Heart of Darkness

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Marlow Character Analysis

One of the five men on the ship in the Thames. Heart of Darkness is mostly made up of his story about his journey into the Belgian Congo. Marlow is a seaman through and through, and has seen the world many times over. Perhaps because of his journeys, perhaps because of the temperament he was born with, he is philosophical, passionate, and insightful. But Marlow is also extremely skeptical of both mankind and civilization, and, to him, nothing is simple. As the Narrator describes him: "to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze." The one thing Marlow does seem to believe in as a source of simple moral worth is hard work.

Marlow Quotes in Heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness quotes below are all either spoken by Marlow or refer to Marlow. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Colonialism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of Heart of Darkness published in 1990.
Part 1 Quotes
'And this also,' said Marlow suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the earth.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dark and White
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow interjects here on two levels—first into the silence aboard the ship and second into the narrator’s descriptions—to make this stark comment on the history of England.

Whereas the narrator praises English explorers and conquerers for bringing light to dark and foreign lands, Marlow locates darkness within England itself. To support this point, he references the land’s more ancient history when it was taken over by the Romans—thus constructing a parallel between the Roman invasion and Europe’s current colonialism in Africa. In this way, he stresses the relatively small time scale in which the Thames has served as the launch-pad for the world power, subtly undermining the narrator’s focus on European civilization.

His choice of the term “dark” is critical. Conrad could have certainly opted for the more descriptive adjectives “savage” or “uncouth,” but instead he selects a metaphorical term that contrasts directly to the fire-bearing image of the narrator, that implicates race, and that refers directly to the novel’s title. If the narrator might locate the “heart of darkness” in the Congo, Marlow already hints that England holds its own corresponding darknesses. The symbolic and geographical lines, he implies, cannot be drawn as simply as the listener or reader might desire.

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In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

To support his point on the old darkness of London, Marlow constructs a tale of a Roman citizen who arrived in what is now England. With a language that will later parallel his descriptions of the Congo, Marlow describes the insidious way a new and inhospitable environment will challenge the morality and identity of someone unfamiliar with its domains.

At first the description seems to juxtapose the inner civility of the Roman with the outer “savagery” of the environment: The “forest,” “jungles,” and “wild men” are all figures that must be confronted without any fore-knowledge. And that lack of understanding notably makes them “detestable,” alluding to the deep hatred and fear that can stem from encountering foreign environments. Yet in the second half of the image, Marlow’s position takes a dramatic turn. He observes that the savage “mysteries” also hold a “fascination.” The inner civility of the Roman, he implies, is actually susceptible to and allured by the savagery of the external environment.

Whereas we might assume that the violence in the situation is the result of the Roman simply rejecting the new savage lands, Marlow implies that it comes from a strange combination of hatred and “fascination.” The hypothetical character is pulled in two directions, hoping to leave, but also succumbing to the savagery and thus arriving at a state of intense “hate”—presumably for both himself and for others. These lines clarify the reason Marlow attributes darkness to London, and they also foreshadow the encounter of supposedly civilized Europeans with hostile foreign environments later in the text.

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

After having ruminated indirectly on colonialism, Marlow makes a more direct criticism of the enterprise here. The comment is a challenge both to the narrator and other listeners aboard the ship who may be implicated in colonialism—as well as to the European society reading the novel itself.

In order to substantiate this comment, Marlow first redefines the subtly positive term “conquest of the earth,” which would present the English as powerful victors controlling the land of the earth. Yet Marlow points out that this earth is already populated by people and that to conquer means “taking it away” from others. Furthermore, the biggest difference between these others and the English is nothing moral or spiritual, but rather something based on surface-level physical details: “complexion” and “flatter noses.” Marlow directly calls out the racism inherent in colonialism.

His reference to looking closely into things is, however, a bit more ambiguous. On the one hand, Marlow implies that his listeners should look more closely into the conquest of the earth and more critically evaluate their actions. This idea is supported by the fact the statement comes from a novel, in particular a novel dense with metaphorical imagery that demands its own reader look very closely. Yet at other times in the text, Marlow criticizes characters who investigate too much, who look too closely; he prefers, as a captain, to take solace in the surface of navigation and efficient work. We see here not so much an aggressive moral judgment as a portrayal of a character who has come to recognize deep flaws in colonialism and yet who remains uncertain of how to negotiate them.

