Writing Forums

Writing Forums is a privately-owned, community managed writing environment. We provide an unlimited opportunity for writers and poets of all abilities, to share their work and communicate with other writers and creative artists. We offer an experience that is safe, welcoming and friendly, regardless of your level of participation, knowledge or skill. There are several opportunities for writers to exchange tips, engage in discussions about techniques, and grow in your craft. You can also participate in forum competitions that are exciting and helpful in building your skill level. There's so much more for you to explore!

Conrad's Heart of Darkness- essay on narrative style (1 Viewer)


I wrote this essay for my fourth year Rhetoric of Fiction ELIT Seminar. I got a really stellar mark so I'm pretty proud of it :) If you have an interested in HofD and frame narration this may be of interest to ya!

Framing the Darkness: Rhetorical Function of Narration in Heart of Darkness

The complexity of narration in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness functions to serve Marlow’s assertion that, "No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life- sensation of any given epoch of one's existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone ..." ( ). The varying levels of diegesis in Heart of Darkness move the reader further and further outward from the essence of the story, from the darkness that consumes Kurtz, threatens to overtake Marlow, and of which Marlow feels the entire English society is painfully ignorant. Heart of Darkness is a frame narrative. On the outer level of this story is a primary narrator who is actively listening to Marlow’s recollection of his time spent in what can be assumed to be the Congo. This type of narrator is typical to 19th century fiction. Heart of Darkness confounds the idea of the detached narrator by making him an active participant, a receiver of Marlow’s narrative. The unnamed narrator offers various insights into the character of Marlow, as well as the outward setting of the narrative taking place. This primary narrator is akin to the reader who is at once absorbing the story, as well as actively participating in its creation. The secondary narrative is told in the first person by Marlow. This first person narration raises issues of personal motivation and reliability. Marlow attempts to illuminate to his audience the implications of the darkness, the purpose behind his narrative. In this way Marlow becomes the narrator, and the primary narrator becomes the narratee receiving the story alongside the reader. But Marlow isn’t telling his own story. He is essentially attempting to describe the experience of Kurtz. Heart of Darkness is Kurtz’ story, but Kurtz cannot tell it as the darkness has consumed, and therefore silenced him. Marlow is the closest to Kurtz and as such has the greatest narrative authority in the story. The primary narrator listens to Marlow and attempts to grasp the meaning of Kurtz’ story, to gather a taste of the darkness Marlow is trying so desperately to convey. To complicate this idea even further, Conrad has set up all of the narrative levels to fail. As Marlow laments, it is impossible to perfectly convey the life-sensation of Kurtz. Only Kurtz can experience the darkness. Marlow comes close, the primary narrator may see a glimpse of it, we as a reader are left completely out of the experience. In this way, Heart of Darkness’ purpose is not to convince the reader of the darkness, but to convince the reader that the darkness will never be fully conveyed to them. Marlow’s purpose is to create an awareness, not necessarily an understanding of the darkness. This purpose is conveyed through the rhetorical function of the complexly-layered narrative structure.

