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A quick note to any who read this; this essay was based on a response, that said I had to ask a question and “possibly” come up with an answer
In Joseph Conrad’s 1906 classic, Heart of Darkness, the main character of Marlow, partakes of a quest into the deepest part of the jungle, losing much of what he holds dear while gaining a glimpse of the deeper recesses of his own conscious. With an overly simple, yet deeply philosophical plot line, Conrad gives Marlow’s journey, what seems to be many of the basic attributes of what Joseph Campbell calls the “Hero’s Journey.” My question is this – Is Conrad’s writing following the criteria of the “Hero’s Journey,” or does Heart of Darkness have a scheme all its own?
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) is one of the premier mythologists who wrote a great deal of books in the 40s up through the 80s, on the hero as an archetypal image and its place in modern day society. His first, and probably most famous piece, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, outlines the basic aspects of the archetypal “Hero Journey.” In it, Campbell describes the journey as consisting of three major sections; the departure, the initiation and the return. This basic outline, each with their own subcategories, should pertain to almost all hero quests in ancient writing. But, does it pertain to modern literature, particularly Heart of Darkness?
The first stage of the Hero Journey is the Departure and consists of 5 steps; The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, The Crossing of the First Threshold and the Belly of the Whale. The first step, The Call of the Adventure, is the point in the hero’s life in which a notice is given that something is to change. Campbell says that “This first stage of the mythological journey signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown” (58). The “zone unknown” can have many facets, but in Heart of Darkness, for Marlow, our story’s supposed hero, this is represented by “a place of darkness,” or Africa. His call to adventure is the “snake” of the Nile, with its tail “lost in the depths of the of the land.” He claimed it “charmed him” (Conrad 5-6). At this point in history, Africa was still many unexplored and gives Marlow the chance to go to an “zone unknown.” This obviously marks the beginning of his journey (it also happens to be the beginning of the book, which tends to be the start of something ).
The second part of the Departure, is a Refusal of the Call. This is usually because of one’s culture, dignity or hard work. Campbell says this is the time when “the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action.” (59) This step, however, is not represented in HofD. Marlow claims that he was excited about the trip and anxious to proceed. One possible reason this is not present is the fact that Marlow is not the writer. We see him through the author’s eyes, giving way to the possibility that there was some anxiety, but unmentioned for the sake of retaining face.
Next comes Supernatural Aid. This is the stage at which the hero has committed oneself to the journey and gains a guide or helper. The supernatural help, to Marlow, is his aunt who was “determined to make no end of fuss to get me (Marlow) appointed skipper of a river steamboat” (Conrad 7).
The fourth part of the Departure is the Crossing of the First Threshold. This is the part of the journey in which our hero actually steps into the realm of the unknown, where the rules and the limits are not known. This is the hero’s first step to becoming a hero because, as Campbell says, “The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular beliefs give him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored” (78). For Marlow, its occurs when he steps into the main office of the trading company. He compares it to a conspiracy and says, “there was something ominous in the atmosphere” (Conrad 8).
The last part of the Departure, The Belly of the Whale, represents the final separation from the previous world, and the true entrance to the new one. Campbell compares this stage to a worshipper entering a temple; someone who is looking for rebirth. “The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devilslayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. These are the threshold guardians to ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silences within The devotee at this moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphis” (91-92). As Marlow approaches his station, he is belittled by the immensity of the surrounding, outlining areas. Marlow sees the coast as “smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage.” Marlow remarks about his separation from the other men, a sign of possible metamorphis, as his “isolation that seemed to keep me away from the truth of things.” As if reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Marlow remarks that “It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares” (Conrad 11)
Now, Marlow has transgressed the first part of the Hero’s Journey. He has gone through the five steps, with exception of the Refusal, and is posed to start his Initiation. From this point though, Conrad makes a curve. The next sections of the book are more of a journey within a journey. Marlow, once he has reached his destination, has to start all over, just to start down the river, to his second destination; Kurtz.
Still, the same steps apply. First, the Call to Adventure. This time, the change in Marlow’s life is the news of his actual descent down the river toward an ivory outpost, managed by Kurtz. Next, is the Refusal of the call, which is again not presented by Conrad, possibly for the same reason. Third, is the Supernatural Aid. In this section, instead of the aunt giving aid, it becomes a fellow agent. The agent I’m referring to is the accountant with the “white collared, pressed shirt.” Marlow refers to this rarity as “a miracle” and truly hears about Kurtz first from this gentleman. Campbell says that the supernatural aid “gives a talisman of sorts, to aid the hero in his journey” (71-72). The so-called talisman given to Marlow is information about his next destination. The fourth step, is the Crossing of the First Threshold and in HofD the whole station is considered to be the first threshold into the jungle. The last step, the Belly of the Whale, is represented by Conrad’s acceptance of the destination and the possible change that can occur. This is also when he starts work on his wrecked steamboat, his first trail down the river. Also, as a sign of his conscious change, Marlow remakes that “I felt I was becoming more scientifically interesting” (Conrad 13-17).
