What are some examples of a shift in narration between Marlow and the other narrator in Heart of Darkness?

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agrinwald eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The use of a first-person narrator frequently brings to light the question of reliability. Surely we as readers assume that a third-person narrator is reliable, for there's little reason for an author to misrepresent the events of the story. Yet, with a first-person narrator, authors often intentionally give biased, skewed, or otherwise bogus representations of events. In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the readers have to deal not with one narrator, but two. The novella begins with a first-person account by an unnamed narrator who is on a boat with several others. One of the men, Charlie Marlow, begins to entertain the others with a long, meandering story about a previous seafaring excursion. 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...' " (20).

From here, Conrad makes certain to keep the readers aware that the following is coming from Marlow; he begins each line with the proper quotation mark, stylistically showing that the unnamed narrator is still truly the one telling the tale. He's recollecting a recollection, which further alienates the audience and further draws into question the idea of reliability. Marlow often takes brief breaks in the story, where the narrator will tell of one of Marlow's traits.

As the novella progresses, Conrad's structure becomes even more complex as Marlow begins relate dialogue between him and other characters. The narrator seems skeptical of Marlow's tale, and as readers, it becomes difficult not to be skeptical of the narrator's tale as well.

Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The shifts in narrative are because this is a story within a story, sometimes called a "frame" story because the primary story "frames" the secondary story. 

As Heart of Darkness begins, Marlow is sitting on a boat called a "yawl," clearly a sailboat since he refers to the sails.  The narrator describes to the reader the men around him, the "Director of Companies, who is the captain, and "four others," who include Marlow and the narrator himself. Then Marlow speaks:

And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth (67).

At this point, the narrator is telling the reader what Marlow says.  Then the narrator takes over again, telling us about the men's responses.  When Marlow speaks next, the narrator is still telling the story. 

Finally, Marlow begins the story within the story on page 70.  Now we have the narrator telling the reader what Marlow is telling the men.  I believe it is not until page 95 that Marlow stops his tale and the narrator pulls us back to the setting around Marlow, when the narrator says, "He was silent for a while." It is Marlow he is describing. Marlow resumes his story again and has "the last word" on page 99, when the story ends. (I have provided page citations to an on-line version of the story, and the link for that version is below.) 

What effect do you think it has on the reader to hear Marlow's story "filtered" through the narrator?  Do you think the narrator is reliable?  Remember, no one had a tape recorder in those days!    

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Heart of Darkness

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