To begin, the novel opens with a primary narrator eloquently describing his surroundings, and the people around him. He observes Marlow, and in this way the reader receives an unbiased opinion of what Marlow looks like. He recounts some of Marlow’s lamentations about the history of the Thames, the history of colonization, before Marlow, "said, in a hesitating voice, ‘I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit,’ that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow's inconclusive experiences" (Conrad 51). The description of Marlow’s stories being ‘inconclusive’ seems to be a comment about the nature of meaning in his narrative. The primary narrator creates the metaphor of a nut. Most stories shroud their meaning in an outer conveyance of events and characters. The story can be discarded like a shell, in order to get to the meat of the nut, the meaning of the story. Analogue and parable utilize narrative in the same way- as a means to the end of arriving at a meaning, a moral lesson. Marlow’s narrative is inconclusive. There will be no tidy meaning deducted from Heart of Darkness, and the primary narrator seems aware of this before Marlow’s story even begins. This is a warning to the reader right from the outset of the story that no solid conclusions should be expected to come out of their reading. Marlow then launches into his narrative, and the primary narrator, according to Ivan Kreilkamp, becomes, "not actually a speaker but a scribe, and Marlow, who speaks the story which the frame narrator records within quotation marks. (229). The quotation marks surrounding Marlow’s narrative add reliability to the primary narrator. As narratee his opinions will not pervert the story, since it is quoted directly from Marlow. The quotation marks also serve as a constant reminder that this is an oral narrative, coming straight out of Marlow’s mouth. For more than twenty pages Marlow’s narrative is allowed to unfold without interruption. Finally, the primary narrator enters back into the diegesis, when Marlow is apparently struggling with the limitations of narrative. As Marlow voices his internal labor with narrative’s inability to convey exactly the life-feeling of a story’s protagonist, the audience to his narrative are literally shrouded in darkness. J. Hillis Miller accounts for this outward step back into the primary narrative as, "the way Heart of Darkness is posited on the impossibility of achieving its goal of revelation, or, to put this another way, the way it is a revelation of the impossibility of revelation" (39). So in answer to Marlow’s question, "Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?" (82) No. The audience, that is, the primary narrator as well as the reader, at this point cannot see anything. The physical setting of the diegesis proves Marlow’s, and subsequently Conrad’s theory that reader response is extremely limited by the nature of literature itself.

Marlow does allow, however, that some sort of enlightenment can come out of literature. Though narration is unable to fully grasp the life-sensations of the protagonist, literature can exude some faint glimmer of this experience. Harold Bloom attests that Marlow can, "create ‘a glow,’ ‘a haze,’ so that his listeners may progress in some degree toward an apprehension of his experience"(32). It is for this reason that Marlow keeps narrating, and that the primary narrators, as well as the reader, continue listening.

Like most frame tales, the primary narrator of Heart of Darkness is granted the privilege of both introducing and concluding the narrative as a whole. Rather than introducing a personal commentary about the nature of Marlow’s story, the primary narrator simply relays more instances of setting. The primary narrator does not reveal their inner thoughts about the nature of the story that has just transpired. They do, however, observe that, "the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness" (162). These final words of Heart of Darkness are an indication that the primary narrator has derived some sense of the darkness from Marlow’s narrative. The narratees are at the very least more aware of the darkness than Marlow was before he set out to the heart, an observation that Marlow makes early on in his story. In this way Marlow achieves a conveyance of the existence of the darkness, if not its exact nature.

The reader, alongside the primary narrator, is left on their own to derive some sort of significance or finality from the narrative. They must deduct the implications of the darkness that they perhaps have become aware of, but remain unable to comprehend. If the reader is supposed to take the primary narrator as a guide, as someone who has experienced the story alongside them, then they should reserve judgement of the darkness they do not comprehend, but should perhaps attempt to observe its presence in their everyday lives.

