Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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How does the shifting point of view in Heart of Darkness help the reader discover the narrator's psychological being?  

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Margarete Abshire eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The "narrator" of Heart of Darkness is a little complicated to pin down. Most of the novel is in the form of a story Marlow tells to a circle of colleagues, one of whom is the narrator, who, in turn, ostensibly "reports" what Marlow is saying. In this sense, we never have any words from Marlow directly; everything he says is reported to us by this first narrator. In a way, then, Marlow's tale is the narrator's. This makes it hard to separate what the narrator might think about the story and what purpose, if any, Marlow might have in telling it. The narrator remarks when Marlow begins that "we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow's inconclusive experiences," suggesting first that Marlow was known to tell stories like this and that they tended to be "inconclusive," which is another way of saying "confusing" or even "pointless."

This kind of narrative setup raises all sorts of questions about the reliability of the narrator and the information he gives us about Marlow and his story. Beyond that, there is a sense in which Conrad's strategy is to circumvent his narrator in a way; to the extent the reader becomes absorbed in Marlow's tale, she becomes another of the circle listening to him aboard the Nellie, opening the narrator's attitudes about Marlow and indeed the whole beginning of the book to interrogation.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think that it is deliberate on Conrad's part to not give us a point of view where psychological totality is present. In my mind, one of Conrad's fundamental points in his novel is the danger that lurks with a totalizing vision of absolutism, and the terror it can impose.  Kurtz and European "enlightenment" were seen in this totalizing light and the result was disastrous for both the indigenous people of the Congo and for Kurtz, himself.  Conrad avoids this same trap with presenting a point of view framework that consists of many voices, and not one becoming a source of totality. There is Marlow, whose voice is most dominant.  There is also the narrator who opens the story, and who allows Marlow's voice to become evident.  There is also Conrad, himself, who brings all of these voices to the forefront. In the end, there is no singular narrator, no force of totality.  Rather, there are multiple voices and there is a level of incompleteness in all of them, leaving it up to the reader to assess in their own mind which is most reliable.  In constructing his narrative in this manner, Conrad has been able to accomplish a significant achievement in both style and theme.

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