Charlie Marlow, the narrator of four of Joseph Conrad's greatest works- "Youth" (1989), Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1902), and Chance (1913)- is as enigmatic as the tales he recounts. Is he a simple replacement for Conrad? Is he a colorless narrator, or does he develop a personality of his own as he tells his stories? Conrad himself, although admitting that his "relations" with Marlow "have grown very intimate in the course of years," could not answer these questions definitively.

"Youth" is perhaps the slightest of these stories, but Kenneth Simons finds it emblematic of Conrad's "ludic imagination." Lord Jim is studied from several different perspectives: Stephen Zelnick and Benita Parry examine it as an anti-imperialist tract, Mark Conroy probes the role of heroism in the novel as embodied in both Jim and Marlow, and Anthony Winner sees Marlow as an ironic critic of Romanticism. Chance is discussed in brief compass by Gary Geddes and Daniel R. Schwartz.


Marlow is one of the most curious and fascinating of modern literary characters, even though he is rather more a voice than an active being in all four Conradian narratives in which he appears: “Youth,” Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Chance. Very little that is crucial about Marlow can be resolved; perhaps he represents, against Conrad’s conscious designs, what is most enigmatic or reserved or even repressed in Conrad himself, The life of Conrad, until he quit his sea career at the age of thirty-six, is High Romantic to an almost sublimely absurd degree, and may have helped set the Byronic standard that Hemingway strenuously sought to attain. At five, Conrad was taken into Russian exile by his father, an heroic Polish nationalist Losing his mother when he was eight, and his father four years later, the orphaned Conrad left Poland at seventeen, bound for Marseilles and a sailor’s career. Eighteen years at sea included gunrunning, voyages as extensive as those to India and the Congo, a desperate love affair ending in attempted suicide, and ultimate ascension to command. By 1886, Conrad was a British subject, and by 1895 a published novelist in English. This is not exactly the life of Henry James, who was to become the prime influence upon Conrad’s matured narrative art. Marlow is the mark of Conrad’s difference from James, and one can surmise that Marlow originated as a Conradian defense against James, lest the disciple yield up too much of his own authorial self to the lesson of the master.

Conrad’s James is the Middle James of The Spoils of Poynton and What Maisie Knew, masterpieces in which the narrative is firmly held within the viewpoint of a single crucial character. Early Conrad, much influenced by Flaubert and Maupassant, is narrated in the supposed impersonal mode, in the third person. But by October 898, Conrad and James were friends and neighbors, and Conrad was about to write Heart of Darkness. Critics agree that Marlow is a response to what can be called James’s “Impressionism,” but Ian Watt is clearly accurate when he charts the difference between the two degress of impressionism that are involved here:

…whereas James as author selects and orders the “meaning” of what happens
…Conrad lets his protagonist muddle out the meaning of his own experi
ences as best he can.

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