Heart of Darkness contains two layers of narration. The outer narrator is a passenger on the pleasure ship The Nellie, who hears Marlow recount one of his "inconclusive experiences" (21) as a riverboat captain in Africa. This unnamed narrator speaks for not only himself, but also the four other men who listen to Marlow's story. He breaks into Marlow's narrative infrequently; mainly to remark on the audience's reaction to what Marlow is saying. He is omniscient only with respect to himself, since he cannot tell what the others on the boat are thinking. The inner, and main narrator of Heart of Darkness is Marlow. He tells the other passengers of his story "into the heart of darkness" (62) in the first person singular, and the only thoughts the reader has access to are Marlow's.
This novel has two separate settings. The frame narrative is set in London, England, aboard "The Nellie, a cruising yawl, [that had] swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest" (15). She is anchored in the Thames River, where her passengers wait for the tide to go out. The second setting is that of Marlow's actual tale. In it, he travels first to Company Headquarters in Brussels, then to the Belgian Congo in Africa. Much of the story takes place as Marlow fights his way down the Congo River, deep in the jungle. After accomplishing his mission, Marlow returns to Belgium to visit Kurtz's intended. All of this happens sometime towards the latter part of the 19th century, when imperialism in Africa was at it's highest, and the ivory trade was thriving.
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Marlow is a complicated, round, dynamic character in Heart of Darkness. He travels into the Congo to find a man, Kurtz, that he doesn't know, but begins to admire him nonetheless. Marlow comments to his listeners on The Nellie that "The point was in [Kurtz] being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words - the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness" (79). In this one comment, Marlow reveals much about his character. Although he entered Africa with at least an inkling that imperialism was a positive thing, he quickly learned the truth: that it was driven by greed and lust alone. Marlow is torn by that "deceitful flow", because he recognizes what it is, but cannot distance himself from it. At the end, he becomes part of the "deceitful flow" by lying to Kurtz's intended, despite the fact that he had a good motive.
Kurtz is portrayed in Heart of Darkness as a veritable renaissance man. He is not only an excellent writer, painter, poet, and musician, but a world-class orator as well. These skills, along with several guns, are what make the natives worship him. When Marlow asks about Kurtz as he travels to meet him, he is merely told, "Mr Kurtz is a very remarkable person" (37). This may be an understatement, since at that very moment Kurtz was a god to the villagers he sacrificed. Kurtz is a round character, and dynamic as well. He espoused the idealism of imperialism and the pure side of the European presence in Africa, and traveled to the Congo in order to bring civilization and culture to the savages, or whatever it was they thought they were doing. In time, however, the evil that surrounded him made it's way into his heart, and he became worse that anything about imperialism he imposed. Kurtz continually talks about progress, enlightenment, and kindliness in the European presence in Africa. In his actions, however, he murders the natives, steals whatever they have, and allows himself to become their deity. These sides clashing within him are probably what drive him to madness.
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