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The Inversion of Buddhism in Heart of Darkness

The Inversion of Buddhism in Heart of Darkness

In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlow is described more than once as sitting in the pose of a Buddha while he begins his story. Even our first view of Marlow prepares us for the later comparison: "Marlow sat cross-legged... He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a strait back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol" (16). This is the very image of a meditating Buddha. Our suspicions are confirmed that Conrad is indeed making reference to the Buddha as he describes the pose of the Buddha of Compassion-- note the hand raised in blessing: " 'Mind,' he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes with out a lotus-flower" (20). Because of the repeated references I began to wonder if Conrad is hinting to his readers. On a superficial level, the comparison holds. In the sutras about the enlightened Buddha, he sits thusly and, like Marlow, sometimes tells stories. However, Marlow's story reveals him as not a Buddha but instead a sort of anti-Buddha, especially in light of Zen Buddhism.

The most basic myth of the Buddha's enlightenment tells of a prince, Sidhartha, who grows up entirely sheltered and content until he finally beholds suffering. Yet, at this same time, he sees an enlightened monk who radiates peace and joy. Sidhartha can not comprehend how in a world with such suffering one could be so happy, and so he leaves home to search for understanding. Marlow, on the other hand, as " 'a little chap... had a passion for maps' " (21). He departs for no better reason than to see wh...

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...ive, to all appearance indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity' " (90). Furthermore, he is the only character in the book with any sort of cheerfulness and hope. His appearance has no darkness in it; he is covered with colored patches and stands in the sunshine (87).

Conrad's inversion of Buddhism is intentional, but I do not see it as a rebuttal or mockery of Buddhism. In class we discussed Marlow as an unreliable narrator, one purpose of which is to lead the reader to question what Marlow says and stands for. His search is not for enlightenment, nor are the motives for his search altruistic. In the jungle, he found what he took with him.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Watts, Alan. Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.
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