetic figure and Marlow becomes the hero.

Marlow as The Everyday Hero

Marlow’s story is one that must be read delicately to fully appreciate today. While Conrad’s language is effective, it can prove dense and verbose in many spots. If you read closely enough, tidbits of wisdom can stand out to you. Within his impressive narrative are little insights into everyday existence, quotable and truthful.

“Heart of Darkness” is a fine work which makes you ponder the darker aspects of human nature. It’s hard not to appreciate the book in its subject matter. There’s such a fascinating wealth of insights contained within its pages. It’s also a great example of not having to love a book to get something valuable out of it.

In the simplest terms, Marlow is the expression of an everyday hero. There’s nothing special about him besides his incredible gift of expression. Marlow lives day to day, getting whatever he can out of each moment. He sticks to his tasks and remaining true to his conscience. No agreement with what’s going on is necessary to do his sometimes, that’s how it has to be.

Because of this journey, Marlow becomes a great storyteller. He does his best to relate the complete essence of a tremendous experience; one Marlow refers to as almost being a “dream-sensation.” Marlow is a fellow human being with a heck of a story to tell. It’s one well worth listening to, and from it, there is so much to learn.

Revised 10/27/22

Related: What I Learned About Self-Discovery from “Heart of Darkness”

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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