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The Inversion of Buddhism in Heart of Darkness

The Inversion of Buddhism in Heart of Darkness

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow is described more than once as sitting in the pose of a Buddha while he begins his story. Even our first view of Marlow prepares us for the later comparison: “Marlow sat cross-legged… He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a strait back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol” (16). This is the very image of a meditating Buddha. Our suspicions are confirmed that Conrad is indeed making reference to the Buddha as he describes the pose of the Buddha of Compassion– note the hand raised in blessing: ” ‘Mind,’ he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes with out a lotus-flower” (20). Because of the repeated references I began to wonder if Conrad is hinting to his readers. On a superficial level, the comparison holds. In the sutras about the enlightened Buddha, he sits thusly and, like Marlow, sometimes tells stories. However, Marlow’s story reveals him as not a Buddha but instead a sort of anti-Buddha, especially in light of Zen Buddhism.

The most basic myth of the Buddha’s enlightenment tells of a prince, Sidhartha, who grows up entirely sheltered and content until he finally beholds suffering. Yet, at this same time, he sees an enlightened monk who radiates peace and joy. Sidhartha can not comprehend how in a world with such suffering one could be so happy, and so he leaves home to search for understanding. Marlow, on the other hand, as ” ‘a little chap… had a passion for maps’ ” (21). He departs for no better reason than to see wh…

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…ive, to all appearance indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity’ ” (90). Furthermore, he is the only character in the book with any sort of cheerfulness and hope. His appearance has no darkness in it; he is covered with colored patches and stands in the sunshine (87).

Conrad’s inversion of Buddhism is intentional, but I do not see it as a rebuttal or mockery of Buddhism. In class we discussed Marlow as an unreliable narrator, one purpose of which is to lead the reader to question what Marlow says and stands for. His search is not for enlightenment, nor are the motives for his search altruistic. In the jungle, he found what he took with him.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Watts, Alan. Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.

A Freudian Perspective of Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

A Freudian Perspective of Marlow in Heart of Darkness

On the surface, Heart of Darkness is the exploration of the African Congo where the explorers are trying to conquer the natives and make a profit in the ivory business. However, there is much more to the short novel written by Joseph Conrad than just the surface. It is also the exploration of the unconscious where the goal is to conquer the unknown. At the same time when Heart of Darkness was surfacing in the 20th century society, a psychologist named Sigmund Freud was publishing his research findings. Freud’s research of the unconscious and Conrad’s journey into darkness is remarkably similar. John Tessitore, a modern critic, says of the similarity, “…it is enough simply to observe that two great minds found themselves arriving at identical conclusions and expressed those conclusions through the modes of their individual disciplines” (Tessitore 93). Specifically comparable are Conrad’s exploration of the mind and Freud’s exploration of the id, superego, and ego.

In Freud’s research on the mind he found three functional areas–the id, the superego, and the ego. These interrelated parts permit the self to function in society. The id is the innermost component of the three. It is the extreme unconscious. This is where the child-like unsocialized drives and instinctual impulses arise. The id knows no rules and does not abide to any external logical laws. It is only ruled by the desire for pleasure. When the id sees something it wants, all it says is, “I want that, I want that, I want that,” like a young child in a toy store. The id is selfish; it represents self-centeredness in its purest form.

According to Freud, the superego is the middle functional part …

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…een, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall. Paramount, 1979.

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams et al. 6th ed. vol. 2. New York: Norton, 1993. 1759-1817.

Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard U. Press, 1958.

Hayes, Dorsha. “Heart of Darkness: An Aspect of the Shadow,” Spring (1956): 43-47

Ryf, Robert. “Joseph Conrad.” Columbia Essays on Modern Writers. New York: Columbia UP, 1970. 17-21.

McLynn, Frank. Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa. New York: Carol

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