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In the literary classic, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad sends his hero embarking on a quest that parallels that of what Joseph Campbell refers to as “the Hero’s Journey” in his seminal work of comparative mythology, the Hero with a Thousand Faces, where Campbell examines the journey of the archetypal hero in 12 separate stages. Almost all of the stages canvassed in Campbell’s work are present in the novella Heart of Darkness. We are guided throughout Marlow’s journey by an anonymous passenger listening to Marlow’s tale, as well as Marlow himself.
As Marlow starts his journey and navigates his way into the Congo, the cruelness of human nature and finally comprehension, the reader witnesses an unforgettable journey into the depths of the darkest part of our human heart. Marlow’s birth and childhood mimics the typical upbringing of a hero; the general absence of any remarkable activity and in fact seems quite ordinary, and is rarely touched on by Campbell.
In the next stage of Marlow’s journey, a Supernatural Helper is required. Although he thinks her naive, Marlow’s Aunt represents the Supernatural Helper, and uses her influence to gain Marlow a position on the boat.
Marlow describes her as “determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat” (Conrad 7). Near the beginning, Marlow is greeted and led into a room by a duo of hushed women working with dark wool; this duo is thought to resemble the Fates in Greek Mythology, who determine the lives of Gods and men with the spinning of their wool.
Journeying to Africa is Marlow’s Special World. Having not been fully discovered by man at the time Heart of Darkness was written; Africa is the Special World that Marlow begins his journey with by venturing into the unknown.
His Call of Adventure is the “snake” of the Nile. After being led into the room, he immediately fixes on a map that features Africa with a serpent-like flourish. Marlow speaks of how he is entranced by the tail of the snake, of his fascination with the way the tail curves, and states that it “charmed him”, thus beginning the Hero’s Journey. It would appear as though Joseph Campbell neglected to include Refusal of the Call in his work. As soon as Marlow receives his Call, he is immediately enticed by the adventure, and would strike one as excited to start as soon as humanly possible.
However, the unknown narrator is not Marlow, and therefore may not be entirely dependable, as there could have been underlying anxieties present to Marlow previous to the beginning of his journey, but remaining unsaid for the sake of saving face. In the stage of Meeting the Mentor, the meeting between Marlow and Kurtz is metaphysical. Marlow hears much mention of Kurtz and aspires to meet him in person. Kurtz is a paper man. He has no true form, but is able to fold into whatever people wish think of him, does anyone know Kurtz? An artist, a musician, a wise man, he is a different Mentor to everyone.
The Kurtz that Marlow envisions is enough to give him the strength to continue his journey into the Congo. The next stage present in the Heroic Journey is Crossing the Threshold, which is arguably the most influential part in the making of a hero. This is the final present farewell to the previous world, and truly the first appearance in the Special World. Crossing the Threshold appears in a magnitude of different stages throughout the novel. It is present in the Call to Adventure, when Marlow takes his first steps into the main office of the trading company, and is contrasted to a conspiracy, making mention of how the atmosphere is ominous.
Now that Marlow has completed the previous necessary steps in his Heroic Journey, he must prove himself a worthy hero by completing a myriad of challenges and tasks. Although a sidekick is typically present by this stage, Marlow is hardly on friendly terms with his peers, and therefore lacks a sidekick. Marlow is challenged internally and externally in ways that try all aspects of who he is. Physically, he is ambushed by rebuilding his sunken boat, and crossing dangerous waters once the boat has been finished.
Internally, he witnesses terrible acts done by his own people, he witnesses a grove of Natives being tortured as death slowly consumes them, Natives in chains and villages ruined by his own men. Mentally, he is challenged in ways he never knew was possible, but he remains stoic, resists the temptation of those around him and further proves his hero status. Staying true to the Campbell’s Heroic Journey, Marlow must now complete the Approach the Inmost Cave. This stage is where the hero usually makes time for a break, and Marlow is no exception.
At this point in the novella, it is the only mention of Marlow taking time to sleep. He takes further preparation needed, and still anticipating his meeting with Kurtz. Finally, we approach the Ordeal, the climax of the story. The moment that Marlow has been waiting for arrives, and he is terribly disappointed with what ensues. Marlow finds his Mentor to have completely lost his mind, and abandoned all of society’s norms and morals. Marlow realizes the truth about the man that he has waited so long to meet, and inspired his treacherous journey. He is devastated with the new installments of Kurtz.
He realizes that everything is uglier closer up, from a distance you can’t see the cracks, or the wear on things, and everything is just an illusion until someone shatters it. Kurtz was just a person, he wasn’t made of paper and he wasn’t able to be folded into anything people wanted. Instead people chose to believe he was what was convenient for them because it was easier. Marlow discovers what a tragedy it is to hope that a person could ever be more than just a person. The whole illusion Marlow has created to survive is completely shattered, and Marlow prepares to begin the next stage of his journey.
While Marlow recovers from his disappointment, he receives his Reward. Initially the reward he craved at the beginning of his adventure was status, knowledge and great wealth, instead he returns with something of much less value. He is appalled with what he receives; he gains a chilling inside look into the evil hearts inside everyone. Marlow’s reward will do exactly the opposite of what he had previously hoped, not bestowing great things upon him, but instead all it will bring for him is a lifetime of unwanted truth. As Marlow nears the end of his journey, he embarks on the Road Back.
Marlow takes responsibility needed for Kurtz. He deals with Company officials and keeps the same image of Kurtz to his friends and family. He visits Kurtz Intended, and lies to her because like his Aunt, he also thinks her naive and fragile. Marlow has changed enormously, he loses his innocence, he survives a terrifying journey, and becomes more than he originally was when he started his journey. He has a new perspective on society as well as the darkness in the reality of the world. Kurtz loses his sense of humanity, and Marlow gains wisdom.
In the end of Marlow’s journey he returns with the Elixir. He keeps the Elixir a secret from everyone around him, as to keep the world save from his impure truth. As previously stated, this Elixir does not bring wellness, status or health, but he has a private view to the evilness of our own souls. Conrad’s novella is an expose on the cruelty of our own race; it shows the true nature of people and asks more questions than it answers. The story stays true to Campbell’s theory of the Hero, and follows all the stages with perfection.
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