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Barriers in Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness is a book that explores many different ideas and philosophies regarding human life. How people see each other and connect with each other is one of the larger aspects of human life covered in this tale. During his journey, Marlowe meets many different types of people that he is able to decipher from the good and bad personal characteristics. These people all contribute to Marlowe’s growth as a person as he breaks down barriers inside himself that deal with race, loyalty, and the way people interrelate with each other.
The first site that Marlowe sees on his expedition puts an instant stereotype into his head. The sight is one of skinny, black laborers at the Outer Station. Marlowe sees a young boy who is hungry and feeds him a biscuit. Marlowe sees these images of people and how they’re living, and consciously or unconsciously, makes a note in his mind that this is the way Africans are. This initial impression of the Africans had formed a barrier that Marlowe would change within himself by the end of the story.
Immediately after his encounter with the laborers, Marlowe meets the accountant at the station who provides Marlowe with his first real distinction between the races. The accountant presented himself in a gracious manner. He was Caucasian, wore fancy clothes, had oiled hair, sported varnished boots, and he had a starched white collar. This all made the man look oddly out of place given that he was in the middle of the jungle and surrounded by filthy laborers. Marlowe wasn’t sure about what to think of this man at first, but when a sick man was brought into the accountant’s office, the accountant gripes about the inconvenience to himself. "The groans of a sick person distract my attention, and without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate" (Conrad 22). This cruel and cold side of the typical European ivory trader shows through very clearly to Marlowe. This was his first, but not only experience on the journey with a greedy white male.
The white manager on the boat is another character that speaks to Marlowe’s intellect by way of his actions. Marlowe gains some of his most significant self-growth in the story through his encounters and his analyzing of the manager. Marlowe is constantly hearing about ways that the manager and his crew are trying to take over the ivory ring and how they are trying to stop Kurtz from continuing his dominance in this trade.
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Along for the ride on the boat is a couple of other groups of people that help Marlowe find himself. The cannibals, a group of workers that are on the boat to work for a meager wage and little respect, offer Marlowe the best example of self-will that he sees throughout his entire voyage. As the small amount of food brought on board by the cannibals themselves begins to run extremely low, and the eating of members of the crew becomes imminent, the cannibals show extreme restraint by holding back and not attempting in any way to use the white crew members as a source of food. This comes as a complete shock to Marlowe and the rest of his crew because they were extremely out numbered and saw no reason why the cannibals would not take advantage of their situation. Before this incident, Marlowe thought of the Africans as aggressive and wild people, but now he saw that they are capable of acting in a civilized way. Marlowe sees this loyalty in the cannibals and recognizes it as an honorable and courageous action.
The black helmsman on the boat also makes Marlowe realize full circle how important of a trait loyalty really is. When the helmsman dies, Marlowe mourns his lost mate and actually feels a loss for the black man. "…it was a kind of partnership. He steered for me-I looked after him…a subtle bond had been created of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broke" (Conrad 51). This incident knocks down a wall inside Marlowe. Earlier in the story, Marlowe dismissed one of his black workers as just a pawn in the grand scheme of things. The helmsman dying lets Marlowe realize how vital the black workers on the boat really were, both in their work and the loyalty they exhibited.
The meeting of Kurtz was something that was built up for Marlowe throughout his entire journey down the Congo. When he meets the man, Kurtz was very ill and acting strangely. He had been overcome by his passion for the ivory trade and had let it take over his life to a point where it was going to kill him. Marlowe recognized this, but what he also recognized was although it had gone a little overboard in Kurtz’s case, it was the loyalty to his craft that had made Kurtz so successful. Marlowe became friends with Kurtz over the last few days of his life and they had an instant rapport. Kurtz trusted Marlowe and gave him some important items to distribute away from the greedy manager after his own death. "I did not go to join Kurtz there and then. I did not. I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more" (Conrad 69).
After his time with Kurtz, Marlowe realized what this whole journey was about. It wasn’t about ivory or making money; it was about the pursuit of character that makes people in this world better. Marlowe used what he learned on this journey to break down the barriers inside himself and become a better person. Marlowe was no longer just a naïve European; he was now an open-minded and loyal human being.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 1963.