Language in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Topics: Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Narrator Pages: 6 (2032 words) Published: October 12, 2011
The Segmentation of Language in Heart of Darkness Language in the broadest sense is communication between species, with varying degrees of complexity. The purpose of all human languages is to communicate – to transfer a message from one person to another. The message content consists of facts and meaning; being the logical and emotional elements, respectively. Messages may consist solely of facts -- “It is five o'clock.” -- or purely meaning, such as “I love you.” However, most messages require both elements, yet developed countries' elevation of fact over meaning has hamstringed language's efficacy. Throughout Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad focuses on this divorce of fact and meaning, providing an interwoven critique of the segmentation of language using frame narrative, analysis of written word, and juxtaposition of modern language with the raw language from untouched Africa. Marlow begins and ends his tale in a lotus position, evoking the concept of mind over matter. But how accurately does this describe Marlow? At many points Marlow loses his composure due to his inability to convey meaning. In the beginning, the “outside” narrator equates a story’s meaning with a “haze”, or fog (1893). In his analogy, the meaning is “brought out” with a “glow” of light. But shine too much light, and the fog envelopes the path (i.e. facts of the story). This is what happens when Marlow concentrates solely on the point he wishes to convey; the meaning is lost in a sea of emotions with no facts to anchor them, producing anger and frustration that destroy his Buddha emulation.

Fernandez 2 Conrad’s use of a frame narrative serves multiple functions. First, in adding another layer to the story, Conrad purposely obscures and encodes the intended meaning from the reader. A story meant to incite public outcry cannot afford to have its meaning obscured implying that language inadequacy is a more prominent theme than exploitative imperialism. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published only four years later, may not have proved as effective if wrapped inside a frame narrative. The enigmatic and paradoxical use of narration to explore the problems of narration constitutes a récit. Marlow is effectively trying to narrate something impossible to narrate., confessing “it is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of one's existence” (1909). The pervasive inconclusiveness in Heart of Darkness “challenge[s] the very possibility of narrative” (Dhareshwar 75). While potentially clouding the writer’s meaning, the frame narrative allows the reader to mentally insert himself among Marlow’s attentive crew. Marlow's utter frustration concerning his inability to convey the meaning of his tale is personally experienced by the reader, because Marlow is talking to the reader outside of the story. The same phrases conveyed through an ethereal narrator would lack the emotional content. The reader empathizes with a human narrator who has emotions, while an ethereal narrator conventionally can convey options but not utter doubt. The frame narrative underscores the irony that African natives have little difficulty orally telling a story. Civilization’s mass production of the written word has atrophied its citizen’s ability to tell a simple story. Interestingly, the fact that Marlow lived this tale actually frustrates rather than buttresses his ability. Bruffee points out Marlow’s “disillusionment with words” grows as he gets closer to Kurtz, all the while “becom[ing] less and less enamored of words as

Fernandez 3 the verbose Kurtz talks” (Bruffee 327). As a seaman, Marlow may feel inadequate to perform a job that is outside his profession. The industry of storytelling discourages laymen from attempting this refined skill. Heart of Darkness does have an “outside” narrator (not Marlow) who is a crewman aboard the Nellie. While nothing is known about this narrator crewman, the other three Nellie passengers represent civilization’s upper-middle...
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