Bernard J. Paris

Conrad's Charley Marlow: A New Approach to "Heart of Darkness" and Lord Jim

Although an immense amount has been written about Marlow, except for my own earlier work there has been no sustained examination of him as a mimetic character who has been depicted in such detail that he can be understood in motivational terms. I think that Marlow is one of the greatest psychological portraits in literature and one of the least appreciated. I shall try to do justice to him here — and also to Jim, another great creation, with whom he has a fascinating relationship.

The tendency of critics has been to look through Marlow to Conrad rather than at Marlow as an object of interest in his own right, a principle subject of the works in which he appears. I have no quarrel with the wish to understand Marlow in functional terms and to explore his relationship to the implied author and even to Conrad the man. What troubles me is the failure to appreciate Marlow as an imagined human being, to see his narratives as revelations of his character and his behavior as inwardly motivated. To ask what Conrad is up to and what Marlow is up to are very different questions. Both are legitimate; but whereas most critics have focused on Conrad, I shall discuss Marlow's behaviors, beliefs, and preoccupations as belonging above all to him. Our comprehension of the relation between Conrad and Marlow will be enriched, perhaps even modified, if we first understand Marlow as a mimetic character whose sympathies and antipathies, ambivalences and uncertainties, motives for telling his stories, and dealings with other characters are expressions of his personality.

I believe that the Marlow of "Youth," "Heart of Darkness," and Lord Jim is a single evolving character who is profoundly affected by his experiences and who develops inner conflicts in the course of these works. "Youth" is a story about himself as an immature romantic told by a chastened, middle-aged Marlow who sees through his earlier folly but is nostalgic for the sense of glamour and strength he once experienced. The Marlow who goes to the Congo is older by at least six years; but he still has the same greed for adventure and sense of invulnerability, the same desire to prove his strength and to show how good a man he is. Marlow does not return from the Congo triumphant. He is bitter, angry, and humiliated, full of scorn and self-hatred, possessed of a knowledge that threatens his emotional stability and against which he needs to defend himself. His disillusionment profoundly affects his sense of himself and the world order, his value system, and his behavior as narrator. Telling his story is one of the means by which he tries to restore his pride.

The Marlow of Lord Jim is a product of the Congo experience. After a period of youthful romanticism during which he had an exalted conception of himself, Marlow has been humbled by the might of nature, the uncertainty of fate, and a sense of his vulnerability and insignificance. He has transferred his pride from himself to his community, which he invests with glamour and relies on to protect and sustain him. His pride and confidence in the communal value system are profoundly threatened by the behavior of Jim, who, as "one of us," ought to have been trustworthy. He initially needs to condemn Jim in order to maintain his belief system, but Jim's pursuit of glamour and conviction that nothing can touch him remind Marlow of his earlier self, and his conversations with Jim revive the romanticism that had been depicted in "Youth." Once this happens, Marlow is torn by unresolvable conflicts. He is obsessed with Jim's case because of the emotional turmoil it causes, and he is driven to tell Jim's story in an effort to seek relief. The Marlow of Lord Jim is continuous with the earlier Marlows and can be more fully appreciated if we see him in relation to them. He is Conrad's most complex version of his greatest character.