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow here recounts the irrational and bizarre actions of a French war ship he encounters while he's on the steamer that will take him to the mouth of the Congo River. To his eyes, the ship is shooting aimlessly into the "bush" without any direct or sensible goal.

This anecdote highlights the emptiness that undergirds many of the European colonial endeavors. The ship seems to be engaged in “one of their wars” but it has no actual enemy and attacks the imprecise “continent” of Africa itself. This functions a metaphor for how Europeans seek grandeur in their colonial journeys but often find themselves acting haphazardly and lacking a coherent goal. Specific descriptions of the ship are all decrepit or trivial—“limp like a rag” “low hull,” “thin masts”—and contrast with the profound scale of the surrounding environment: “earth, sky, and water.” Marlow juxtaposes the absurdities of human action with the natural realm, a realm so large that canons become “a tiny projectile” and “nothing could happen” from the actions of humans.

“Incomprehensible,” one should note, is one of Marlow’s and Conrad’s most repeated words. This is a perplexing term for both a storyteller and a novelist, for it does not actually describe anything but rather notes that something cannot be understood or explained. This professed uncertainty is one way Marlow undermines the tropes of a traditional adventure story. His journey up the Congo is filled with more questions than answers, more uncertainties than explanations. No clear conclusion is ever presented about the French ship’s actions. And in this sense, human acts of interpretation are themselves presented much like the ship’s guns: They are overwhelmed by the largeness that they seek to comprehend.

The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I've never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

As Marlow works to repair the ship at the Central Station, he reflects on the agents’ obsession with ivory: the main commodity that interests the Europeans in the Congo. Marlow’s earnest manual labor sharply contrasts the way others merely dream of wealth, and Marlow once more trivializes those wishes by alluding to the scale of the surrounding environment.

Ivory is presented in the passage not only as an economic commodity, but also as a kind of supernatural force. The fact that the agents seem to be “praying to it” gives it a religious aura, and the object transforms the station into something “unreal.” Greed seems to drive that transformation: the “imbecile rapacity” that Marlow sees as mean, counterproductive, and decrepit. Comparing the greed to the “whiff from some corpse” implies that it is a fundamentally inhuman behavior, and the corpse imagery will resurface in his later descriptions of Kurtz.

Once more, Marlow contrasts these small human actions and greeds with the immensity of the “silent wilderness.” That immensity, however, is not necessarily a positive force, for it is likened to both “evil” and “truth.” Two interpretations seem possible here: Either truth is fundamentally evil or both terms are so vast, like the wilderness, that they evade the parameters of human ethical understanding. In contrast, the station is just a “speck,” and all of colonialism becomes a “fantastic invasion.” Like the French ship from earlier in the story, the enterprise becomes a ridiculous episode that will eventually fade into the massive scale of the landscape.

I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my fore-finger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), The Brickmaker
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow reflects on the falseness of the Brickmaker, an agent who never in fact makes bricks but is more likely the spy of the General Manager. Here the Brickmaker tries to extract information from Marlow on Kurtz and on those who sent both of them to the Congo.

Whereas Marlow could certainly be intimidated by the Brickmaker, he finds him relatively easy to understand and defend against. The Brickmaker is a "Mephistopheles," another term for the devil, but also made out of “papier-mâché”: material mixed of pulp and adhesive and used to cover up structures or make hollow figures. Marlow reiterates the idea of vacancy when he adds how nothing would be inside him except “a little loose dirt.” So while the Brickmaker may be wicked, his wickedness is built on no inner fortitude or substance.

Imagery of hollowness will be repeated when Marlow confronts Kurtz, so this is a key preoccupation when Marlow deals with Europeans. In contrast, we might note the incomprehensible evil that Marlow attributes to the surrounding wilderness. Whereas both the colonials and the environment are deemed wicked, the first are hollow men, but the second is, in its mystery, both more threatening and more meaningful.

Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams...no, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow suddenly breaks with his fluid narration to reflect on the process of narration itself. He anxiously wonders whether the listeners aboard the Nellie are following the story and notes that he cannot impart the full gravity of the events he experienced.

Though Marlow begins with a direct and sensible question, asking if the listeners can visualize the character of Kurtz, he soon moves to broader questions on storytelling. These play somewhat fast and loose with visual imagery: One does not, after all, "see" a story, and the boat is now sufficiently dark that the sailors cannot literally see anything before them. On the one hand, Marlow is speaking about the specific conditions of the Congo adventure, which he repeatedly uses the term “dream” to describe—as if they were a fundamentally different reality ordered around rules that the sailors cannot possibly comprehend. But he is also making a general comment on storytelling, in which the complete “life-sensation” of a prior experience of “one’s existence” cannot ever be truly captured in its recounting.

The use of the term “essence” is significant and seems to support the second option. At the novel’s onset, Marlow observed that the essence of a tale was less important than its surface content or effect on the listener. In these lines, the “essence” of a dream is deemed “the incredible,” but it is therefore the exact thing that cannot be conveyed to others. That primal and incredible sensation, Marlow implies, is only ever experienced “alone.” And by equating living and dreaming in that final line, Marlow indicates that this inability to share an essence is a universal conclusion he has arrived at through his travels. Perhaps, then, the meaning of a story lies only in its surface because that is all that listeners can understand.

Part 2 Quotes
In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow encounters the Eldorado Expedition as he waits for the rivets necessary to repair his boat. After spending some time in the camp, the pilgrims who comprise the group depart, causing Marlow to make this morbid and sardonic comment on their fate in the wilderness.

Once more, Marlow compares the scales of human endeavors and the natural environment. He links the Congolese wilderness with the earlier imagery of the ocean’s vastness with the simile “as the sea closes over a diver.” Unlike explorers who stay on ships above water, however, these submarine divers are blatantly unsuccessful. Instead of explicitly describing their death, Marlow notes that the donkeys died, and then he subtly belittles the pilgrims by referring to them as “less valuable animals.” The implication, here, is that beasts of labor produce more value than the lazy and cowardly pilgrims. This is highlighted by their name: Eldorado is a non-existent city pursued by Spanish conquistadors in the Americas. The fact that this African expedition is unaware of this legacy and still selects the name reiterates the haphazardness of their goals.

Marlow’s tone becomes even crueler in the final sentences when he asserts that the pilgrims’ actions merited their fate. He seems to be developing a new ethical code that grows ever more critical of European colonial exploitation. In particular, the reference to “like the rest of us” demonstrates that this is not just a specific complaint about the Eldorado Expedition, but rather one that can be hoisted on himself and on those others aboard the Nellie.

It was a distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home—perhaps; setting his face towards the depth of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow conjures this image of Kurtz as he eavesdrops on the General Manager’s conversation with his Uncle. The two trade gossip about how Kurtz may be ill, and offer the evidence that he had planned on leaving the Inner Station before suddenly deciding to return.

Marlow finds himself taken with the poetry of this scene. On one level, it rejects the narrative desired by other Europeans seeking their fortune: that is, enter as deeply as possible into the Congo, extract large quantities of ivory, and then rapidly return to civilization. These people would equate headquarters with “relief” from the wilderness and see it as a step back across the sea toward a European home.

But Kurtz seems to be attracted to the “depth of the wilderness,” the same incomprehensible entity for which Marlow is developing both respect and fear. Kurtz turns away, too, from social contact and order, opting for a space described only in the negative terms of “empty” and “desolate.” Instead of valuing the European comrades of his home, he chooses the “paddling savages.” Though the General Manager and his uncle interpret the scene as either an indication of illness or a secret plot, Marlow focuses on the “distinct glimpse” or the poetry of the image. Something in Kurtz’s rejection of civilization appeals to him.

The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dark and White
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Marlow has begun the final stage of his journey toward the Inner Station. He offers a series of poetic descriptions of that journey, trying to pin down the physical environment and the psychological experience of this new and uncanny realm.

