What is the purpose of the frame-story structure in Heart of Darkness?

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In Heart of Darkness, a frame story is presented to the reader as the narrator tells the reader of a time in which he and other men were on a boat with a gentleman named Charlie Marlow . This Charlie Marlow then tells them, in his own first-person account,...

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In Heart of Darkness, a frame story is presented to the reader as the narrator tells the reader of a time in which he and other men were on a boat with a gentleman named Charlie Marlow. This Charlie Marlow then tells them, in his own first-person account, of his own sea-faring adventures. The frame story begins as the novel reads,

No one took the trouble to grunt even; and presently he said, very slow: "I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans came here . . . "

The purpose of this frame-story is debatable. One suggestion as to why Conrad chose a frame story specifically is that he hoped to create a sense of disbelief in the story. As the novella is filtered through more and more narrators (the narrator, Charlie Marlow, dialogue that Marlow himself recalls), the dependability and validity of the tale become more questionable. It's much like that old game played in elementary school in which an original statement is told in secret from one student to another until it's become entirely changed when it reaches the last student in line.

Another purpose of the frame story is to lend a folktale-like quality to the novella, with the narrator and the other gentlemen gathered around Charlie Marlow as he vocally tells them, within the context of the novella, a long and meandering story. The reader then, too, almost feels as though the story itself is being told to them by a stranger. Narrators are more likely to be seen as trustworthy than individual characters, and Conrad's usage of this frame story allows the reader to be a member of Marlow's audience.

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Heart of Darkness is structured as a story-within-a-story, or a story told by someone to someone else. The narrator, who is unnamed, hears the story second-hand from Marlow, who tells it while their ship is at anchor. This lends the story a certain amount of verisimilitude, or realism; the narrator is not professing the truth of the story himself, but letting that burden fall on Marlow.

We looked on, waiting patiently -- there was nothing else to do till the end of the flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he 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, Heart of Darkness, eNotes eText)

Another effect of the frame-story is to lessen the impact of the atrocities that Kurtz and others have committed. Since the narrator is hearing the story from Marlow, the reader is two levels removed from the personal nature of Marlow's discoveries. This allows a slightly more objective examination of the motivations behind Kurtz's actions, as well as of the other members of the ivory company. By telling rather than showing -- the opposite of most authorial advice -- the reader is invited to focus on the meaning of the work instead of the images and text itself. 

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