The novel Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is written in a very peculiar way: Conrad uses a framing structure which makes up a story in a story. The story is recounted by two narrators, which makes it sound more verisimilar and impressive.
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The novel opens up with the description of the people on a boat, among which we find the second narrator Marlow. Marlow can be called the main narrator for he tells the story, the story of his adventures in Congo, “one of the dark places of the earth” (Conrad 7). But the first anonymous narrator makes us feel as if we were on a board as well. Using the first person singular Conrad makes us a part of the group of listeners. This unknown narrator reveals the enigmatic atmosphere of that night, which makes the reader the hostage of the predominating mood of mystery. In few moments the reader finds himself in the darkness, in front of the story-teller Marlow.
Being a seaman makes Marlow reliable and unreliable at the same time. On the one hand, he really experienced a lot things, he saw so many different places and met numerous interesting people. But, on the other, like all wanderers and seamen, he could have that characteristic feature to add some details, which could be not quite realistic. Even the first narrator is not sure in Marlow’s truthfulness pointing out that the listeners had “to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences” (Conrad 14). But still the way Marlow recounts his story makes it realistic. The narration is very interesting for the storyteller always addresses to his listeners, thus, the reader is evolved in a kind of conversation, where appears the illusion of possibility to put some questions to the narrator. It is also worth mentioning that the story, told by the person who went it through, is very personal. Marlow not only tells his story, he expresses his attitude toward those events or people. For example, the reader can feel Marlow’s negative feelings about the hunt for ivory: “You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse” (Conrad 59). His words are very emotional, depicting the cruelty of white people, so the reader does not only get to know about the ivory hunting, the reader is affected by the negative connotation of Marlow’s words and subconsciously starts forming his negative attitude as well. Of course, experienced reader will not surely be affected, but he/she will understand Marlow’s point of view. Anyway, being very emotional Marlow’s story reveals the main idea of the novel the darkness of human soul. And it is very remarkable that the reason of storytelling is Marlow’s, a kind of, “déjà vu”; the trip in the darkness evoked in him thoughts about the Romans who came to civilize ancient British Isles and his Congolese trip, when they, civilized, came into uncivilized, wild land.
Marlow is a very valuable narrator, in terms of his recounting style, where “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (Conrad 9). Thus we can understand that the whole story is just an illustration of his main idea. The whole story and Kurtz in particular are introduced by Marlow in order to express his thought about the darkness of people heart and, as one of its manifestation, pathological eagerness to interfere into others life, “civilizing” uncivilized lands. Describing all those events in details, Marlow opens the envelope to reveal the main issue of his concerns. Marlow condemns humans’ greediness and violence; he points out that each person will realize the horror of all his awful deeds, like Kurtz, whose last words were “Horror! Horror!” (Conrad 192) Marlow underlines that even if a person does not meet the consequence during his life; those terrible things he have done will come any way and bring death, and poison the last minutes of life. And another question which is introduced by Marlow is whether it is possible to conceal the dark truth. He decides that sometimes it is possible to spare one’s feeling and hide the darkness, but the question still remains without the answer, for he is not certain about it. So the reader is to find these answers for himself.
At this point it is necessary to return to the first narrator. As it is mentioned above the unknown narrator puts the reader into that significant mysterious darkness, where the storyteller’s voice only appears. This atmosphere makes the reader mix time and place: whether the reader is on a boat on the Thames or on steamboat somewhere in Congo; maybe, the reader is one of the Marlow’s listeners, or maybe the reader is Marlow’s inner voice, talking to Marlow. Some passages from Marlow’s story are very similar to confession: “What I really wanted was rivets, by heaven! Rivets. To get on with the work – to stop the hole” (Conrad 73).But then the narration stops and the reader is again listening to the unknown narrator, who describes Marlow speaking, making pauses. The importance of the anonymous narrator cannot be underestimated, since apart from depicting the necessary atmosphere this person abrupt the narration, and awakens the reader from the Marlow’s tale. These swings from listening to a story, a story in a story and inner thoughts enhances the effect of the reading.
Thus, two narrators of the novel depict the eternal problem of the darkness of human soul: one of them, Marlow, shares his own experience and personal attitude toward this, illustrating his ideas with bright events and characters; the other, unknown narrator reinforces the effect of Marlow’s story by creating the atmosphere of darkness and uncertainty. Being a personal story told by Marlow it is very emotional, but being retold by the anonymous narrator the story makes the reader stand aside. All this makes the reader regard the novel as a realistic tale, which puts complicated questions, leaving their solving to the reader. Of course, the reader can see the Conrad’s attitude toward the issues considered in the novel, but still there are more questions than answers. And these two narrators make readers look deeper into their own hearts, and try to find and defeat the darkness which is inherent in humans. Actually this darkness makes people “civilized” and thus people should get rid of such kind of “civilization”.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart Of Darkness. Harmondsworth (Middlesex): Penguin Books, 1978.
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