Critical Essays Use of the Frame Tale


Such a contrast between the narrator and Marlow's attitudes is more readily seen in the way the narrator speaks of what he sees as England's glorious past. According to him, the Thames is a river that has served the nation in efforts of both trade and exploration. The narrator finds glory and pride in his nation's past, assured in his knowledge that "knight-errants" of the sea have brought "sparks from the sacred fire" of civilization to the most remote corners of the earth. While these "knights" may have resorted to the "sword," they have also passed the "torch," and, in doing so, made the world a more prosperous and civilized place. (Recall the painting by Kurtz that Marlow sees at the Central Station.) The narrator knows the men and their ships and speaks of them in a reverential tone. Europe's past is the history of brave adventurers conquering the unknown, and, in the process, transforming "the dreams of men" into "the seeds of commonwealths" and "the germs of empires."

Clearly, this vision of Europe as a civilizing and "torch-bearing" force does not accord with Marlow's portrayal of it in his narrative. While institutions like the Company may ostensibly wish to help the less fortunate peoples of the earth (as Kurtz's Report to the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs and his painting in the Accountant's office suggest), Marlow learns that the narrator's version of imperialism is a lie. The Europeans he meets are not "knight-errants" but "faithless pilgrims"; the Company does not bring a "spark from that sacred fire," but death, and instead of a bright "jewel," flashing "in the night of time," the Company is a "rapacious" and "weak-eyed devil." Marlow's story thus challenges the reader — who may hold some of the same opinions as the narrator — to view the men of the Company not as men engaged in a great mission, but instead as men engaged in "a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares."

At the end of the novel Marlow's tale has significantly changed the narrator's attitude toward European imperialism. The narrator compares him to "a meditating Buddha" — clearly he has been touched by Marlow's teachings. While the Director of Companies remarks, "We have lost the flow of the ebb" because he wants to break the uncomfortable silence created by the power of Marlow's story, the narrator has been too affected by Marlow's ideas, and his enlightenment affects his description of what he sees as he looks at the Thames: a dark river leading to "an immense darkness."

The Director of Companies remains aloof, since his living is made presumably by the same horrific processes that Marlow has just described. Only the narrator — and the reader — understand Marlow's initial point: "Civilized" Europe was once also a "dark place," and it has only become more morally dark through the activities of institutions such as the Company.

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