The Limits of Narrative in Heart of Darkness
Early English novelists depicted a very general reality; that is, what many observed to be "real" is what found its way into the narratives. For example, several novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries emphasize, or entirely revolve around, the idea of social status. Samuel Richardson's Pamela addresses a servant's dilemma between her morals and low social position; the hero of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones must also confront his "low birth." Jane Austen famously portrayed class struggles in nearly every one of her novels. These texts all represented the world at its face; the actions of the characters spoke for their "reality," ...view middle of the document...
For all his dialogue in Heart of Darkness, Marlow's character is remarkably vague. What is known about him comes directly from the man himself, and he gives a sparse biography. As scholar Michael Greaney writes, "Fully fledged characters tend to be fleshed out with personal history, family background, home address; apart from a solitary aunt in Brussels, Marlow has none of these" (Greaney 58). This demonstrates the modernist rejection of realism's conventional characters. We cannot depend upon anyone but the unreliable Marlow himself for background or motives. One might attempt to discern Marlow from his narrative, but as he himself is incomplete, his own words are suspect. There is, of course, the anonymous narrator that frames Marlow's story. However, he reveals little beyond Marlow's status as a "wanderer" and atypical "propensity to spin yarns" (Conrad 3). Before Marlow begins this particular yarn, however, the primary narrator gives a telling word of caution. For Marlow, he explains, "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze. . . ." (3). Marlow's story cannot make a tidy package, and meaning is not conveniently revealed at the conclusion. Rather, meaning hovers about the tale, always obliquely present. The primary narrator gives further warning, saying he and his company aboard the Nellie "knew we were fated . . . to hear about one of Marlow's inconclusive experiences" (5). Thus, there is notice from the outset that the obscure episode will lack a convenient denouement, if it contains one at all. To wit: the narrative to follow deliberately rejects conventional storytelling.
In discussing narrative, we must be aware of the differences between telling a story and writing one. An obstacle to understanding Heart of Darkness is deciding whether to read it as the spontaneous speech of Charlie Marlow or the careful writing of Joseph Conrad. In truth, it is a meld of the two, and one must be conscious of the duality of the work; Conrad meticulously crafted Marlow and his flawed discourse. In his book The Great Tradition, critic F.R. Leavis mistakes the imperfect language of Marlow for weak writing by Conrad. He attacks the author's supposed "adjectival insistence," his term for the misuse of modifiers, in this case negative ones:
"There are . . . places in Heart of Darkness where we become aware of comment as an interposition, and worse, as an intrusion, at times an exasperating one. Hadn't he, we find ourselves asking, overworked 'inscrutable', 'inconceivable', 'unspeakable' and that kind of word already?-yet they still recur. Is anything added to the oppressive mysteriousness of the Congo by such sentences as: 'It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention'?" (Leavis 177)
Leavis answers expectedly that, in fact, nothing is gained: "The actual...