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Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – Marlow and the Wilderness

Marlow and the Wilderness in Heart of Darkness

Marlow has always been mystified and curious about the parts of the world that have been relatively unexplored by the white race. Ever since he was a little kid he used to look at many maps and wonder just what laid in the big holes that were unmapped. Eventually one of these holes was filled up with the continent of Africa, but he was still fascinated especially by this filled in hole. When he found out that he could maybe get a job with a company that explored the Congo area in Africa he sought after it and got it. After all, it was as a steamship captain on the mighty Congo river. This was “a mighty big river…resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail in the depths of the land” (p. 2196). This snake like river was full of mystery to the adult Marlow and seemed to call him to it.

The wildness that the African wilderness seems to promote is foreshadowed right away to Marlow before his journey gets going. He finds out that the captain he is replacing was killed over a trading disagreement between him and a chief. It turns out that the caption thought he got a raw deal and then proceeded to hit the chief on the head with a stick, whereupon the chiefs son then stuck him with a spear and killed him. This promoting of wildness comes out in the fact that this captain “was the gentlest, quietest creature ever walked on two legs…but he had been a couple of years already out there” (p. 2196-2197).

Marlow then proceeds to head for the Congo, and when he finally reaches the company’s lower station he begins to see how the white man has come to try and civilize and control the wildness of Africa and its inhabitants. The blacks were being used as slaves at the station to build railroads. The scene left Marlow feeling that the blacks “were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now,–nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation” (p. 2202). Marlow sees how the asserted superiority of the white man has led to the devastation of the black natives in both spirit and body.

Marlow’s Assessment of Africa in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Marlow’s Assessment of Africa in Heart of Darkness

Marlow’s assessment of the African wilderness in the beginning of the story is like that of something that tempts him and his fellow explorers to Africa. When Marlow says, “And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird – silly little bird” (Conrad, Longman 2196). If we take note of the phrase “silly little bird” it may be noted that the Marlow is comparing Britain to that silly little bird. It could be that he felt Britain’s occupancy of Africa was nothing more than his own country falling into a trap. It was not a designed trap but one of destiny. It was his countries destiny to fall prey to the allures of that Dark Continent. Millions would die in the attempt to make monetary gains while occupying Africa.

When Marlow mentions “the whited sepulcher” he could be referring again to his homeland, and when he makes this statement he may be referring to the fact that Britain has sent many of its people to be buried in that deep and mysterious place referred to as the Congo. According to YourDictionary .com, the word sepulcher means, “to bury” ( In combination with the word white, referring to his Caucasian race, could Marlow be referring to the death of his fellow countrymen, or could he be referring to the death of a continent, Africa, at the hands of the white race invading her? These thoughts may both have validity when deciphering this text.

When Marlow describes the, “Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool” he may be describing the future of two races combined in utter disarray in Africa. He may be using the “black wool” as something akin to insight into what future had in store for millions of people both black and white in the Congo (Longman 2197). The “black wool” may be referring to black shards for covering the dead. It may also be an idea of not human death but the death of an area such as the Congo. He may have been sensing that the influx of his own countrymen may be taking away the spirit of that wild and forbidden Congo. Marlow’s utterance of, “guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cherry foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes” could give more clues to Marlow’s characterization of the African wilderness (Longman 2198).

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