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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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What is the importance of the frame story in Heart of Darkness?

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The frame story of Heart of Darkness is important in a couple of ways. Conrad tells us the story of the novel through his created middleman, Marlow. In the frame story, Marlow is telling of his voyage up the Congo to a group of sailors, all safely anchored on the calm water of the Thames.

First, the frame narrative creates the minor dramatic irony of the reader being aware of Marlow's fate. After all, we see here that Marlow is alive to tell his tale, so we know that, regardless of what horrors may ensue over the course of the journey, Marlow will emerge relatively unscathed, at least in a physical sense.

More importantly, it allows the reader to question the reliable nature of the narrator. From the onset of the story, the reader is quick to notice that Marlow has an extreme fascination with Kurtz that sometimes seems to border on an obsession. Because of the knowledge that we are hearing the story not only from Marlow's perspective, but as his account, we are forced to distance ourselves from the action and always question the credibility of Marlow as a reliable narrator. By identifying sections that seem embellished or held back, we get a unique view into Marlow's sympathies, prejudices, and overall character.

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The frame narrative is common in Gothic fiction, and in using it, Conrad makes deliberate reference to the genre and its anxieties. By establishing the unnamed narrator as the medium through which we, the readers, receive Marlow's story, Conrad places ultimate control of the novel, as a whole, in the frame narrator's hands. Because we do not hear Marlow's story firsthand, we must interrogate the extent to which our control narrator may be unreliable: in telling Marlow's story to us, has he included everything Marlow included? Has he altered details, or eschewed sections to make Marlow more sympathetic? In choosing to use a frame narrative, Conrad creates a further level of distance and intrigue between the text and the reader, enhancing the enigma of the text and emphasizing its dark Gothic elements.

It is true that in creating a distance between Marlow's narration and the reader, there is some increased level of expectation that we, the reader, should sympathize with Marlow; however, even had Marlow been the straightforward narrator of the text, we would have known he must survive to the end to write up his experiences, so the frame does not lessen tension in this sense. The question of the unreliable narrator would also still have been present with a pure first-person narrative. However, the frame highlights this issue and brings it to the fore: it emphasizes for the reader that, what they are about to hear is a story, told by word-of-mouth and passed from person to person. On the one hand, this increases immediacy: it suggests that Marlow's is a story that any sailor might have heard from a pal who had experienced life in European-controlled Africa, making Marlow an avatar. On the other, it reinforces the idea that Marlow's story and opinions are being channeled through a third party (perhaps representative of Conrad himself), and that his own bias may have been applied.

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At the beginning of Heart of Darkness, an unnamed narrator listens to Marlow aboard a ship in calm waters on the Thames in England, far from Africa. The importance of the frame story is that it allows the reader to experience Marlow's journey along with the narrator. As Marlow tells the tale that convinced him of the evil of imperialism, the narrator--and, by extension, the reader--go along with him and experience Marlow's sense of growing alienation and disenchantment with Kurtz and with European imperialism in Africa. 

The narrator speaks about the bonds of people on the sea when he says the following:

Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns—and even convictions.

This introduction asks the reader to be tolerant of Marlow and to be open minded as he speaks of his experiences in Africa. Therefore, the frame story invites the reader to be an open-minded participant in listening to Marlow's story. The result is that the reader, like the narrator and Marlow, can begin to question the wisdom of formerly accepted truths like the benefits of imperialism. 

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The frame story, in which the world-weary Marlow tells his story to a group of sailors, creates a disconnect between the essential story itself and the reader. The unnamed narrator only interrupts occasionally, never with a critical opinion, just to describe Marlow, and it is almost as if Marlow is speaking directly to the reader. Conrad could have written the story in second-person -- "You listen as Marlow tells his story" -- but chose to add the unnamed narrator for reasons of his own.

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

He was the only man of us who still "followed the sea." The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent his class.
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness, gutenberg.org)

One effect of this style is that the world of the story seems larger than just Marlow's experience. Had Marlow himself been narrating directly, his trauma would have been directly aimed at the reader, not at a specific audience. Instead, it seems that there is a vital and continuing world in the novel outside of Marlow's story; the sense is that the world has continued and will continue long after Marlow has passed from it. Another effect is to remove some of the tension from the worst scenes; Marlow has clearly survived, or he would not be relating his story to others. The reader can relax a little -- but not too much -- knowing that whatever else happens, Marlow gets out alive.

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