These lines subtly trade agency between the environment and the humans. At first Marlow anthropomorphizes (gives human-like characteristics to) the forest. It can open and close as if it has a will of its own; the simile of "stepping" to block the group's access casts the environment as explicitly human. The adverb “leisurely” focuses our attention on the casualness of this behavior, and Marlow repeatedly stresses the indifference of the surrounding environment to the human presence. Yet the final line shifts a bit of control back to the boat with the term “penetrated.” The aggressive, even phallic, verb highlights the way the expedition is intruding into the Congo, and makes their cohort seem less aimless than some of the travelers depicted before.

Finally, Marlow delivers the titular phrase “heart of darkness” to refer directly to Inner Station. But what is meant by darkness at this point in the text is far from self evident. Recall that Marlow describes London as a place of darkness and has repeatedly pointed to the darknesses in the behaviors of various Europeans. The Inner Station may be dark because it is the center of the Congo, but its darkness also stems from the hideous moral truth Marlow will uncover there, and because it epitomizes the evil actions of European colonists.

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

After contemplating the physical environment of the Congo, Marlow begins to consider the Congolese people. The lines reveal a deep racism, for they deny the humanity of the “natives,” but they also imply that the supposedly civilized Europeans engage in similarly brutal behaviors.

Marlow introduces these ideas not with an assertive claim, but rather through a self-correction. He catches himself about to compare the “unearthly” environment with the “inhuman” men, but realizes while forming the sentence that it would be erroneous. Unwilling to fully commit to the humanity of the Congolese, he describes this as a “suspicion.” He also implies, when he describes this thought as coming slowly to him, that it is a conclusion he reached from his exploration of the Congo. The lesson, it seems, is to look beyond the appearances or superficial actions and instead consider the more common “kinship” and common “humanity” between the locals and the Europeans.

This similarity is not, however, located in a positive human ideal, but rather in a common horror, in something “ugly” about all humans. Perhaps it is the same greed Marlow has repeatedly observed in those surrounding him. The “trace of a response” recalls his earlier anecdote about the Roman citizen who, arriving in a savage England, became fascinated by the abomination of the environment. And Marlow himself has been drawn to (and frightened by) the “meaning” of the inscrutable wilderness. Here, he implies that the “meaning” is found at the origin of humanity, and that to access that origin one must journey back in time to penetrate the heart of a human darkness. So while these lines are blatantly racist—a racism that has made many readers deeply skeptical of Conrad’s work—they also reveal a complex relationship to human nature. Marlow points to a universal evil that Europeans have merely covered up in the social graces of their society.

It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow sees this horrifying statement at the end of Kurtz’s treatise “On the Suppression of Savage Customs.” Kurtz, he goes on to explain, had been commissioned to write the report by an International Society of the same name. The majority of the text features grandiose statements on the need for Europeans to civilize natives, but the end radically shifts tone and calls for violent extermination.

The piece of writing shows Kurtz at both his most idealistic and his most brutal. Its simplicity and its attention to “altruistic sentiment” mark it as a prophetic text that could significantly alter colonial attitudes back in Europe. Perhaps the treatise would cause Londoners to adopt less brutal and more benevolent practices in the Congo. Yet after seventeen pages of that “serene sky,” the scrawled postscript demands complete annihilation. The shift implies that Kurtz has lost his noble sentiments—perhaps due to mental illness, perhaps due to an epiphany reached in the Congo—and now has been consumed fully by hate and avarice.

That Marlow observes this change in a piece of writing is revealing, particularly considering his own role as a storyteller. Marlow is attentive to the way language functions as a mask that obscures rather than reveals reality. Though Marlow is at first enraptured by Kurtz’s words—as he has been by the ideal of Kurtz to offer something less hollow than other Europeans—he comes to realize that the treatise is yet another linguistic mask.

Part 3 Quotes
There was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. But the wilderness found him out early, and had taken vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow’s criticisms of Kurtz grow increasingly direct. Though the two have not actually met in the narrated story, Marlow often makes these retrospective asides in order to frame the events of the tale. His main contention here is a hollowness he perceives in Kurtz, which we know by now is a red flag for Marlow.

