Art of Narration in the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness is based on Conrad’s own experiences in the dark country known as the Congo which is itself at the heart of a dark continent. Although the novel has an autobiographical character, it is not just a straightforward narrative of his own voyage upon the Congo River. The main story of the book is told by a fictitious character having the name of Marlow, and the story told by Marlow is introduced by an initial narrator who can be identified as Conrad himself. Thus the actual story is placed at a double remove – it looks like a story within a story.The technique of having an autonomous narrator inside the covering narrative is an old one. Conrad has used this technique in all his novels. What we have to note is that Conrad’s own experiences have been attributed to the narrator Marlow. In other words, Marlow’s account of his experiences in the Dark Continent is largely Conrad’s own. In the year 1890, Conrad had sailed upon the river Congo as the captain of a Belgian steamship. Heart of Darkness is more or less a record of his experiences in the Congo.
Heart of Darkness employs mostly an expository narrative technique. We take the journey into the darkest region of the Dark Continent along with Marlow. As Marlow explores the spaces of the Dark Continent, he also probes the depth of his unknown self to discover what is real. Two journeys run side by side – one is the horizontal journey in the time and space, more specifically down the River Congo which is narrated in a realistic manner. But there is another story of another journey narrated in a symbolical manner. Sometimes the two narratives – the realistic and the symbolic run side by side. The description of the setting of the forest is largely symbolical and with his inimitable poetic language, Conrad has evoked the atmosphere of suspense, fear, romance and foreboding and. The setting helps the narrative and in almost all Conrad’s famous novels, the sea and the river provide the setting.The seas with its vastness, the river with its never-ending mystery, serve as a background for the unfolding of human drama.
Conrad’s narrative begins on the Thames, on the Yawl-Nellie. He gives a short prologue with subtle use of imagery and brilliant evocation of atmosphere. On the Thames, “The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance.” Conrad creates a perfect setting for the awesome and troubling story of Marlow’s discovery by stressing the calm, serenity of the river on which the story is being told.
Marlow’s first close contact with the natives at the company station has been described with wonderful accuracy. Marlow’s first impression is one of horror and wretchedness. These are powerful scenes heightened in their effect by the description of the aggressive fertile activity of the colonialists – the pointless blasting of the cliff, the vast purposeless hole, and the decaying machinery. Marlow’s discovery of the grove of death with the host of dying black people is prepared by Conrad’s astonishing use of the imagery of nature. The scene of human misery is set against the stillness of the surrounding; “I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the mournful stillness of the grove, where breath stirred, not a leaf moved, with mysterious sound.” The deep jungle with its uncanny mystery comes alive with Marlow’s description of his two-hundred-mile tramp to the central station: “A great silence around and above perhaps one some quiet night, the ferry of the far-off-done sinking, swelling, a tremor vast faint; a sound wearied, appealing, suggestive and wild.” This kind of evocative language takes the readers to the heart of a dream or nightmare. Conrad keeps an atmosphere of ominous foreboding by his poetic description. He never spells out what the actual threat Marlow is afraid of, he rather keeps it vague and, therefore, menacing. The whole atmosphere is fetid with the smell of decomposing humanity.
Conrad’s narrative power evokes the whole atmosphere with graphics sharpness. The suspense that Conrad creates around the figure of Mr. Kurtz is remarkable. Marlow’s meeting with Kurtz, Kurtz’s death with the word, “The horror! The horror!” keeps the readers spellbound. In both the narration of the main outline of the story and in the evocation of necessary atmosphere, Conrad shows his mastery over the art of narration.