Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Conrad’s technique of the frame narrative is integral to the story’s meaning. The central story of the commanding officer is told as part of a larger narrative, the frame, involving the narrator of the tale and the woman who asks him to tell it. Such a device, awkward as it may be in lesser works, is at least as old as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620) or Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1386-1400), works in which short tales appeared as independent narratives supporting an overall plan. In “The Tale,” the device is used not only to create suspense, but also to reinforce the theme of uncertainty and confusion. By connecting the wartime experience of the narrator with the personal relationship implied between him and the woman listener, the device emphasizes the narrator’s inability to trust or to love.

The narrator’s revelation of guilt and uncertainty at the end of his story connects with the end of the frame narrative when the woman compassionately seeks to comfort him. The narrator cannot accept her comfort. He merely turns away, suggesting that he has carried his doubt into his personal life, shutting him off from her tenderness and, perhaps, her love.

Within the narrator’s tale, the Northman relates his own story. Brief as it is, the account provides still a deeper obscurity to the narrator’s attempt to see the light. Credible as the Northman’s tale appears, its presence within the narrator’s tale to the woman merely emphasizes confusion. “The Tale” is thus constructed like a nest of Chinese boxes: a tale within a tale within a tale, obscurity within an enigma within a puzzle.

Finally, the sentence structure reinforces the theme of uncertainty and forms a kind of rhetorical subtext to the settings of fog and twilight. The commanding officer speaks deliberately, haltingly; his opening narrative to the woman is awkward, filled with pauses, punctuated with unfinished declarations and cryptic remarks. In turn, the woman’s own dialogue comprises a series of questions, probings into the narrator’s halting observations. Even when the tale has advanced, the narrator is still speculative, his remarks circling around the puzzle, seeking certainty. Both style and technique, then, are not merely reflections of Conrad’s Victorian manner of storytelling, but are directly integrated with the theme and meaning of the tale itself.