This usage of two separate departures, and the lack of a Refusal step, gives rise to the notion that Conrad is not following the general Hero Structure. But he isn’t on his own scheme because so many of the book’s instances follow the structure to a T. I can see how a journey within a journey is plausible, even likely in a lot of cases, yet Conrad seems to be following it along a jaded path but lets continue on to the rest of the novel.
Finally, Marlow has passed through his journey’s departure (twice) and is set to go on to the Initiation. The Initiation consists of six steps and is usually the climbing action of a story. The six steps include The Road of Trials, The Meeting with the Goddess, Woman as the Temptress, Atonement with the father, Apotheosis and The Ultimate Boon.
The first step of The Initiation is the Road of Trails. This is a series of test, tasks or ordeals, usually in the form of three, that a hero must undergo to begin his transformation. This area of the journey Campbell compares to ” a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where we must survive a succession of trails (Campbell 97).” As in true in hero structure form, Marlow also has to transgress three ordeals. The first task Marlow must complete on his road of trials, or for him his river, is to learn to be watchful and diligent when it comes to his steamer. He must watch for snags and occasional recesses in his “ever fluid” road. The next one comes to him as fog “more blinding than the night.” This leads him into his third and final test – a confrontation with the natives. Even to go as far to push his fragile steamer directly into the bank, Marlow plunges through the natives, eventually scaring them off with the high pitched wail of the steam whistle (Conrad 27-42).
The next step is his Meeting with the Goddess. Although Campbell, uses a woman as his primary example, seeing one’s self in a type of unity, does not necessarily mean love. For Marlow, his realization of unity and purpose comes directly after his last trial, while contemplating the probable death of Kurtz. “I became aware that that was exactly what I had been looking forward to – a talk with Kurtz.” For Heart of Darkness, this step has two points; the realization of purpose and the actual meeting with Kurtz. Campbell says this occurs at “the nadir, the zenith, or at the uttermost edge of the earth, at the central point in the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart. (Campbell 109)” The last local is perfectly worded for Marlow’s position, in the heart of the jungle, in the heart of darkness. This is the point where Kurtz is realized both mentally and physically bringing about a union in Marlow’s conscious. Bringing him to self-unification.
The third step in the Initiation holds the Woman as a Temptress. Woman, in this step, is supposed to be a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life. Campbell calls it the sudden awareness that life is “tainted with the odor of flesh. (Campbell 121)” From Conrad, this step is very briefly mentioned when Marlow starts to track down Kurtz in the jungle. “I thought I would never get back to the steamer, and imagined myself living alone and unarmed in the woods to an advanced age And I remember I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was please at its calm regularity. (60)”
Finally, Marlow has unified his soul with his wants and then pushed away temptation. Now he comes along to the next step where he must confront Kurtz; the Atonement with the Father. In this step the hero must confront and be taken in by whatever holds the ultimate power, in this case Kurtz. “The problem of the hero going to meet his father is to pen up his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are atoned. (Campbell 147)” At Marlow’s and Kurtz’s confrontation, Marlow tries to “break the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness – that seemed to draw it to it’s pitiless breast.” Marlow, in his quest to “glimpse the source,” says he “struggled with his soul,” and “for (Marlow’s) sins, (he had) to go through the ordeal of looking into himself.” As to Kurtz, Marlow sees him as “concentrated upon himself with horrible intensity” with his “soul gone mad.” He also claims to see “the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.” (Conrad 61) All the previous steps have climbed to this, and now all the steps after will descend.
The next to last step of the Initiation, the Apotheosis, is usually a stage for the hero when nothing can affect him. It is his moment of rest. For Marlow, it is just that. For the first time truly mentioned in the book, he goes to sleep.
The last step in the stage of Initiation is The Ultimate Boon. This is the achievement of the goal that one started the quest for in the first place. Campbell writes, “What the hero seeks through intercourse with them (Gods, or in this case Marlow) is therefore not finally themselves, but their grace, i.e., the power of their sustaining substance. (181)” For Marlow, this “sustaining substance” is Kurtz’s knowledge of the unknown. It is not his body, but his mind that Marlow truly wants to keep. He first thought of Kurtz as “only a voice,” but now Marlow is in control of that voice, has taken it from the darkness and is starting the Return with the ultimate boon.
As it goes on, it is eveident that Conrad is following the format, thus answering my question.
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