Is Mr. Marlow the Hero of Heart of Darkness?

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The hero of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is Mr. Marlow, as he overcame the “heart of darkness” that is the wild Congo of Africa in the late 1800’s. What exactly does that mean? Sharing a perspective on everyday heroes may shed some light on this subject.

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 do this by remaining positive and setting a fine example for the rest of us to remain positive ourselves.

Mr. Kurtz, the supposed antagonist of this tale, gave in to the “heart of darkness” that is the Congo wilderness. This meant falling 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. Yes, Kurtz had grand intelligence, many big ideas, and originally very good intentions. But, he lacked the integrity to keep his brilliant mind from being invaded by darkness.

Integrity becomes the key attribute that allows Marlow to outlast Kurtz. Like so many other unrestrained brilliant minds, Kurtz became swallowed up by his darker side. He then performed numerous atrocities. Kurtz became quite self-centered, as he became almost sort of a god to native tribes, using that position to his advantage. Only in the end does Kurtz truly 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 numerous 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 emotional strain, but rather than being attracted to evil, he was outright revolted by what he was witnessing. He had no intention of joining this terrible invasion nor the obvious exploitation of both the land and its native people.

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

From how Marlow tells the beginning of the story, it’s not difficult to gather that he started 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, an integrity that Kurtz apparently 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 is Marlow able to retain his composure and faculties. This includes 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 saw Kurtz, one who people 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 the corruption around him.

Kurtz VS Marlow: A Matter of Integrity

Sometimes, we can find it hard enough to stay cool in civilized society in our own life. If we were to be far removed from what we know as civilization and put in a world of lawlessness and chaos, the “dark side” within each of us would be extremely difficult to resist. It takes tremendous integrity to remain focused in such an alien world where it’s so easy to give in to your darker side and lose all civilized manners forever. 

Marlow’s great integrity keeps him together in his case. Still, even with all his integrity, he’s forever a changed man from the epic journey. Such hardships must be overcome for one to be remembered as 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 fairly memorable one. If we can put ourselves in Marlow’s shoes, we can learn a little bit more about ourselves. 

Like Marlow said 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 story.

A hero, through all of their hardships, comes to better understand people and human nature itself. It’s through hero stories that we learn so many things. It can also be through such stories that one generation passes on their values. Through Marlow’s example, we can see how staying focused on your tasks and remaining true to yourself can get you through all sorts of 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 certainly are quite contrasts in character. It’s interesting to note that Kurtz had come to the Congo with quite a bit of positivity himself, but he just could not hang onto it in the way Marlow is able to in the end. Kurtz becomes the pathetic figure and Marlow ultimately is the hero.

Marlow as The Everyday Hero

Marlow’s story is one that needs to 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, however, 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 that can make you ponder about 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 tremendously special about him, other than his incredible gift of expression. He’s just living day to day, getting whatever he possibly can out of each moment, sticking to his tasks and remaining true to his conscience. He does not have to agree with what’s going on to do his job; sometimes, that is just how it has to be. 

After many journeys, Marlow becomes a great storyteller, doing his best to relate the complete essence of a tremendous experience; one Marlow refers to as almost being a “dream-sensation.” Marlow really is just a fellow human being with a heck of a story to tell, and it is well worth listening to, because from it, there is so much to learn.

Revised 1/6/2021

Writing words, spreading love, Amelia Desertsong primarily writes creative nonfiction articles, as well as dabbling in baseball, Pokemon, Magic the Gathering, and whatever else tickles her fancy.
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