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Heart of Darkness: Narrator & Narrative Technique

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  • 0:05 Narrative Technique
  • 0:46 The Frame Narrative
  • 2:29 The Double Narrator
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness,' is one of the most famous and controversial works of all time. But what is it about the novella that makes it so enduring? A look at Conrad's experimental narrative technique may shed some light.

Narrative Technique

Have you ever sat around a campfire listening to ghost stories? Or maybe sat up all night with your best buddy trying to outdo each other with the most outrageous tale? If so, then you've probably felt exactly what the unnamed narrator in Joseph Conrad's 1899 masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, feels as he listens in the dark to Marlow's wild story of the African Congo.

Using an anonymous narrator begs the question: why does Conrad use a double narrator to tell his famously infamous story? Why not let Marlow narrate the novella directly? What purpose does this anonymous narrator, writing the story as he heard it from Marlow's lips, serve?

The Frame Narrative

Conrad uses the frame narrative, a story within a story. In a frame narrative, the text's beginning and ending occur in roughly the same time and place, but the bulk of the action unfolds through a series of flashbacks. The real action is in the reconstruction of a character or characters' memories.

Heart of Darkness begins and ends on a boat stranded on the Thames near London, where the sailors await the tide so that they can strike out to sea. But the real story is the one Marlow tells as he and the rest of the crew sit, bored and restless, in the middle of a dark night, in a sort of menacing suspended animation that cuts them off entirely from the known and familiar world. Marlow's tale of the horrors of colonization fits right in with the foreboding mood of the crew.

The sinister setting echoes the story Marlow tells through flashbacks of life in the Belgian-controlled Congo, where Christian missionaries, military personnel, and rapacious businessmen convert, conquer, or capitalize upon the Congolese. The end goal of these European imperialists was essentially the same: domination by whatever means necessary.

More often than not, those means were appalling in their brutality: rape, theft, brutal abuse, and murder. The frame narrative, however, suggests that life in the Congo is not so very different than life in Europe. Because Conrad's story of the brutalities of imperialism begins and ends not in the Congo, but in London, he suggests that this, in fact, is where the suffering truly originates. All roads come from and lead back to the imperial centers (London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin), the true heart of darkness: the greed, the prejudice, and the power that make such violent oppression possible.

The Double Narrator

In addition to the frame narrative, Conrad also uses a double narrator. Marlow's story is relayed to us second-hand, through the transcription of a narrator who's never named; one who becomes transfixed by the eerie sound of Marlow's voice in the dark. Like the unknown narrator, we, the audience, are also hypnotized, blinded in the darkness, captured by the words of a stranger.

Conrad demonstrates the often menacing power of story, its capacity to disorient and deceive. The narrator struggles to see Marlow's face but cannot in the darkness. We, too, struggle to see, but in this highly experimental text, all we can discover are more questions, more confusion.

The reason for this is simple: our world, our very sense of self, operates through narrative. We are the stories that we tell ourselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the imperial enterprise itself. Modern European colonization, the conquest of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, was born of a host of narratives that made it 'okay,' indeed, a moral obligation, for the Western powers to go out and lay siege to most of the rest of the world.

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