The most distinctive stylistic features in Heart of Darkness include Conrad’s rich but brief sensory descriptions, intentional use of ambiguity, and deliberate distortion of time. All of these elements help him bring the reader along on Marlow’s journey. While the novella does have a distinct narrator besides Marlow, nearly all of it consists of Marlow telling other sailors his story in his own voice. As a result, the rhythm of human speech dominates the novella. Like a real human storyteller, Marlow speaks in short, loosely connected phrases, which he often organizes into long, plodding sentences. For instance, he describes approaching the Company’s Outer Station by recalling:
At last we opened a reach. A rocky cliff appeared, mounds of turned-up earth by the shore, houses on a hill, others with iron roofs, amongst a waste of excavations, or hanging to the declivity.
In passages like this one, rather than giving the reader a complete overview of the action, Conrad puts them in Marlow’s shoes by presenting them with Marlow’s perceptions in real time. He frequently blends these perceptions with Marlow’s thoughts and feelings about what he sees. This is key to the novella’s overall structure, which depends on the reader gradually realizing, in parallel with Marlow, that colonization is a corrupt, greed-driven enterprise rather than a noble civilizing mission. Indeed, this is why scholars often consider Heart of Darkness to be a classic example of literary impressionism, a writing style that focuses on characters’ subjective perceptions (or “impressions”) of the world. And it’s also why Conrad frequently uses ambiguous descriptions and vivid symbolism around light and darkness to hint at the outcome of Marlow’s journey, without simply giving away the book’s conclusion.
Yet, while Marlow often presents details like these in real time, he also sometimes skips over huge portions of his journey when they aren’t relevant to his story. Just as easily as a long sentence can capture mere moments in this novella, a short one can also capture months. For instance, after explaining how he learned that he had to wait three months for his steamship to be repaired, Marlow merely tells his listeners, “Oh, these months! Well, never mind. Various things happened.” He includes a few anecdotes from this time, but for the most part, he cuts to the chase. In fact, readers can easily miss transitions like these, because Marlow’s voice tends to move at the same pace, even as his storytelling sometimes lurches forward and sometimes dwells on particular events for far longer than his actual experience of them would have lasted. While Marlow’s story jumps around erratically through time, he speaks in a continuous, unbroken flow, which (like the Congo River) carries him and the reader forward, gradually but inevitably, towards Kurtz. Conrad uses this disconnect between the pace of Marlow’s storytelling and the pace of his actual story to unsettle the reader and remind them that the Congo is a treacherous, “unearthly” place.