Marlow’s role in Heart of Darkness

Marlow is a mechanism for author Joseph Conrad to express his thoughts and feelings. Appearing in several of Conrad’s literary works, Marlow is used as a tool for Conrad to express himself. However, it is not until Heart of Darkness, where the uncanny similarities between author and puppet become apparent. I will begin by exploring the similarities between Conrad and Marlow, and progress to why these similarities exist.

The lives of Marlow and Conrad share many similarities. Joseph Conrad started sailing at the age of 16. Conrad continued to sail for 19 years. The most notable and important voyage of Conrad’s, to us, is his voyage up the Congo River. Conrad’s uncle had obtained him the job with a Belgian trading company, as the Captain of a river steamboat. Marlow shared a similar path. He too started sailing at a young age, and eventually captained a steamboat up what is believed to be the Congo. Marlow received the captain’s appointment because of his aunt. Both Marlow and Conrad returned from the Congo, disillusioned, and disassociated with society. The book’s plot also shares many similarities with Conrad’s life. The setting is described as a river in Africa, although never explicitly named the Congo, it is commonly believed to be so. Joseph Conrad’s father was a playwright, and likely would have exposed his son to Christopher Marlowe, from whom I believe the name Charles Marlow was borrowed. Some of these similarities could be called coincidence, bar the fact that there are too many for these simply to be coincidence. This leads me to believe that Marlow was used by Conrad to express himself through his literary works.

Many authors find their inspiration for their writing from their own lives, however the themes in Heart of Darkness suggest Conrad’s life was more than just inspiration. Conrad’s upbringing would have exposed him to many revolutionary ideas. This would have allowed Conrad to interpret events and actions through a different lens. One that is not biased by solely conservative values, such as colonialism. As a result of this lens, the book takes on a tone that condemns colonialism. I believe Conrad used Heart of Darkness, and specifically Marlow as a tool to “preach” about the harmful effects of colonialism. If Conrad were to have spoken freely about his opinion on colonialism, he likely would have faced persecution, from the public or British Empire. Shakespeare used a similar technique to avoid offending the British Monarchy, and subjects. His plays often poked fun at the British, but the setting of the plays allowed the jests to go un-noticed. Conrad may have also decided that a book might be the best medium to reach the largest quantity of people (Which it did). If he were just to tell his story to an isolated group of people, the effect would be minimal. Instead, the book allowed an extremely broad group of people to be reached. Conrad’s experiences and beliefs are expressed using Heart of Darkness.

Upon reviewing this work, it becomes apparent that Joseph Conrad expressed his feelings and personal history through the main character Marlow. Both Conrad, and Marlow share extremely similar histories, and both witness the impacts of colonialism in the Congo. These experiences makes the re-integration into society a challenge for both Conrad and Marlow. The similarities between author and character are probably not just mere coincidence, it’s but rather an example of deliberate expressionism.


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