Marlow first contrasts the surface of Kurtz’s “magnificent eloquence,” epitomized by his writing, with his internal fortitude, which is “wanting.” At first this might not seem to imply complete hollowness, but rather a “small matter” or tiny flaw. Yet Marlow asserts that the Congo unleashes the terror of that small deficiency. His language implies that the environment plays an evil nurturing role, “whispering” horrible truths that Kurtz takes into “counsel.” Though other Europeans have described the Congo environment as driving colonists mad, these lines claim that the madness is not simply imposed. Rather, the environment allows pre-existing qualities to grow; it fascinates something that already existed inside Kurtz.

Yet Marlow does not use this conclusion to absolve Kurtz of guilt. Rather, he takes it as proof that “he was hollow at the core,” just as vacant as the paper-mâché Brickmaker and as lacking in principle as any other colonialist. The heart of darkness, then, does not seem to be the physical environment at all, but rather the interior truth of man that only fully manifests itself in that certain environment.

I was within a hair's-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. . . . He had summed up—he had judged. "The horror!" He was a remarkable man.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow has by become deeply ill. As he fights to stay alive, he reflects on Kurtz’s last words and concludes that they were braver and more laudable than he originally thought.

By this point, the reader has begun to see Kurtz in a very negative light, but Marlow switches his tone to “affirm” that he “was a remarkable man.” Yet to be remarkable for Marlow is not to have accomplished anything ethical or even impressive, but rather to have vocalized an earnestly held belief. We should note that having “something to say” makes no claim on whether that “something” is good or evil, but simply comments on the conviction of saying it. “Summed up” lauds the phrase’s ability to have encapsulated so many different meanings, while “judged” indicates a shrewd analysis of the content and how it will be received by an audience.

In this way, “The horror! The horror!” must be reevaluated. Marlow, now himself in a situation analogous to Kurtz’s, no longer sees it as hollow, but rather takes its enigmatic quality as a sign of power. Here we see Marlow act based on the role of a storyteller, for he defines the significance of things based on their rhetorical strength: on the way they can convey the terrors of the world to others. Conrad indicates that while the search for substance and for ethical truth may be ultimately lacking in Marlow’s journey, perhaps the language itself can carry an aesthetic truth capable of affecting the listeners.

I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. 'I knew it—I was sure!' . . . She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz's Intended (speaker), Kurtz
Related Symbols: Women
Page Number: 71-72
Explanation and Analysis:

In his story’s final scene, Marlow visits Kurtz's “Intended” (fiance) who asks him to recite Kurtz’s last words. Fearful that admitting they were “The horror! The horror!” would betray Kurtz’s descent into madness, Marlow decides to lie and tell her Kurtz spoke her name. Marlow debates whether the lie makes him ethically complicit in colonialism, or whether it was necessary to preserve the Intended’s illusions.

The certainty with which the Intended responds speaks to how blind and distant Europeans are from the actual events in the Congo. She is entirely convinced by the idealistic image of Kurtz as a bearer of Enlightenment—and of him as a man faithful to her. (Remember that he had a mistress in the Inner Station!) Marlow stresses how ridiculous this certainty is by first quoting and then paraphrasing the lines. “I knew it” becomes “She knew”; “I was sure” becomes “She was sure.” In the distance between first and third person, we see a tone both ironic and despairing.

The Intended's certainty causes Marlow to wonder about the ethics of his lie. Though the stakes of the individual lie may be small, they stand for a larger lie about the avarice and human terror he witnesses on his journey. To swap the Intended’s name for "the horror" is a metaphor for how "civilized" Europeans obscure the horror of the Congo (and of all humanity). So Marlow expects divine retribution for this lie…except nothing of the sort occurs. That this discrepancy causes Marlow to consider the lie “such a trifle,” returns us to the question of scale ever-present in this book. Even if the lie stands for a human heart of darkness, Marlow claims, that lie is still a trifle when compared to the earth and the heavens.

