Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness: Flashbacks 1 key example

Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—Marlow's Story:

Most of Heart of Darkness consists of one massive flashback: Charles Marlow tells a group of other sailors about his trip to the Congo several years before. Just like other works of fiction use flashbacks to explain a character’s personal history and motivations, Heart of Darkness tells Marlow’s story through flashbacks in order to emphasize how his time in the Congo turned him from a starry-eyed idealist into the bitter cynic he is today. In fact, he seems to dwell on his time in the Congo even though he knows that his audience probably doesn’t care, which suggests that he’s still haunted by it. This is evident in Part 1:

“I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,” [Marlow] began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would like best to hear; “yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the poor chap.”

Of course, Marlow’s experience reflects Joseph Conrad’s own journey to the Congo, and Conrad’s decision to write this book suggests that this trip continued to haunt him, too. Yet the novella is also full of other flashbacks within Marlow’s flashback. For instance, Marlow mostly learns about Kurtz through stories he hears from other people, like the Russian Trader in Part 3:

I suppose Kurtz wanted an audience, because on a certain occasion, when encamped in the forest, they had talked all night, or more probably Kurtz had talked. ‘We talked of everything,’ he [the Russian Trader] said, quite transported at the recollection. ‘I forgot there was such a thing as sleep.'

Stories like the Russian’s brief flashback seriously distort Marlow’s perceptions: they lead him to idolize Kurtz, then feel disappointed when Kurtz turns out to be a terminally ill lunatic. Of course, there’s an obvious parallel between Kurtz’s evening conversations with the Russian and Marlow’s evening conversation with the other sailors. Thus, this flashback raises the possibility that Marlow is also distorting the truth through his flashbacks—something that none of his listeners (or readers) can ever confirm. In short, beyond telling Marlow’s story through flashbacks in order to illustrate how glimpsing the depths of human evil can change a person forever, Conrad also uses flashbacks within Marlow’s story in order to challenge Marlow’s reliability as a storyteller.

Part 3
Explanation and Analysis—Marlow's Story:

Most of Heart of Darkness consists of one massive flashback: Charles Marlow tells a group of other sailors about his trip to the Congo several years before. Just like other works of fiction use flashbacks to explain a character’s personal history and motivations, Heart of Darkness tells Marlow’s story through flashbacks in order to emphasize how his time in the Congo turned him from a starry-eyed idealist into the bitter cynic he is today. In fact, he seems to dwell on his time in the Congo even though he knows that his audience probably doesn’t care, which suggests that he’s still haunted by it. This is evident in Part 1:

“I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,” [Marlow] began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would like best to hear; “yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the poor chap.”

Of course, Marlow’s experience reflects Joseph Conrad’s own journey to the Congo, and Conrad’s decision to write this book suggests that this trip continued to haunt him, too. Yet the novella is also full of other flashbacks within Marlow’s flashback. For instance, Marlow mostly learns about Kurtz through stories he hears from other people, like the Russian Trader in Part 3:

I suppose Kurtz wanted an audience, because on a certain occasion, when encamped in the forest, they had talked all night, or more probably Kurtz had talked. ‘We talked of everything,’ he [the Russian Trader] said, quite transported at the recollection. ‘I forgot there was such a thing as sleep.'

Stories like the Russian’s brief flashback seriously distort Marlow’s perceptions: they lead him to idolize Kurtz, then feel disappointed when Kurtz turns out to be a terminally ill lunatic. Of course, there’s an obvious parallel between Kurtz’s evening conversations with the Russian and Marlow’s evening conversation with the other sailors. Thus, this flashback raises the possibility that Marlow is also distorting the truth through his flashbacks—something that none of his listeners (or readers) can ever confirm. In short, beyond telling Marlow’s story through flashbacks in order to illustrate how glimpsing the depths of human evil can change a person forever, Conrad also uses flashbacks within Marlow’s story in order to challenge Marlow’s reliability as a storyteller.

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