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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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What is the narrative mode of Heart of Darkness?

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This mode is called a "frame" story, meaning that there is a story within a story being told. A narrator relates the events that frame Marlow's story, which is about a group of men sitting on a boat on the Thames telling tales of their travels. Then the narrator introduces Marlow's story, which is told in first person by Marlow, filtered through the unknown narrator. Does this make a difference in Marlow's tale? Has the narrator reported Marlow's first person account faithfully and completely?  Does it make a difference to Marlow's story that Marlow's audience is a group of experienced men of the sea?  Conrad made a deliberate choice in telling his tale as a frame story, and you will want to consider what effect this has on the tale. 

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Concerning the narrative mode in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," the enotes Study Guide on the work says the following:

Point of View
Heart of Darkness is framed as a story within a story. The point of view belongs primarily to Charlie Marlow, who delivers the bulk of the narrative, but Marlow's point of view is in turn framed by that of an unnamed narrator who provides a first-person description of Marlow telling his story. The point of view can also be seen in a third consciousness in the book, that of Conrad himself, who tells the entire tale to the reader, deciding as author which details to put in and which to leave out. Beyond these three dominant points of view are the individual viewpoints of the book's major characters. Each has a different perspective on Kurtz. These perspectives are often conflicting and are always open to a variety of interpretations. Whose point of view is to be trusted? Which narrator and which character is reliable? Conrad leaves these questions to the reader to answer, accounting for the book's complexity and multilayered meanings.

The work is a frame story, then, in which the setting serves as the vehicle by which stories are told.  Rather than a single narrator telling the story, the story is told by characters within the story.  This leads to the "complexity and multilayered meanings," which, of course, lead to much discussion and analysis. 

By the way, if you need a comparison, Chaucer also uses this technique in The Canterbury Tales.

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Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is told in the first person narrative. That means the story is told by one character or speaker (the narrator) who refers to himself/herself using the first person pronouns "I "(singular) or "we" (plural). This form of narration lends itself well to exciting, action-filled stories like this novel because a sense of realism is conveyed - the narrator was actually there. The narrator is involved in the action, as opposed to third person narrative, where the narrator reports on what happened in an impersonal way ("he" did this, "they" did that, not "I" did this).

The main character and the narrator in Heart of Darkness, is Marlow, a sailor who is sent on a voyage down the Congo to find a man named Kurtz, a legendary and mysterious ivory trader. The novel is sometimes called a story within a story because many things happen within the main story of searching for "Mista Kurtz."

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How can I write a note on the narrative mode in the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?

This novel uses a "frame" to tell the story. What does that mean? It means that there is a story within a story.  We have the story of the men all sitting around reminscing, plus the story of the journey upriver, narrated in the first person by Marlow, but being told to this group of men. As Marlow speaks, the reader does not know who is relating what he says.  All we know is that the person who is telling us the story of Marlow telling the story is in this group of men.  This means that we are learning about the setting from the unknown narrator and learning about Marlow's journey filtered through the eyes and ears of the unknown narrator. 

Does this narrative device affect your reading of the story? This is a question that you might want to address in your "note."  Is the unknown narrator reliable? Does he accurately set forth what Marlow has to say?  Furthermore, you might want to think about whether Marlow is reliable.

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