Moving further into the diegesis of Heart of Darkness, we are confronted with the problem of Marlow as first person narrator. Marlow is not a teller, but a re-teller. He is recounting the story of Kurtz, as filtered through his own human experience. Like the reader and the primary narrator, Marlow is also unable to fully grasp the life-experience of Kurtz. However, Marlow lays claim to an increased narrative authority than the primary narrator, as he was more directly involved in the central narrative of Kurtz. This authority is of course confounded by the first person narration. Marlow’s reliability must be constantly scrutinized and examined. Harold Bloom offers exceptional insight into the problem created by a narrative that is continually being filtered through new narrators onto new narratees. He writes, Heart of Darkness "engages the very motive of narrative in its tale of a complexly motivated attempt to recover the story of another within one's own, and to retell both in a context that further complicates relations of actors, tellers, and listeners" (108). Marlow feels a need to relay Kurtz’, and his, experience with the darkness to an audience. Bloom explains this need in terms of Marlow’s lie:
That Marlow's narration on board the Nellie concludes—or more accurately, breaks off—just after he has told of his lie to the Intended suggests the link between his lie and his narrative. Having once presented a lying version of Kurtz's story, he apparently needs to retell it, restituting its darkness this time, and in particular showing its place in Marlow's own story (120)
Therefore Kurtz’ narrative becomes Marlow’s own once Marlow changes it for his own purposes. This again asserts Marlow’s unreliability as narrator. Critics have suggested that Marlow’s retelling is due in part to Kurtz’ failure as original teller of the core narrative of Heart of Darkness, as well as a need in Marlow to correct the lie he told to the Intended. Marlow does not convey Kurtz’ last words, because to do so "would have been too dark--too dark altogether" (162). In this way the re-telling of Kurtz’ story is Marlow’s attempt at correcting his original failure as narrator. Marlow failed because to succeed would have been to succumb to the darkness that has consumed and silenced Kurtz. His original narrative failure, his avoidance of the overly dark act of honestly narrating the story of Kurtz to his Intended, allows him the chance to re-tell his story onboard the Nellie. The new narratees, the seamen onboard the Nellie, and subsequently the implied reader, are so ignorant of the darkness that they do not pose a threat to Marlow. He can now convey the darkness honestly without danger to himself. It can be argued, however, that Marlow’s second attempt at narrator also fails. According to the primary narrator, the purpose of Marlow’s narration should be to convey meaning. Since both the primary narrator and Marlow are aware that no tangible meaning can come from Marlow’s re-telling, that the darkness cannot be fully experienced through re-telling in narrative form, both narrators in this way are set up to fail. The question then arises, if Marlow is aware he is going to fail under these terms, why would he bother re-telling at all? A more grounded argument may be that Marlow’s purpose is not to convey a clearly defined meaning at all. Marlow’s motivation in re-telling Kurtz’ story may be a way of implicating his listeners into the horrible truth that he has not directly experienced, but has been made astutely aware of. When Marlow returns to Europe he is unable to release the memory of Kurtz’ narrative. It haunts him in all he does. Kurtz’ narrative has become his own, and the only way to be rid of it, or at least to manage it, is to involve more people in the knowledge of this darkness. If this is his goal, then Marlow has achieved it. He has held a captive audience in both the seamen and the reader. The primary narrator’s awareness of the darkness at the end of the narrative is an indication that he now has some limited sense of the darkness, but he is no way as afflicted as Marlow. The reader is even more removed, as they are not receiving the narrative directly but through the focalization of the minimally-affected primary narrator. In this way, Marlow achieves his goal of relaying the darkness to his primary witnesses as well as the reader, but the conveyance becomes more limited as it is filtered through multiple narratees turned narrators. The next logical step in this nested narrative would then be for the reader to retell the story and continue this modernist form of oral tradition.

