Magazine: Explicator, Spring, 1992


Critics, such as Stein,[1] Evans,[2] Wilcox,[3] and Watt,[4] have analyzed the passages in Conrad's Heart of Darkness in which the narrator of the frame story likens Marlow's appearance to that of the Buddha, but the specific gestures used by Marlow in these passages and their relationship to the positioning of the passages have not been analyzed. Conrad's story contains three brief passages in which Marlow's physical appearance is likened to that of the Buddha:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellowish complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol. (7)[5]

"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 and without a lotus-flower...... (10)

Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. (76)

It is difficult to establish exactly how well-versed Conrad was in Eastern religions, but the three passages quoted above certainly indicate a careful choice of details leading to a sequential development that is important for the story as a whole. It is also significant that each passage likening Marlow to the Buddha is followed (either in the same paragraph or in the very next one) by impressionistic descriptions of water in the form of the River Thames.

Before examining the changes in Marlow's gestures from one passage to the next, I need to stress that I am not trying to equate Marlow with the Buddha. The Buddha was a religious teacher who belonged to a radically different time and culture, and Marlow is a secular figure against whom serious charges of racism, colonialism, and sexism have been leveled by critics such as Achebe[6] and Singh.[7] If Marlow is a flawed hero, the Buddhist perspective becomes especially important for understanding him as a product of the nineteenth century, sharing in its guilt, yet attempting to transcend it. The Buddha himself tended to view people in terms of the limitations of their contexts rather than in terms of inflated heroism.

To a certain extent, Marlow is like Fielding in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, who says, "I am a holy man minus the holiness."[8] Both Fielding and Marlow take risks in secular areas in keeping with their sense of integrity. Additionally, both are like the Captain in Conrad's story "The Secret Sharer," who relies heavily on his intuition rather than on his rationality and takes risks in connection with a person toward whom he feels instinctively drawn.

To return to the three quoted passages, the technical term for Marlow's gestures is mudra, a Sanskrit word meaning "symbolic gesture." A. L. Basham, the noted scholar of Hindu-Buddhist culture, points out that mudras became a highly developed mode of expression in ancient Indian religion, dance, and drama.[9]

The posture adopted by Marlow in the first quotation is that of the Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment. In this passage, the unnamed primary narrator does not mention the Buddha by name, but he does say that Marlow "resembled an idol." In countless idols and paintings, the Buddha is depicted with his arms dropped, specifically with one or more fingers of the right hand touching the earth.[10] This gesture is famous in Buddhist tradition as the bhumisparsha mudra, the earth-touching gesture (Sanskrit bhumi = "earth"; sparsha = "touch"). According to Buddhist legend, when the Buddha entered his most significant phase of meditation under the Bodhi tree (the tree of enlightenment), he was tempted by Mara, the god of darkness, the Buddhist devil. At this point, the Buddha "touched the ground with his hand, and the Earth itself spoke with a voice of thunder: 'I am his witness.'[11] This story of the Buddha's enlightenment is so widely known in Asia that Conrad might easily have heard it during his travels in the East.

Unlike the Buddha, Marlow is a seaman, and to him water is what the earth was to the Buddha. Marlow is sitting on the deck of the Nellie as he narrates the story of his confrontation with darkness, and he may be viewed as pointing to the water of the Thames below him as witness of his integrity, or at least of the seriousness of his quest. Significantly enough, the quoted passage is followed by a lengthy description of the Thames, of its present appearance and its extraordinary place in English history. Marlow is but one in a long fine of protagonists who have been carried to their destinies by fateful waters. The narrator stresses the significance of water for Marlow: "He [Marlow] was the only man of us who still 'followed the sea' " (9).

Presumably this is the first time Marlow is telling his story to his four listeners. After his return from Africa, he was unwilling or unable for a while to communicate with anyone. There is a parallel in the fife of the Buddha: "For a time he doubted whether he should proclaim his wisdom to the world, as it was so recondite and difficult to express . . ." but ultimately he did go "to the Deer Park near Banaras (the modern Sarnath), where his five former disciples had settled. . . " and to "these five ascetics the Buddha preached his first sermon .... "[12]

In the second quotation, the narrator hints at the Western, nonmystical aspect of Marlow by stressing his European clothes and the symbolic lotus flower that is not there under him. The Buddha is routinely shown seated on a lotus, the traditional mystical symbol of the world that contains the Buddha. The mudra used by Marlow in this passage, however, does relate him to an important aspect of the Buddha. The description of Marlow's gesture is a precise description of one that the Buddha used frequently: the abhaymudra (literally the "fear-not mudra": Sanskrit a = negative; bhay = "fear"), the gesture of assurance for audiences listening to his sermons.[13] Once again, the narrator follows (in the next paragraph) with an arresting description of the river, which may be seen as providing mute testimony on behalf of the narrative that is to follow. The abhaymudra can only be used by a person whose integrity is established, and Marlow now has "the pose of a Buddha preaching" because, in a sense, his story is going to be a sermon for his audience of four.

