Narrative Style in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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Narrative Style in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
The Heart of Darkness employs, broadly, a three framed narrative style. Conrad, the author, places an unnamed narrator aboard the Nellie with Marlow, who is the third narrator/frame. The unnamed narrator functions as both a teller of Marlow’s tale to us and a listener to Marlow. The significance of these frames can be analysed by looking at three effects which this arrangement produces. The usage of Marlow as narrator instead of Conrad himself became important due to Conrad’s anxiety to adopt an English point of view which had been denied to him largely. His self-consciousness as a Polish émigré and therefore an outsider reflected in his attempt at anglicising his name. Also well-known was his obsession with “fidelity to the truth of my own sensations” in his writings. The reconciliation of the two – an English point of view and the “truth” of his sensations, however, was impossible, simply because his view of the “civilizing work” in Africa was that it was “the criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness” 1- a decidedly anti-British point of view. He wrote to his publisher about the bitterness and indignation he had felt during his Congo experience, at what he called was the “masquerading philanthropy”2 of the colonisers. Though English in name, Marlow was not, as Said puts it, “the wholly incorporated and fully acculturated Englishman” 3because of “an extraordinarily persistent, residual sense of his own exilic marginality.” 3 Aware that his ideological thrust would not be welcome to his English readers, Conrad strategically uses the trope that is Charles Marlow, a typical British seaman, to explore his reader’s cultural traits and values as an insider. He deliberately made Marlow stress out on British national character in “Youth” and in this way won the British audience over to his side. This layered narrative allowed Conrad to shows us his complex response to British imperialism. Thus, whereas Marlow preserves the myth of colonial sanctimony for the rest of Europe (represented here by Kurtz’s fiancé who considers him a beacon of light in the darkness that is Africa) by lying about Kurtz’s real nature, that is, his slaughtering of Africans for fulfilling his greed for ivory in the name of “civilization”, it is exactly by telling us that Marlow lies that Conrad shatters the same myth. Conrad’s narrative overshadows all the other frames or narratives, and since the lie is placed at the end of the book, he wants us to have a lasting impression of Marlow as a liar, without giving him a chance or space for redemption. Conrad reveals that the myth of colonial efficiency is exactly what it is- a myth. In the second place is the significance of the unnamed frame narrator. His most explicit function in the novel is to introduce us to the setting and the characters, amongst whom, he claims “is the bond of the sea”. (page 3) His attitude towards England is unmistakably idealizing- “the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames…”(page 4) and about the English sea heroes- “What greatness had not floated on the edge of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth.” (pp4) Such adoration serves the dual purpose of catering to the ideological mind-set of Conrad’s contemporary audience and, as the novella progresses, of letting Marlow contradict and attack his viewpoints with his insights inserted into the narration. Marlow’s strand of thought in the same discussion about England is contrasting- “this also… has been one of the darkest places of the earth”. Pp5 In using one kind of language in one narrative frame and counter-discoursing it in the other, Conrad maintains the ironic distance from the narrator that he desired. In Marlow’s impatience with his naïve listener and what Sumanyu Satpathy calls the frame narrator’s relative “intellectual inferiority4 Conrad subverts the classic frame narrative where the frame narrator had the highest authority, and...
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