Heart of Darkness

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One of the five men on the ship in the Thames, he is the one who relays to the reader Marlow's story about Kurtz and the Congo. He is insightful, and seems to understand Marlow quite well, but otherwise has little personality. He does seem to be affected by Marlow's story.

Narrator Quotes in Heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness quotes below are all either spoken by Narrator or refer to Narrator. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Colonialism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of Heart of Darkness published in 1990.
Part 1 Quotes
The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth... Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!...The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires.
Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

At the novel’s onset the narrator reflects on the significance of the River Thames. The Thames flows through London to the Atlantic Ocean, so it has served as the connector between the capital of England and the rest of the world. He focuses, here, on the English citizens engaged in exploration and imperialism, and tends to aggrandize the dreams and pursuits he describes.

Rivers are important and complicated symbols throughout Heart of Darkness, and the narrator presents the Thames as “unruffled” and possessing a “tranquil dignity.” It is a placid and consistent force that contrasts with the movement of both Londoners and the “hunters” who journey forth. Yet the river also plays the boundary role between its “ebb" and the earth's “mystery.” So the same calm and indifferent water described here is also responsible for the violent colonial events treated later in the text.

The narrator’s opening reflections on English colonials reveal his position to be generally positive, even laudatory. Though he touches on potential sins of avarice (“gold”) and vanity (“fame”), he casts their actions in the language of missionaries who bring something inherently positive and enlightening from “the sacred fire” of England. The fire imagery contrasts notably with the dark and aquatic Thames, highlighting the bright but short-lived energy of human pursuits in comparison to the cool stability of nature. The symbols shift once more in the final line, from sparks to “seed” and “germs,” demonstrating a belief that these emissaries will be the origin points for positive developments wherever they travel. These images will repeatedly be called into question throughout the novel, so it is important to note how Conrad sets up the narrator as generally affirming of colonialism at the onset of the text.


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Part 3 Quotes
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dark and White
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In its final moments, the text steps outside of Marlow’s story and returns to the frame narrative. The narrator ruminates once more on the surrounding landscape, yet his imagery deviates sharply from the one used to open the text.

Whereas the narrator had previously used metaphors of fire and sparks to describe the Enlightenment brought by Europeans to distant lands, here he focuses on images of darkness: the alliterative “black bank” that “barred” the offing; the waterway that “flowed sombre”; the “overcast sky.” As Marlow told his story, the light aboard the ship gradually darkened, and here that literal and metaphorical obscuring reaches its conclusion. The waterway is no longer the route to sharing London’s brilliance, but rather only carries the darkness of England into the darknesses of distant lands. No real distinction can be made between civilized and uncivilized.

Yet despite this lack of light, the Thames is still deemed “tranquil,” a consistency that reiterates once more the scale of the natural world in comparison to those existing among it. Though the narrator may now see colonial pursuits as more horrific, the water will stay consistent. Note, too, the addition of “immense” to the title “heart of darkness.” At the novel's end, the narrator implies that the horror of the Congo is not simply located at its core. Rather, it is an extensive, perhaps universal, darkness that can be found at any point on the globe.

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Narrator Character Timeline in Heart of Darkness

The timeline below shows where the character Narrator appears in Heart of Darkness. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
The Narrator describes the scene from the deck of a ship named Nellie as it rests at... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
In silence they watch the sunset, and the Narrator remembers the fabled ships and men of English history who set sail from the Thames... (full context)
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
...who see and know him, can at least "see more than I could then." The Narrator observes that it was now so dark they couldn't see Marlow at all. (full context)
Part 3
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Marlow, on the Nellie still at anchor in the Thames, goes quiet. The Narrator looks off into the distance, and says that the Thames seems to lead to the... (full context)