At the center of the diegesis, at the ‘heart of’ the ‘darkness’ is Kurtz’ narrative. Conrad intended for each of the narrative levels of the story to become more abstract and confounded moving inward. Kurtz’ narrative is at the heart of the darkness, therefore it is the most complex and incomplete. Kurtz is not given the chance to play narrator to his own story. Marlow has ultimate control over his narrative, and defies some of the ways that Kurtz would have like his narrative told. For example, Kurtz was given the responsibility of writing a report for the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Kurtz wrote the report, along with a later addition reading "exterminate the brutes!" scribbled in a column. Kurtz entrusts the pamphlet to Marlow, convinced that Marlow will deliver the pamphlet for him. Thus the reader does not get a direct telling of the contents of the pamphlet, only Marlow’s summary and interpretation of it. When Marlow hands the pamphlet over, he erases the "exterminate the brutes!" scribble, thus altering Kurtz’ leftover narrative as a whole. Similarly, Kurtz demands that Marlow truthfully relay the details of his death to his Intended. Marlow cannot bring himself to do this and in this way alters the original Kurtz narrative. Kurtz’ story is constantly perverted by Marlow, to the effect that Kurtz is a fragmented character at best. Marlow only informs the narratee that Kurtz "discoursed". No details are provided about what exactly Kurtz had to say. If this was a typical frame narrative, Heart of Darkness might move from the primary narrator, to Marlow, and then subsequently present Kurtz’ narrative from Kurtz’ point of view, shifting Marlow from the narrator role into that of narratee. Heart of Darkness does not do this. In this way, Bloom asserts that, "Kurtz never fulfills the promise of a coherent inner frame" (122). Marlow never becomes narratee, but rather learns of Kurtz’ narrative through "desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted phrases, in hints ending in deep sighs" (Conrad 129). Kurtz’ central narrative is the metaphorical nut-meat of meaning that the primary narrator knows will be missing from Marlow’s version of the story. Marlow’s story will be inconclusive as it is missing the original meaning, the direct experience of Kurtz, in Kurtz’ own words. Kurtz fails as narrator because the darkness has overcome him. Kurtz is the central authority about the darkness, but cannot transgress its effects in order to explain them coherently to someone else. Marlow is left with the responsibility of deciphering meaning from fragments of narration, picking up the untold pieces of Kurtz’ life and trying to make sense of them on his own terms. Regardless of Kurtz’ mental state, however, under Marlow’s definition of narrative Kurtz would ultimately fail in his conveyance of the darkness to Marlow. Marlow cannot see, cannot be made to see the darkness afflicting Kurtz, no matter how articulately Kurtz may have narrated his story. Since Marlow did bear witness to the darkness’ consumption of Kurtz, and his daily life is greatly altered because of this, the story of Kurtz becomes his own. Heart of Darkness is more concerned with Marlow’s interpretation of Kurtz’ story than it with the literal conveyance of Kurtz’ story itself. This is yet another indication that the purpose of Heart of Darkness is not to define the darkness itself, but to convey its existence.

Ergo, Heart of Darkness utilizes a complexly layered narrative scheme. The narrative moves inward, beginning with a detached, scribe-like primary narrator who recounts Marlow’s act of retelling aboard the Nellie. The primary narrator provides information outside of Marlow’s narration, relaying instances of setting that parallel the thematic elements of Marlow’s central narration. Marlow takes on the act of first person narrator, turning the primary narrator into the narratee of his experience in the Congo. Marlow narrates the story of Kurtz, since Kurtz is unable to tell his own story. The varying diegetic levels allow the reader to witness the story of Kurtz as altered through a variety of narrators. Kurtz cannot dictate his own story, as this would function against the purpose of the story. Heart of Darkness is a story about the relation of a story. It’s purpose is not to convey the essence of the darkness, but to prove that it exists. Marlow has witnessed the darkness but has not succumbed to it like Kurtz, placing him in an ideal position to relay his knowledge to others. The primary narrator, as well as the reader, absorbs Marlow’s narrative, to the effect that they become increasingly aware of a darkness they were once ignorant of. In this way, Heart of Darkness does not attempt to fully convey the darkness, but effectively illustrates to both the primary narrator, and subsequently the reader, that the darkness exists.

Works Cited
Bloom, Harold. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Conrad, Joseph. Youth; Heart of Darkness; The End of the Tether. London: J.M. Dent and Sons,
Kreilkamp, Evan. "A Voice Without a Body: The Phonographic Logic of Heart of Darkness."
Victorian Studies. 40.2 (1997): 215.
Miller, Hillis J. "Heart of Darkness Revisited." Essays for the Eighties. University, Al: U of
Alabama Press, 1985.


Senior Member
I've always found the novel interesting, especially with its Lacanian implications. I still consider it an off-shoot of Rimbaud's "Une Saison en Enfer" in terms of its metaphysical journey.


i agree, there is something about HofD that is compelling and fascinating... interesting tidbit- Conrad caught a bit of heat for his treatment of the Africans in this novella, he was accused of being a racist. Chinua Achebe wrote "Things Fall Apart" in response to HofD, also a very excellent novel.