A Hero's Journey in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'

Categories: Novel

In the literary classic "Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad takes readers on a profound journey that parallels the archetypal Hero's Journey outlined by Joseph Campbell in his work on comparative mythology, 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces.' In this essay, I will delve into the stages of Marlow's quest, highlighting how Conrad's narrative aligns with Campbell's archetypal structure and how the protagonist's transformative journey shapes his understanding of the darker aspects of human nature.

Ordinary World and Call to Adventure

Let's begin by exploring Marlow's background and upbringing, the ordinary world of our protagonist.

Much like a typical hero's journey, Marlow's early life lacks remarkable activity, appearing quite ordinary. The call to adventure manifests as Marlow fixates on a map featuring Africa, its serpent-like Nile captivating him. This marks the initiation of Marlow's hero's journey, as he embarks on a quest into the unknown heart of Africa.

Refusal of the Call (Debatable)

It is intriguing to consider whether Marlow experiences a refusal of the call or if he is immediately enticed by the adventure.

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Campbell's stages suggest a potential internal conflict or anxiety that might remain unspoken, considering the unknown narrator's perspective. This stage adds complexity to Marlow's character, setting the tone for the challenges ahead.

However, upon closer inspection, one might argue that Marlow's immediate attraction to the adventure could be a disguise, concealing underlying anxieties or doubts. The unknown narrator, not being Marlow himself, might not be entirely reliable, and there could be hidden nuances to Marlow's emotional state before embarking on his journey.

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Meeting the Mentor (Kurtz)

Kurtz, a metaphysical mentor in Conrad's narrative, embodies the supernatural helper required in Campbell's heroic journey. Marlow's anticipation to meet Kurtz, who adapts to various perceptions, motivates his quest. This stage emphasizes the transformative power of mentorship and its influence on Marlow's evolving understanding of the world.

Kurtz, in this context, takes on the role of an elusive guide. He is not a traditional mentor figure with a physical presence but a concept that tantalizes Marlow's curiosity. The mysterious aura surrounding Kurtz serves as a driving force, pushing Marlow deeper into the heart of darkness.

Crossing the Threshold

Marlow's literal and metaphorical entry into Africa serves as a pivotal threshold crossing, symbolizing his departure from the known world into the mysterious depths of the continent. Conrad masterfully portrays this transition, evoking a sense of ominous conspiracy as Marlow steps into the main office of the trading company. The atmosphere becomes a precursor to the challenges that await our hero.

The crossing of this threshold is not a singular event but a gradual progression, with each step further into the African wilderness representing a deeper immersion into the unknown. This continuous crossing underscores the escalating tension and psychological transformation Marlow undergoes as he ventures into the heart of darkness.

Challenges and Tests

As Marlow progresses, he faces a series of internal and external challenges. Physically, he rebuilds his sunken boat and navigates treacherous waters. Internally, he grapples with witnessing atrocities committed by his own people. The absence of a traditional sidekick adds a unique dimension to Marlow's resilience and individual strength, challenging the conventional structure of Campbell's heroic journey.

The challenges Marlow encounters serve as crucibles that test his character on multiple fronts. Physically, he endures the harsh conditions of the African landscape, showcasing his resilience in the face of adversity. Mentally, the witnessing of atrocities prompts a profound internal struggle as he reconciles his own morality with the actions of those around him.

While the archetype often includes a supportive sidekick to share the hero's journey, Marlow's solitude adds complexity to his character. His ability to navigate these challenges independently highlights his inner strength and resilience, ultimately shaping him into a more nuanced and self-reliant hero.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

Before Marlow's climactic meeting with Kurtz, there is a crucial stage of preparation and anticipation. This is the only instance in the novella where Marlow mentions taking time to sleep, highlighting the significance of this moment in his journey. It sets the stage for the impending revelation and confrontations.

Marlow's approach to the inmost cave is marked by introspection and a deepening understanding of the challenges that lie ahead. This stage serves as a psychological breather, allowing Marlow to gather his mental resources before confronting the enigmatic Kurtz. The anticipation builds, creating a palpable tension that heightens the impact of the upcoming revelation.

Ordeal (Meeting Kurtz)

The long-anticipated meeting with Kurtz, the ordeal in Campbell's structure, unfolds with profound disappointment for Marlow. Kurtz, once an enigmatic mentor figure, is revealed to have lost his mind, abandoning societal norms. This revelation shatters Marlow's illusions and prompts a reevaluation of his perceptions. The disillusionment with Kurtz underscores the harsh reality of human nature.

The ordeal becomes a turning point in Marlow's journey, challenging his preconceived notions and forcing him to confront the unsettling truths of the human psyche. Kurtz, who initially symbolized enlightenment and guidance, transforms into a cautionary tale, illustrating the destructive potential within each individual. Marlow's emotional turmoil during this ordeal adds layers to his character, making his journey a profound exploration of the complexities of human nature.


The reward Marlow receives deviates from his initial expectations. Instead of status, knowledge, and great wealth, he gains a chilling insight into the darkness within human hearts. This unexpected reward deepens the thematic exploration of human cruelty and challenges conventional notions of what constitutes a hero's boon.

Marlow's reward is intangible yet impactful, leaving an indelible mark on his psyche. The revelation about the true nature of humanity becomes a haunting truth that accompanies him on his journey back. This departure from conventional heroic rewards adds a layer of philosophical depth to Marlow's narrative, inviting readers to reflect on the essence of heroism and the nature of the human condition.

The Road Back

As Marlow returns, he takes on the responsibility associated with Kurtz. Dealing with Company officials and maintaining a consistent image of Kurtz to his friends and family, Marlow undergoes a substantial transformation. The journey back becomes a process of internalization, as Marlow grapples with his changed perspective on society and the newfound wisdom he has gained.

The road back for Marlow is not a mere physical journey but a psychological and moral reckoning. His interactions with Company officials and Kurtz's Intended reflect the complexities of navigating a world tainted by the darkness he has witnessed. Marlow's internal conflict intensifies during this stage, as he grapples with the ethical implications of his actions and the burden of carrying Kurtz's legacy.

Resurrection and Elixir

Marlow's transformation is evident in this stage as he emerges changed, having lost his innocence and gained wisdom. The elixir he brings back, though kept secret, is not a conventional boon. Instead of wellness or status, it grants Marlow a private view into the darker aspects of human souls. This hidden elixir challenges the traditional narrative of heroic rewards.

The resurrection of Marlow's character signifies a rebirth, not in the conventional sense of triumph but in the acquisition of profound self-awareness. The elixir, symbolic of the unsettling truths he now carries, becomes a burden and a source of enlightenment. Marlow's journey, far from a triumphant return, becomes a contemplative exploration of the human condition and the consequences of confronting one's inner demons.


In conclusion, Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' remains a profound exploration of the cruelty within the human race. The alignment of Marlow's journey with Joseph Campbell's archetypal Hero's Journey structure enhances the thematic depth of the narrative. Through Marlow's experiences, we confront the darker truths of humanity and are left with more questions than answers, solidifying the novella's status as a timeless exploration of the human condition.

Updated: Jan 11, 2024
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A Hero's Journey in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/heart-darkness-heros-journey-new-essay

A Hero's Journey in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' essay
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