Charles Marlow: Character Analysis

Charles Marlow: Character Analysis
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Joseph Conrad was a polish-born English dramatist and novelist. The book “Heart of darkness” is among the greatest novels in English. It was written in 1899 and first published in 1902 as a collection but was later to be published independently in 1942. The book is more or less an adventurous tale of Marlow who is a steamboat captain sent to the interior of Africa (Congo) to search for a Belgian agent Kurtz. The story is about his encounters not only in Africa but also in his homeland in relation to his family. Although this is an adventurous tale, it is also the depiction of a literary journey of a man determined to understand himself much better.

At the same time Marlow, both philosopher and pragmatist, acts as a moral guide for readers as they are confronted with the hypocrisies, contradictions, and excesses of nineteenth-century imperialism. As Marlow unfolds his tale in the course of the novel, readers are positioned to see him as a thoughtful and caring individual, a perceptive and reliable observer, and a man profoundly affected by his encounter with the paradoxical figure of Kurtz and the “horror” of white colonialism.

The “heart of darkness” is a narrative given by the main protagonist Charles Marlow. He narrates his experiences as a captain of a steamboat for the Belgian trading company deep into the African hinterland of Congo. Here Marlow encounters three forms of darkness as he narrates his experiences that give the reader to view Marlow from different perspectives. The three main darkness’s he encounters are the darkness of the Congo forests and landscapes, the darkness of atrocities committed by the Belgian colonialists and traders in Congo, and the natives living deep into the Congo forests.

From the onset, Marlow is presented to the reader as a young man with a strong personality of a caring character and very thoughtful. In an era where women are considered as second to men or dependent on men, Marlow decides to seek assistance from his aunt in order to secure a job. This is uncommon to many men of the time since they did not consider it appropriate for men to seek assistance from women. This shows that he cares about the women and their views and is also thoughtful in that he realizes that the men will not offer him help thus he decides to seek assistance from the women surrounding his life. However, Marlow having no otherwise and given his thoughtfulness decides to seek assistance from his aunt since he does not want to stay jobless (Conrad, 8). His strong will and character allow him to do this in order to have a better future for himself since he is still a young man.

From the nature of his voyage and adventure, we can see that Marlow is a brave and daring young man who is also a very perceptive and reliable observer of his environment. Given the setting of the novel, this was a time when Africa was still highly uncivilized and lived in small subsistence societies and communities. The infrastructure was poor since many communities were long-distance traders. In addition, Marlow was visiting a place thousands of miles away from home going to look for somebody that he had only heard of in tales. This meant that he had to be careful and remember his moves so that he does not get lost in the dense Congo forests.

Additionally, he would meet people speaking a foreign language and with different skin pigmentation. Marlow was not aware of how the people would treat him but regardless of all these challenges, he accepted to go on this mission. This depicts a brave and daring person. In addition to this, he was not afraid even after an attack on his steamboat but rather waited and repaired it and went on in his task of buying ivory and retrieving Mr. Kurtz.

Marlow was a determined young man. Even after facing a multitude of setbacks, he was determined to achieve his mission and return back home with Mr. Kurtz. Many people would have opted to return to safety rather than die in the Congo forests in a strange and far off land. From the narration, we see that Marlow waited or a period of three months to have spares for his steamboat from Europe to arrive. This act also shows us that Marlow was determined to achieve his goals. In other words, Marlow was not a quitter. For instance, when referring to work Marlow says that “I don’t like work, no one does, but I, like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself” (Conrad, 99).

Another Representation of Marlow

Another representation of Marlow in this novel is that of being a sensitive and humane person. Two main instances derive us to see the humane nature of Marlow. In the first case, we see that from the onset Marlow had heard many good things about Mr. Kurtz. As he went to retrieve him mallow expected to find a very diligent, humble and peace-loving intellectual within the Congo wilderness. However, we see that even before meeting his partner Marlow hears many bad things about Mr. Kurtz.

Regardless of this and even after knowing that Mr. Kurtz was responsible for his steamboat being attacked, he still goes on to find him deep into the jungle. He finds human skeletons near Mr. Kurtz’s residence and gets word that Mr. Kurtz is responsible for all atrocities he pities him and still takes upon himself to take him back to Europe. Marlow had witnessed the atrocities committed by ivory merchants and Mr. Kurtz but he is still human enough to lend him help even in his dying moments since he was very sick. Mr. Kurtz had made himself the embodiment of a god and committed great harm and atrocities against the natives back in Africa.

In terms of being sensitive, we see that when Marlow meets Kurtz’s fiancée-the Intended he is sensitive not to break her heart by informing her that Kurtz was no longer the humble person she knew but had turned in to a beast and would have done anything in the name of hunting for ivory. Mr. Kurtz had ordered several raids in different communities where many people died in search of ivory. In reference to Kurtz and all the members of the ivory company, Marlow describes the situation or their actions against the natives, “It was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage” (Conrad, 102). Despite knowing all this Marlow decides to let the Intended just continue to cry for her deceased fiancée and not letting her know that, Kurtz had turned in to a different and very cruel person. This indicates how sensitive Marlow could get when emotions were at stake.

Within the novel, we also see that Marlow’s character is of a prejudiced or sexist person. Just like many of the male colleagues in the novel Marlow also depicts a character of a sexist or prejudiced person. We first see this in his reference to his aunt. Even after seeking the help of his aunt (a woman), Marlow later narrates it as if he was not happy with the situation but did it because he had no alternative. In an earlier conversation, Marlow said in reference to his aunt “She was determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat if such was my fancy” (Conrad 8). This is an indication that Marlow did not approve of his aunt’s help but only accepted it because there was no other help forthcoming.

In relation to the Intended Marlow says, “She seemed as though she would remember and mourn forever…For her, he had only died yesterday” (Conrad 74). This statement from Marlow is in the form of disgust and dislike since he knew what kind of a man Kurtz had become. However, the Intended was acting as if she is the only one who knew Mr. Kurtz. This action shows the sexist nature of Marlow where he seems to look down on the Intended since she was acting in a very stupid way according to him.


From the novel, we see that there are different dimensions through which we see Marlow’s character. However, regardless of his character, we should not fail to recognize the main theme of the novel, which is a depiction of how people and society can change and become so cruel to compare it to darkness itself.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Heart of Darkness: Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. Fourth Ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 5-77.