Critical Essays Use of the Frame Tale


First-time readers of Heart of Darkness may be initially puzzled by Conrad's decision to have Marlow's story told to the reader by the anonymous narrator who listens to Marlow on the deck of the Nellie. Such a reader may wonder why Conrad would make Heart of Darkness a frame tale at all and not simply begin with Marlow telling the story, as many first-person narratives do. The reason is that Conrad's frame narrator, like the reader, learns that his ideas about European imperialism are founded on a number of lies that he has wholeheartedly believed. By the end of the novel, Marlow's tale significantly changes the narrator's attitude toward the ships and men of the past.

Heart of Darkness begins not on a steamboat fighting its way upriver in the Congo, but on the deck of a "cruising yawl" — a boat used more for domestic trade than overseas imperial conquests. All is still: The sails do not flutter, the tide has subsided and the wind is "nearly calm." Immediately the reader sees a contrast between the serene European setting and the chaotic and threatening African landscape described later.

The narrator begins speaking as the day is drawing to a close; his descriptions of the sky and weather suggest both beauty and mystery. While his descriptions contribute to the atmosphere aboard the Nellie, they also reflect the moral "haze" and "mist" in which Marlow finds himself as he journeys closer and closer to Kurtz. The afternoon is thus like the tale that Marlow will tell: ambiguous, brooding, and, above all, "dark."

Note that the narrator remarks that for Marlow, "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the talk which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze." This is an important description of Marlow's — and, by extension, Conrad's — technique: Heart of Darkness is as much "about" a man's witnessing horror as much as it concerns the same man's struggle to put his experiences into words. The way that Marlow tells his tale, therefore, is as much a part of the novel as the tale itself. Sentences such as this description of the jungle — "It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention" — and this one about Kurtz's Report to the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs — "It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence" — thus demonstrate Marlow's inability to fully articulate the exact meaning of what he saw in the Congo. Like the sky above the Nellie, Marlow's language sometimes becomes "hazy" and fails to illuminate the very subjects that his language is presumably trying to clarify.

Before Marlow speaks, however, Conrad allows the reader to glimpse the narrator's values and assumptions. He first speaks of the Thames as a "venerable stream" that exists to perform "unceasing service" to those who have tamed it: "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." To the narrator, nature exists to serve mankind, especially mankind's commerce and trade. This idea of mankind's dominance over the earth is questioned by Marlow later in the novel, as he looks out at the jungle and asks, "What were we that had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn't talk, and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there?" Conrad's reason for framing Marlow's narrative thus begins to become apparent: The narrator's values and assumptions are challenged — although indirectly — by Marlow's story, and the reader is meant to perceive these two points-of-view as two different understandings of man's relationship to the natural world and the people in it. Although the narrator states that the Thames leads "to the uttermost ends of the earth," he never imagines that his civilized London could ever have been (as Marlow calls it), "one of the dark places of the earth."

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