The Central Theme of Journeys in the Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and E.M. Forster's A Passage to India

Both ‘Heart of Darkness and ‘A Passage to India consider the motif of journeys throughout their stories. The narrator is the principal vehicle for describing the journeys in both texts. Yet we are not simply presented with literal journeys, rather each novel prefers to use the journey both in its literal and figurative meanings, as we can see the characters making literal journeys as with Marlow’s journey up the river Congo and deeper into Africa, but also metaphorical journeys that work on a deeper level as several characters make journeys of self-discovery and we also see relationships and beliefs evolve as the novels progress.

The theme of journeys, long and short, is consistently explored throughout both novels, and similarities and differences can be drawn between the two.

Each novel considers a literal and figurative journey. One clear way through which Conrad uses journeys is through his exploration of the idea of self-discovery; this is of course the figurative journey of the novel.

Throughout the novel, Marlow becomes more contemplative about the inherent darkness within human beings, particularly himself. Yet as this journey of self-contemplation progresses we can see it works very closely alongside the literal journey Marlow is taking further into Africa. As Marlow commences his boat ride up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, the chief of the Inner Station, and advances deeper into the “wilderness” of the heart of Africa, we see his thoughts delve into the more ‘wild’ and uncertain parts of the human psyche. Thus throughout the novel we see a clear reflection between the literal and figurative journeys that Marlow is undergoing, his journey deeper into Africa closely mirrors his journey deeper into the self, one’s ‘inner spirit’.

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Marlow’s physical journey from Europe, to the Outer Station and then to the Central Station also tests his ability to distinguish between good and evil since he witnesses such proceedings that draw out a moral judgment from him and it is such proceedings that spark thoughts of perspectival good and the nature of evil. So despite Marlow making a very obvious journey up the Congo, the novel focuses more on his mental journey as he comes to discover but not entirely understand the darkness within human beings.

It is clear from the very beginning that Marlow’s voyage is indeed an inward one. The first major indication of this is the posture of Marlow as he recounts his journey into the Congo; he is described as sitting in the “pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.” This pose of a Buddha can be immediately linked to meditation, which is the consideration of human nature, and by the very nature of mediation, you are first looking into yourself in an attempt to discern the nature of humans and contemplate the innermost workings of the mind. Therefore Marlow’s pose reveals to us the meaning of his journey, suggesting that from the very first pages that his journey is actually within himself and there is a clear change in his attitudes towards human beings from the beginning of the novel and the end, once he had been exposed to the ‘darkness’.

Similarly, a journey of evolving attitudes is also shown throughout A Passage to India. Several physical journeys are made in the novel but the figurative journey comes in the form of changing attitudes. These attitudes are expressed through several different groups, such as the English and the Indians, but also through the eyes of individuals. Yet whilst the attitudes of such broad groups as the English and Indians do not seem to progress very far throughout the novel as by the end the racial and political tensions and prejudices remain as in the beginning, as Mrs. Turton believes, “You’re superior to everyone in India”. Her comment exemplifies the extreme racism typical of Englishwomen in the novel as she states that the English are superior to Indians in every way. Such prejudices remain with the English, and with the natives (constantly keen to be rid of their “oppressors”) as a whole till the end of the novel, and prevent any Englishman and Indian from truly being friends.

Therefore by the conclusion of the novel the attitudinal journey of the English and Indians as a whole has made little progress, but it is the journey of Aziz and his relationship with the English that is most prominent. Aziz begins by saying “why beto  either frfriendith the fellows or not friends?” He would much rather just ignore the English, but it is when he meets Mrs. Moore that his attitude changes as he comes to “adore” her. With this, he starts to think that it is possible to be friends with the English and has several friendly encounters with Mrs. Moore, Adela, and Fielding. Thus we can already see his change in attitudes as he has made the journey from the prejudices of the natives against the English to actually wanting their friendship, going as far as to invite his new ‘friends’ on a trip to see the Marabar caves. However, the events at the Marabar caves take him onto the next step of the journey where he loses faith in a relationship being possible as he is accused of rape. The bitterness he feels towards the English after his trial never really disappears and he struggles to maintain a relationship with Fielding. It is only at the end of the novel that he can truly distinguish Fielding as an individual, instead of just seeing him as an Englishman. Here his bitterness and hatred for the English remain as he calls for India to be free of them, “no foreigners of any sort”, but he can accept Fielding once more. The conclusion of his journey, with its varying attitudes towards the British, finishes with the realization that with the officialism of colonialism they can’t be friends despite them both wanting to be friends, “it’s what I want. It’s what you want”. He realizes that it simply is not possible, “no, not yet … no, not there”. Throughout A Passage to India we see Aziz make a journey through his changing attitudes towards the English and the discovery at the end that such friendships are not possible, for now, thus it is a journey of discovery as well of sorts.

As well as discoveries about the nature of one’s self, human nature, and colonization that are made through figurative and self-reflective journeys, further discoveries are made through physical journeys. In Heart of Darkness Marlow, through his travels from the “civilization” of Europe into the “wilderness” of Africa, comes to a gradual understanding of what is happening in this far-off region of the world. Once he arrives in the Congo and sees the terrible “work” taking place, he can no longer remain blind to the atrocities of colonization and exploitation; no longer can he hide under the cover of his comfortable civilization. His physical journey into Africa and up the Congo brings to light the hypocrisy of the European empire, and it is this discovery that prompts Marlow to undergo his journey into himself. In A Passage to India, Mrs. Moore and Adela make their discoveries on their journey to find the “real India”. When they arrive in India they are appalled at the way that the British treat Indians and Mrs. Moore in particular is more respectful, humble, and open to everyone and everything she encounters, including Aziz. However her journey to find the real India eventually drives her up to the Marabar caves and it is here that her beliefs are shattered. She loses faith in her Christian beliefs, no longer able to preach that “God is love,” the caves expose her to the meaninglessness of life and the unpleasantness of human nature (much like Marlow’s discovery in Africa). Her journey to find the real India only proves to be a nail in her coffin as the experience saps her of her will to live and she dies on her journey back to England. She does not find the real India instead she encounters the pointlessness of human actions and how puny they are in the immensity of the universe. So in both novels, the characters make physical journeys, whether it is up the Congo or into the Marabar caves, and it is during these journeys that they make often unwanted discoveries.

To conclude, in both ‘Heart of Darkness and ‘A Passage to India’ the narrators use journeys as a way of leading their characters to discovery, whether that be self-discovery or discovery of the nature of something else. In Heart of Darkness, the literal journey Marlow takes into Africa prompts his figurative journey, where he is forced to wade beneath the surface. In the first half of the novel, Marlow says, “the essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface, beyond my reach”, however, by the end of his journey he has glanced beneath “the surface” and discovered the inhumanity of which even men such as the once upstanding Kurtz are capable. In A Passage to India, the characters take journeys through relationships and in a quest to find the “real India”. During this journey,s Aziz (and Fielding) discover that friendship between the colonized and a colonizer is not possible and Mrs. Moore is exposed to the meaninglessness of life. So in both novels journeys are made use of as a way of allowing characters to make discoveries.

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The Central Theme of Journeys in the Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. (2022, Aug 18). Retrieved from

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