Harlequin in Heart of Darkness

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The Russian sailor in Conrad's Heart of Darkness is not the hero of the novella, but Marlow's identification of him as a harlequin who presents an "unsolvable problem" leaves readers similarly wondering what to make of the enigmatic character. He seems to reside like the "meaning" of one of Marlow's tales, "not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze."2 Marlow's shifting responses to the Russian sailor and his own psychological imperatives, which cause him simultaneously to reveal and to conceal his identification with the Russian, create such an ambiguous haze compounded by our tendency as readers to interpret the Russian harlequin as a symbol rather than as an archetypal prototype who represents not a goal but a stage Marlow is only partially successful in passing through in his journey. As innumerable critics have pointed out, the Russian serves the narrative purpose of filling in the gaps, of acquainting Marlow of what has transpired with Kurtz. But the fact that he is the most significant character in the novel after Marlow and Kurtz, and the fact that he presents to Marlow and to literary critics an enigma, 'an insoluble problem', lead to a sense that there is more to this character than has been excavated critically for the last one hundred years. His place in the novel continues to befuddle critics as his presence in the Congo bedevils Marlow. There can be no doubt whatsoever as to the degree of European rapacity in Africa, equaled nowhere in history save for the pathology of colonialism in the Caribbean. Europe inflicted brutal rape and mutilation upon the body of Africa--economic rape, cultural rape, and physical violation. Out of this rape the harlequin is born!

It follows that since Kurtz is Europe embodied, and since the harlequin is Europe's child by the rape of Africa, then the harlequin is Kurtz's issue. Kurtz is the essential renaissance man, the best that Europe had to offer,...
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