Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness: Frame Story 1 key example

Part 1
Explanation and Analysis:

Heart of Darkness is structured as a frame story (or a story within a story). The novella truly takes place not in the Congo itself, but onboard the ship Nellie in the Thames River, as Marlow tells four other sailors about his travels. Thus, he isn’t talking to the reader, but rather to fellow English sailors: people who might go on voyages like his own, see their expectations similarly dashed, and inadvertently contribute to the evils of European colonialism in the process. One of these other sailors actually narrates the novella’s first few pages and final paragraph. For instance, in Part 1, he introduces Marlow’s story by saying:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

In this passage, the sailor-narrator tells the reader how to interpret Marlow’s story: symbolically, not literally. It may not even be true. And if it is, it’s not really about what happened to Marlow, but rather about what his journey represents about the world in general.

Of course, the same is true of the frame story itself: it says less about Marlow than about the author. Specifically, the frame story creates a second layer of narration that separates Conrad from Marlow. This extra layer makes it harder to assume that Marlow’s story faithfully reflects Conrad’s real experiences from his own 1890 trip to the Congo. Thus, the frame story allows Conrad to distance himself from his protagonist and suggest that Marlow’s thoughts and experiences are more fictional than autobiographical. For instance, nearly all of the novella’s symbolism about light and dark comes from Marlow’s own descriptions, which shows that he is analyzing (and distorting) his own story for the reader.

In fact, Marlow makes a similar point by arguing that his audience can never fully understand his experience. For instance, he compares telling his story to “trying to tell you [the other sailors] a dream,” which is impossible to ever do perfectly because the essence of a dream is the “commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment” that the dreamer feels and the audience usually does not. By showing Marlow tell the other sailors that they can’t understand his experiences, Conrad indirectly tells the reader that they will never understand his experiences, either.

Yet, despite the frame story’s structural importance to the novella, the other sailors seldom intrude on Marlow’s narrative. One of these scarce moments comes in Part 2 after Marlow describes setting out for the Inner Station, but then breaks out into a digression about the meaning of truth and identity:

“Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself.

The “I” in this passage is the sailor-narrator who first introduced Marlow’s story. By pointing out that one of Marlow’s listeners isn’t interested in his philosophy of truth and lies, and that others might have fallen asleep, the narrator again suggests that Marlow’s audience doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take his story at face value.

Part 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Heart of Darkness is structured as a frame story (or a story within a story). The novella truly takes place not in the Congo itself, but onboard the ship Nellie in the Thames River, as Marlow tells four other sailors about his travels. Thus, he isn’t talking to the reader, but rather to fellow English sailors: people who might go on voyages like his own, see their expectations similarly dashed, and inadvertently contribute to the evils of European colonialism in the process. One of these other sailors actually narrates the novella’s first few pages and final paragraph. For instance, in Part 1, he introduces Marlow’s story by saying:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

In this passage, the sailor-narrator tells the reader how to interpret Marlow’s story: symbolically, not literally. It may not even be true. And if it is, it’s not really about what happened to Marlow, but rather about what his journey represents about the world in general.

Of course, the same is true of the frame story itself: it says less about Marlow than about the author. Specifically, the frame story creates a second layer of narration that separates Conrad from Marlow. This extra layer makes it harder to assume that Marlow’s story faithfully reflects Conrad’s real experiences from his own 1890 trip to the Congo. Thus, the frame story allows Conrad to distance himself from his protagonist and suggest that Marlow’s thoughts and experiences are more fictional than autobiographical. For instance, nearly all of the novella’s symbolism about light and dark comes from Marlow’s own descriptions, which shows that he is analyzing (and distorting) his own story for the reader.

In fact, Marlow makes a similar point by arguing that his audience can never fully understand his experience. For instance, he compares telling his story to “trying to tell you [the other sailors] a dream,” which is impossible to ever do perfectly because the essence of a dream is the “commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment” that the dreamer feels and the audience usually does not. By showing Marlow tell the other sailors that they can’t understand his experiences, Conrad indirectly tells the reader that they will never understand his experiences, either.

Yet, despite the frame story’s structural importance to the novella, the other sailors seldom intrude on Marlow’s narrative. One of these scarce moments comes in Part 2 after Marlow describes setting out for the Inner Station, but then breaks out into a digression about the meaning of truth and identity:

“Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself.

The “I” in this passage is the sailor-narrator who first introduced Marlow’s story. By pointing out that one of Marlow’s listeners isn’t interested in his philosophy of truth and lies, and that others might have fallen asleep, the narrator again suggests that Marlow’s audience doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take his story at face value.

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