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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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Discuss the narrator of Heart of Darkness. How does Marlow’s story affect him?

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Conrad's story is told in a layered, story-within-a-story manner. Marlow , to be clear, is not the narrator; Marlow is one of a number of company officers aboard the Director's yacht (the Nellie). The men are gathered on deck at the end of day while their ship is anchored in...

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Conrad's story is told in a layered, story-within-a-story manner. Marlow, to be clear, is not the narrator; Marlow is one of a number of company officers aboard the Director's yacht (the Nellie). The men are gathered on deck at the end of day while their ship is anchored in the Thames. Marlow's story is reported to us by an unnamed narrator, which wraps the text in an extra layer of ambiguity—we are not getting Marlow's words exactly, but what the narrator remembers Marlow saying.

The narrator is responsible for the opening description of the evening on the river, and he is who reflects on the "service" the Thames has provided the English people and the historic sailors and ships it has borne. This would seem to place Marlow's story in that sort of context—another example of "hunters of gold" going forth bearing the "spark from the sacred fire" of civilization. For the narrator, the river is a pathway to the "mystery of an unknown earth."

Marlow's story of course undermines this conception. The Company does not bring European civilization to the bush; on the contrary, the bush brings out the savagery lurking in the Europeans. In the figure of Kurtz specifically, we have someone who was transformed by the bush and who finally recognized "the horror" of the wild.

Conrad spends but a paragraph at the end of his text to return the reader to the deck of the Nellie. The narrator makes no comment on the story, but his description of the river seems to indicate a changed perspective—he sees now that the river leads "into the heart of an immense darkness," suggesting that the narrator has recognized latent savagery present even here.

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Heart of Darkness is frame narrative, meaning Marlowe's tale is embedded in a larger story or frame. This frame is a very small one—a few paragraphs at the beginning of the novel and one at the end. Yet it provides an important grounding for the story. Marlowe is on board the ship called the Nellie, which is on the Thames. He is speaking to a group of a sailors, so this is initially an oral narraive, not a written one. The story he tells is grounded in a series of associations that arise out of Marlowe being on a boat in a particular place. The Thames, through the narrator's and Marlowe's observations of it, connects the reader both to the past--the Roman conquest of Britain—and the present, as the conduit through which ships pass on their own ways of commercial conquest across the globe.

The unnamed narrator has a small role in the story, but an important one. He introduces us to Marlowe and sets him apart as unlike the ordinary seaman. More importantly, his is the voice that tells Marlowe's story to us. Given the lyrical, contemplative language of the narrator's opening, we can imagine the story we have is a fusion of his gift with written words and Marlowe's gift for spinning an oral yarn. Further, the implication is that without the narrator, we would not have Marlowe's story recorded for posterity.

It is clear that the story has a powerful effect on the narrator, given his desire to write it down. As the story opens, he has benign feelings towards the Thames, stating it has done

ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.

The Thames, the river which connects London to the rest of the world, is a symbol of imperialism in the novel. London was the center of what was at the time the world's superpower. It possessed the world's largest empire, and from London ships of all nationalities traversed the globe—it was the hub of commerce and transport in its day. (This sense of London's immense importance as a center of global contact also emerges in the Stoker's Dracula—Dracula comes to London because it is from there that he can fan out across the globe with his army of vampires.)

By the end of the story, the narrator, however, is questioning the "good service" the Thames (imperialism) has done. It no longer seems to fan out across the earth in a good way, but to lead to evil:

the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth [that] flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

The narrator, like the reader, has been sobered by Marlowe's tale. He is no longer looking at the world as good place.

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