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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 young boy he used to look at many maps and wonder just what lay 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 by the African continent. When he found out that he could work with a company that explored the Congo area in Africa he joined immediately. 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". This snake-like river was full of mystery to the adult Marlow and he found himself strongly drawn to it.

The attraction of the African wilderness is foreshadowed before Marlow even begins his journey; he finds out that the captain he is replacing was killed over a trading disagreement with a chief. The captain believed he was being conned so he proceeded to beat the chief over the head with a stick. The chief’s son then stabbed him with a spear and killed him. This incident is significant because of the fact that this captain was described as "the gentlest, quietest creature ever walked on two legs” The reason for his outburst is explained by the fact that “he had been a couple of years already out there".

Marlow leaves for the Congo, and when he finally reaches the company's lower station he begins to see how the white man has attempted to civilize and control the wildness of Africa and its inhabitants. The Congolese 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". Marlow sees how the asserted superiority of the white man has led to the devastation of the local natives in both spirit and body.

Marlow then heads out of the lower station towards the company's central station by foot. He notices on his journey the fact that there were "paths everywhere; a stamped-in network of paths spreading over the empty land. The population had cleared out a long time ago." There were "several abandoned villages". This again shows how the colonisers had impacted on the land and its inhabitants.

Once he reaches the central station Marlow begins to feel more connected to the Congo – he begins to see into the darkness. He notices that there is "a great silence around and above." The only noise he hears is "the tremor of far-off drums...a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild”. He marvels at how different the Congo is from the civilized city he has travelled from. Africa’s wilderness and its inhabitants exist in harmony with one another – it is the colonisers who have upset this balance. Maslow is moved by the drums and he acknowledges that they appeal to him on some primitive level he had forgotten was there. He begins to consider that in a place like the Congo a man can reconnect with who he really is rather than what society has made of him.


"Going up the river arms was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, and impenetrable forest. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of the overshadowed distances". Marlow begins to feel the landscape pulling at his primitive instincts locked within his civilized shell. The Congo and its people were free of the restraints placed upon man in an industrialized and civilized world.

The question remains…what is the “Heart of Darkness” referred to in the title?