Heart of Darkness OCE: The Archetypal Voyage

12 December 2018

The Heart of Darkness depicts Marlow’s journey into the Congo to find Kurtz, leading Marlow to fight for his survival while finding his inner self. Marlow’s journey parallels the journey of the hero, as Marlow enters the Congo as an innocent adventurer and leaves as an enlightened individual. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad creates an allegory, an archetypal story of journeys: through hell, back in time, and to the core of the psyche-the heart of darkness.

One aspect of Marlow’s adventure includes the journey through hell. As Marlow goes to the Company’s office to negotiate for his job, he notices two “uncanny and fateful” women giving each other a “quick glance of unconcerned wisdom,” as he thought of them as guardians of “the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a pall” (Conrad 47). The scene introduces Marlow’s metaphorical descent into hell because Conrad’s description of the two women bear a resemblance to The Fates, the Greek goddesses who decide the destiny of men, and the door of Darkness refers to the entrance of hell. Since the archetypal hero must cross the threshold to continue his journey, Conrad allows readers to recognize how Marlow’s decision to venture into the Congo signifies the beginning of his trip through hell. When Marlow arrives to the Congo, he has “stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno,” as he recognizes the native laborers as ” nothing earthly…but black shadows of disease and starvation” (55). Conrad creates several allusions of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno within his novel to create an analogy of Marlow’s experience in the Congo, corrupted by the Company’s brutal involvement, with Dante’s physical journey through hell. However, the Congo, a representation of hell, is worse since ” in Dante’s work, Hell is God’s creation, governed by the rational principle of contrapasso,” as “the Hell created by European imperialism [creates] death and torment… in an arbitrary, irrational fashion” (Bowers 1). After several months, Marlow finds Kurtz’s station and retrieves him, however, his expectations of Kurtz falls short, as Marlow can only recognize a man who has “taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land,” rather than a bringer of civilization (Conrad 97). Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz depicts the end of his descent into hell, for Marlow has reached Kurtz, who represents Satan. By reaching his final destination, Marlow comes close to accomplishing the Test, the archetypal hero’s main quest in order to gain his reward.

Another journey that Marlow faces involves going back in time. Before Marlow narrates about his experience at the Congo, he questions how the Romans must have felt to reside across a “land in swamp…in some inland post” and encounter “that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs…in the hearts of wild men” (41). Marlow reminisces about the Roman conquest in England because their expectations and reactions reflects Marlow’s similar reactions when he first enters the Congo. In addition, Marlow recognizes how the Romans and the Company workers in Africa both shared the fascination of the abomination, the impulse Marlow attempts to resist. When Marlow and the pilgrims set off to find Kurtz, Marlow felt that “[they] were wanderers on a prehistoric earth,” as he considered his crew “the first men taking possession of an accursed inheritance…at the cost of profound anguish and excessive toil” (80). As he and the crew journey ahead to reach Kurtz, Marlow ironically feels as if he is moving back in time after seeing the untamed parts of the wilderness. Without the presence of civilization, Marlow feels the need to tame the resentful wilderness, since people perceive him as a bringer of virtue and civilization, similar to Kurtz. After returning to civilization, Marlow heads off to meet Kurtz’s Intended, but as he approaches her doorstep, he begins to have flashbacks of Kurtz “on the stretcher, the gloom of the forest,” and “seemed to hear the whispered cry” of Kurtz’s last words (130). Although he escapes the Congo intact, the memories of the events remain perfectly intact as well, as these vivid visions causes him to relive those moments, which continues to haunt him as a reminder of the darkness within men. Marlow’s return and inner change, also portray his syzygy, or complete wholeness after coming to terms with The Soul, represented by the mistress, and the Shadow, represented by Kurtz.

The last aspect of Marlow’s archetypal adventure contains the journey to the core of the psyche, or the heart of darkness. After visiting his aunt, Marlow couldn’t help but “[feel]…that [he] was an imposter,” and “instead of going to the centre of a continent,” he was heading “off for the centre of the earth” (50). Marlow felt that he does not stand for what his aunt or the Company believed in, and he doesn’t know about himself. By accepting this job, Marlow not only goes to the Congo for the desire of adventure, but also to the journey of finding himself. During his voyage to retrieve Kurtz, Marlow notes, after looking at the savages aboard the ship, that “the mind of man is a capable of anything because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future” (51). Marlow’s statement reflects Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, where all humans share the same unconscious mind that has passed down from generations. However the progression of civilization covers these hidden instincts, and Marlow must recover them in order to survive in the wilderness. When Kurtz attempts to escape into the wilderness, returning to his ivory, Marlow does not tell anyone because he does not want to “betray Mr. Kurtz,” and he “was anxious to deal with this shadow by [himself] alone,” with no desire to share this experience with anyone else (118). Marlow knows that Kurtz “represents the emptiness of contemporary civilization,” however, he chooses to stay with his choice of nightmare as he realizes “there are no absolute answers, only a multiplicity of interpretations” (Loe 1). In addition, Kurtz represents the archetypal Shadow, the inner savagery within the hearts of men, and Marlow recognizes that a confrontation with Kurtz will lead himself into his own psyche, a place where no one else can go for him.

Through the journey through hell, back in time, and to the core of the psyche, Joseph Conrad creates the novel to represent an archetypal story. Marlow’s path of the archetypal hero led him to recognize the inner nature of men and how it has no restraints within the wilderness. The novel sets a prime example of how people can easily change if they do not possess the inner strength to control themselves.

Work Cited
Bowers, Terence N. “Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Dante’s Inferno.” The Explicator62.2
(2004): 91+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 18 Oct. 2011.
Conrad, Joseph, and Julie Stern. Youth ; Heart of Darkness ; Typhoon ; The Secret Sharer: with
Reader’s Guide. New York, NY: Amsco School Publications, 1974. Print.
Loe, Thomas. “Heart of Darkness: Overview.” Reference Guide to English Literature. Ed. D.
L. Kirkpatrick. 2nd ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991. Literature Resource Center.
Web. 19 Oct. 2011.

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