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Marlow Character Timeline in Heart of Darkness

The timeline below shows where the character Marlow appears in Heart of Darkness. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
...men on board the ship—the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, the Narrator, and Marlow, old friends from their seafaring days—settle down to await the changing of the tide. They... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Suddenly Marlow interrupts the silence. "And this also," Marlow says, "has been one of the dark places... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
Marlow observes that none of the men on the boat would feel just like those Romans,... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
Yet Marlow adds that conquest is never pretty and usually involves the powerful taking land from those... (full context)
Work Theme Icon
Marlow then reminds the other men that he once served as captain of a freshwater riverboat,... (full context)
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
Marlow travels to the unnamed European city where the Company has its headquarters. He describes the... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
At the Company's office, Marlow is let into a reception area presided over by two women, one fat, one slim,... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
Marlow has a farewell chat with his aunt, who sees her nephew as an "emissary of... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Marlow boards the steamer that will take him to the mouth of the Congo with a... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
At the mouth of the Congo, Marlow gets passage for thirty miles from a small steamer piloted by a Swede. The Swede... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
...place. Machinery rusts everywhere, black laborers blast away at a cliff face for no reason. Marlow comments to the men on the Nellie that he had long known the "lusty devils"... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
Marlow then stumbles upon what he calls the Grove of Death, a grove among the trees... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
At the station, the Chief Accountant impresses Marlow with his good grooming. One day the Chief Accountant mentions that further up the river... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
A few days later Marlow joins a caravan headed the two hundred miles upriver to Central Station. After a fifteen-day... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
At the station, Marlow is greeted by the first man he sees with news that the ship he was... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
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Marlow, on the Nellie, says that though he can't be sure, he suspects that it's possible... (full context)
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Marlow is immediately taken to see this General Manager, who is thoroughly unremarkable in intelligence, leadership,... (full context)
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The General Manager explains why he took the steamship onto the river before Marlow, its pilot, arrived: Kurtz, the Company's best agent, is sick. The General Manager takes special... (full context)
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Marlow sets to work fixing the ship and watches the absurd happenings of Central Station, where... (full context)
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One night a shed bursts into flame. As Marlow approaches he sees a laborer being beaten for setting the blaze and overhears the General... (full context)
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Marlow follows the Brickmaker back to his quarters, which are much nicer than any but the... (full context)
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The Brickmaker, whom Marlow now calls a "papier-mâché Mephistopheles," continues to speak about Kurtz, and asks Marlow not to... (full context)
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...because they have a "taint of death" and telling them is like "biting something rotten," Marlow pretends to have as much influence in Europe as the Brickmaker thinks he has in... (full context)
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Suddenly, Marlow breaks off telling his story in order to try to explain to the men sitting... (full context)
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Marlow resumes his story. When the Brickmaker leaves, Marlow boards his broken steamship, which he has... (full context)
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Without rivets, Marlow can't do any work either. He has lots of time to think, and begins to... (full context)
Part 2
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Some time later, as Marlow rests on his steamship, he overhears the General Manager talking with his Uncle about Kurtz.... (full context)
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...few days later the General Manager's uncle and his Eldorado Expedition head into the jungle. Marlow later heard that all their donkeys died, but never heard what happened to the "less... (full context)
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After three months of work, Marlow finishes repairing the ship. He immediately sets off upriver with the General Manager, a few... (full context)
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The trip is long and difficult. Marlow describes the jungle as a "thing monstrous and free" and the natives as beings "who... (full context)
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Still, Marlow tells the other men on the Nellie, he often has a sense of the "mysterious... (full context)
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...concludes the hut must belong to the trader he wants to hang. Inside the hut, Marlow discovers a technical book on sailing that seems to have code written on it. He... (full context)
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Eight miles from the Inner Station, the General Manager orders Marlow to anchor the ship in the middle of the river for the night. Marlow wants... (full context)
