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MARLOW'S QUEST JEROME THALE CONRAD'S "Heart of Darkness" has all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale-mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense , unexpected attack. These, of course, are only the vehicle of something more fundamental,. and one way of getting at what they symbolize is to see the story as a grail quest. Though Conrad is sparing in his explicit use of the metaphor ("a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares"), it is implicit in the structure of the action. As in the grail quest there is the search for some object, and those who find and can see the grail receive an illumination. Marlow, the central figure, is like a knight seeking the grail, and his journey even to the end fo)lows the archetype. His grandiose references to the dark places of the earth, his talk of the secret of a continent, the farthest point of navigation, his sudden and unwonted sense that he is off not to the centre of a continent but to the centre of the earth-these, occurring before he starts his journey, give it the atmosphere of a quest. And in the journey itself there are the usual tests and obstacles of a quest. After Marlow passes through the bizarre company headquarters in Brussels and the inanity surrounding his voyage to the African coast, he makes a difficult and painful journey inland. At the central station he begins a seemingly routine task-going up the river to bring back a sick company agent-which will become his quest. Gradually he learns a little about Kurtz, at first a name; disgust with the manager and reports about the remarkable agent in the jungle make him increasingly eager to see the man. As Marlow's interest in Kurtz mounts, so do the trials and obstacles that are part of Marlow's test. The .journey creeps on painfully in the patched ship. Near the end, just before the attack, Marlow realizes that Kurtz is the one thing he has been seeking, the "enchanted princess" in a "fabulous castle," whose approaches are fraught with danger. The grail motif is of course connected with the profuse-and somewhat heavy-handed-light-darkness symbolism. The grail is an effulgence of light, and it gives an illumination to those who can see it. This is the light which Marlow seeks in the heart of darkness. The grail that he finds appears an abomination and the light even deeper .darkness, yet paradoxically Marlow does have an illumination: "it threw a kind of light on everything about me." The manager and the others travelling with Marlow are constantly called pilgrims, "faithless pilgrims," and for the faithless there can be no illumination. At the 351 Vol. XXIV, no. 4, July, 1955 352 UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY end of his quest Marlow does not find what he had expected all along, a good man in the midst of darkness and corruption. Instead he receives a terrible illumination. Such experiences are as ineffable as they are profound, and this is why the meaning of Marlow's tale must be expressed so obliquely, like the "glow that brings out the haze." The nature of Marlow's illumination is determined by the remarkable man who is its occasion. And to comprehend Kurtz we must look into the reasons for Marlow's attitude towards him. Marlow is listening to the manager condemning Kurtz's methods as "unsound." "It seemed to me I had never breathed an atmosphere so vile, and I turned mentally to Kurtz for relief ... it ·was something to have at least a choice of nightmares." Why must Marlow choose a nightmare at all? Because what he sees in one of the nightmares is so compelling that he cannot remain neutral before it. Marlow's choice is made easier for the reader to accept by the fact that even before meeting Kurtz Marlow finds himself on Kurtz's side. Marlow has been disgusted by everything connected with the company ; he learns that the manager schemes against Kurtz, because Kurtz, like Marlow, is one of the new gang, "the gang of virtue." The unseen apostle of light becomes the alternative to the cowardly plunderers . But...


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pp. 351-358
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