The first and the second quoted passages contain descriptions of specific hand gestures, but at the end of the story, when Marlow's ,'sermon" is over, he no longer needs to convey a specific verbal message. His whole body is now in the posture of the dhyanibuddha, that is, the Buddha in deep meditation (dhyani = adjectival form of the noun dhyana, which means "meditation"). Silence is stressed in this third passage because silence is essential for the ritual austerity of the Buddha's meditation. His sitting apart from the others is also emphasized because, traditionally, the dhyanibuddha (in contrast to the preaching Buddha that Marlow represented earlier) detaches himself from the noisy, verbal transactions of mankind. The description in the third passage again is followed by a reference to the water. This time it is described as a "tranquil waterway," in keeping with the image of a tranquil Buddha in deep meditation.

The lines immediately preceding this last scene deal with Marlow's "He" concerning Kurtz's last words, and the various interpretations of this "lie" are too numerous to be listed here. In the context of this discussion, however, there is a Buddhist parallel that should be noted. Buddhism stresses detachment, as well as compassionate involvement with one's fellow beings. As a product of the nineteenth century, Marlow may be culpable in terms of the racist and colonialist sentiments that critics such as Achebe and Singh have sensed in him. By the same reasoning, one may also see in him some kind of nineteenth-century chivalry toward women, chivalry tinged with a Buddhist sense of compassion. Additionally, because he viewed women as the custodians of ideals, he may not have wanted the Intended to live on with shattered ideals. Could Marlow have told the Intended the full truth, he might have gained emotional relief. Instead, it is the Intended who gets intense relief from hearing that Kurtz died with her name on his lips. If Marlow's withholding full information can be seen as an effort to spare someone pain, then the "Re" may be viewed as a compassionate gesture that justifies his assumption of the "pose of a meditating Buddha" at the very end of the story.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha spent nearly half a century as a wandering preacher. Compassion was the theme of many of his sermons. He sometimes avoided answering questions, presumably because he felt that any direct answer he might have given in such situations would have served no useful purpose. On one occasion, he avoided telling a painful truth directly to a distraught woman who, at the time of her first encounter with him, was still in too much psychic pain to confront the unvarnished truth about her child's death.[14] At the time of her first encounter with Marlow, the Intended was clearly in too much pain to cope with the fun truth.

Instead of acting as a moral mahatma, Marlow took the risk of trusting his intuitive urge to be compassionate. True, his earlier emphasis on associating lies with the taint of death leaves him open to charges of bad faith or hypocrisy, but the tone of the descriptions in the three quoted passages and the implied testimony of the water seem to affirm Marlow's integrity. At the end of the story, it is possible to view him as a fallible hero who took upon himself the stigma of telling a white he about dark truths.


1. William Bysshe Stein, "The Lotus Posture and Heart of
Darkness," Modern Fiction Studies 2 (1956-57):235-37.

2. Robert O. Evans, "A Further Comment on Heart of
Darkness," Modem Fiction Studies 3 (1957): 358-60.

3. Stewart C. Wilcox, "Conrad's 'Complicated Presentations'
of Symbolic Imagery," Philological Quarterly 39 (1960): 1-17.

4. Ian Watt, "Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of
Darkness," Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, Norton
Critical Editions, ed. Robert Kimbrough, 3rd ed.
(New York: Norton, 1988) 311-36.

5. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1899, ed. Robert
Kimbrough, Norton Critical Editions, 3rd ed. (New York:
Norton, 1988). Subsequent references are cited by page
number in the text.

6. Chinua Achebe, "An Image of Africa: Racism in
Conrad's Heart of Darkness," in Kimbrough 251-62 (note 5 above).

7. Frances B. Singh, "The Colonialist Bias of Heart of
Darkness," in Kimbrough 268-80 (note 5 above).

8. E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (New York: Harcourt,
Brace & World, 1924) 121.

9. A. L. Basham, The Wonder that Was India (New York: Macmillan,
1959) 385.

10. See, for example, plate 74 in Basharn.

11. Basham 259.

12. Basham 259.

13. See plate 45 in Basham.

14. E. A. Burtt, ed., The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha
(New York: Mentor, 1955) 43-46.


By P. K. SAHA, Case Western Reserve University

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Source: Explicator, Spring92, Vol. 50 Issue 3, p155, 5p.