Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness begins with a first-person narrator on a yawl in the Thames with four other men. He sets the scene: “…the sky without a speck was a benign immensity of unstained light….” As night arrives, one of the other men, Marlow, begins talking. “‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'”
That interruption is justified by narrator #1. “His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow.”
There is a narrative volley, as Marlow begins again at length, pauses—so we’re told by narrator #1—begins again, breaks off—again we’re told by narrator #1, who gives us another glimpse of the river: “Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames, white flames, pursing, overtaking, joining, crossing each other—.”
Marlow begins again. We’re still on the yawl, listening, and he takes us on a trip up a different river into the African jungle, where, while working for a trading company, he met Mr. Kurtz, another trading company employee, who due to his unorthodox methods for collecting ivory and his great artistic talents has become a myth in his own time.
Lesson: Distinguish narrative voice through diction
Rivers, real and metaphoric, pull us through the story. Marlow’s river is unlike that of narrator #1. Marlow says, “We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, dreams of death in life, whose banks, were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.”
Marlow’s lengthy passages are in quotes, so we know he is the one speaking. But even if they weren’t in quotes, his words describe a river from an altogether darker point of view.
Lesson: Use narrative structure for a story-telling effect
The first narrator occasionally breaks into Marlow’s narration, a device reminding us that Marlow has already returned safely and setting Marlow’s narration in storytelling context, leaving some doubt—is he exaggerating for effect? Natives attack, the jungle teems with menace. It’s Kurtz’s doing; the natives don’t want him to leave. Kurtz, who appears to have lost his sanity, comes on board and dies soon after with Marlow by his side. Kurtz’s last words stay with Marlow: “The horror! The horror!”
Marlow delivers letters to Kurtz’s intended and fudges the truth: he tells her that “The last word he pronounced was—your name.” This is another story within a story, one that makes us aware that truth is subjective, as are stories and the telling of them.
Lesson: Shape narrative structure integral to theme
Marlow’s tale is a meditation on life and death, on greatness and failure. The encased narration gives the effect of going deeper into the layers of the story—the outer layer is the first narrator, the second layer is Marlow, and the third—at the heart—is Kurtz, the pearl in the oyster. Through the layered narration, readers are drawn into the story and witness Kurtz’s death. We are complicit when Marlow lies to Kurtz’s girlfriend about his final words, and we question whether or not we also would have lied.
When narrator #1 at the end takes us out of the story, we feel ourselves leave the rapture of the tale, as if waking from a dream. His description of the Thames reflects how the story has changed his point of view: I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.