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...can't see anything. The cannibals want to catch and eat the men on the riverbank. Marlow realizes the cannibals must be incredibly hungry, and marvels at their restraint in not turning... (full context)
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...a mile from Inner Station, a tiny island in the middle of the river forces Marlow to choose the western or eastern fork of the river. He chooses the western, which... (full context)
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The pilgrims open fire into the bush, putting out smoke that blocks Marlow's vision. (full context)
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A shotgun blasts just behind Marlow: the helmsman has dropped the wheel and started shooting out the window. Marlow jumps to... (full context)
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Marlow realizes Kurtz is probably dead and feels an intense disappointment at the thought. Marlow then... (full context)
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Suddenly, Marlow once again cuts short his story in order to address the men who are on... (full context)
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After a long silence, Marlow says that Kurtz wasn't dead, and launches into a series of thoughts about him. Marlow... (full context)
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Marlow returns to the dead helmsman, saying that Kurtz was a remarkable man, but wasn't worth... (full context)
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...The pilgrims are happy, though, that they probably killed so many savages with their rifles. Marlow, however, is certain all the pilgrims shot too high, and killed no one. (full context)
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When they arrive at Inner Station, Marlow and the other men on the ship are amazed to discover it in perfect shape.... (full context)
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When the Russian says that the hut with the stacked wood was his old house, Marlow returns the book about sailing to him. The Russian in his joy tells Marlow that... (full context)
Part 3
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Marlow stares at the Russian in astonishment, and thinks that the Russian "surely wants nothing from... (full context)
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Meanwhile, the Russian begs Marlow to take Kurtz away quickly. He tells of his first meeting with Kurtz, in which... (full context)
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...he raids the jungle and other tribes for ivory. This comes as troubling news to Marlow, who had expected that Kurtz, with his morals, would trade for ivory, not take it... (full context)
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...adds that Kurtz "suffered too much. He hated all this and somehow couldn't get away." Marlow, meanwhile, lifts binoculars to his eyes and looks at the building where he thinks Kurtz... (full context)
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...the native chiefs came to see Kurtz they crawled up to him. This information disgusts Marlow, who comments that in contrast "uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had... (full context)
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The Russian can't understand Marlow's scorn at Kurtz's savage actions. He says that the Company abandoned Kurtz, who had such... (full context)
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The pilgrims come out of the house bearing Kurtz on a stretcher. Marlow describes Kurtz as looking like "an animated image of death carved out of ivory." The... (full context)
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The General Manager exits from the cabin. He tells Marlow that Kurtz is very ill and that Kurtz's "unsound methods" ruined the district for the... (full context)
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When Marlow is alone, the Russian approaches. He has decided to slip away, correctly sensing that he's... (full context)
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Marlow goes to sleep, but wakes suddenly just after midnight. As he looks around he notices... (full context)
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The next day the ship departs. Kurtz, in the pilothouse with Marlow, watches the natives and his mistress come to the shore. Marlow spots the pilgrims getting... (full context)
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...the General Manager will be secure in his position without having to do a thing. Marlow is often left alone with Kurtz, who speaks in his magnificent voice and with his... (full context)
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The steamship soon breaks down, which doesn't surprise Marlow. But Kurtz becomes concerned he won't live to see Europe. He gives Marlow his papers,... (full context)
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Soon after, Marlow himself falls ill. He calls his struggle with death "the most unexciting contest you can... (full context)
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Marlow returns to the "sepulchral city" in Europe, where his aunt nurses him back to health... (full context)
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A representative of the Company comes to get Kurtz's papers from Marlow, who offers him only On the Suppression of Savage Customs (with the scrawled "exterminate all... (full context)
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Kurtz's cousin soon shows up. The cousin, a musician, tells Marlow that Kurtz was himself a great musician, then leaves with some family letters Marlow gives... (full context)
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...great speaker. He could have been a great radical political leader—he could electrify a crowd. Marlow asks what party Kurtz would have belonged to. The journalist says any party: Kurtz could... (full context)
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At last, Marlow works up the nerve to go to see Kurtz's Intended and give her the last... (full context)
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Marlow, full of pity, does not dispute her claims. Finally, the Intended asks to hear Kurtz's... (full context)
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Marlow, on the Nellie still at anchor in the Thames, goes quiet. The Narrator looks off... (full context)