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Since Marlow's tale is told aloud, Conrad makes his prose resemble a speaking voice. Thus we get pauses, hesitations, repetitions, digressions-all of which we normally associate with a speaker, not a writer. You get the sense of Marlow being at times completely absorbed by his memories, at others becoming abstracted and letting his mind wander; of his constantly trying to understand the meaning of his own tale. He is remarkably (sometimes painfully) wordy, testing a formulation, then backing off and trying another, until he's reached one he feels satisfied with. It's almost as if he wants to trap his worst memories in a soft cocoon of words.
Conrad's so-called impressionist method lets us experience Marlow's sensations along with him. The author mounts detail on detail before finally putting them all together to find their significance. For example, at the Inner Station where Marlow has gone to retrieve Kurtz, he spies six posts with ornamental balls on top and assumes that they must be the remainder of some kind of fence. Later, looking through a telescope, the balls come into focus and he realizes they're human heads. We experience his misperception as well as his sudden revelation, and even the revelation comes in stages: first his surprise-"its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow" (Chapter III)- and then his deduction. So we take part in the mental process. This kind of immediacy, this emphasis on sensation, makes the jungle seem very real, and it's particularly effective during such episodes as the attack on the steamer.
But it has a further implication. The emphasis is on what you can know with your senses-these facts are reliable. Marlow, of course, is constantly examining his sensations to find the meaning in them, expressing opinions and doubts, but seldom coming to firm conclusions. Marlow's experiences, as the narrator tells us (Chapter I), are "inconclusive," and for such inconclusiveness Conrad's impressionist style is appropriate.
POINT OF VIEW
Marlow is clearly Conrad's alter ego; his opinions don't differ significantly from what we know about the author's own. But Marlow has tremendous importance as a literary device. By using an actual speaking sailor to tell the story, Conrad goes just about as far away as you can get from the typical 19th-century novel's omniscient narratorthe all-knowing voice of an impersonal author who told you not only what happened to the characters but also what went on in their minds. We're never allowed to know more than Marlow himself, and Marlow knows only what he perceives through his senses. Thus, we're never directly told what motivated, say, the manager or Kurtz. Instead, we get Marlow's speculations on what their motivations might have been.
What's most unusual about the point of view in Heart of Darkness isn't the use of Marlow as narrator, but that his tale is framed by the narration of another, nameless observer. As a result, Marlow's whole story appears somewhat cumbersomely enclosed in quotation marks. Why couldn't Conrad just make Marlow the primary narrator and drop the nameless voice at the beginning and the end?
One reason is that by having Marlow in front of us on the cruising yawl Nellie, we feel the immediacy of his speaking voice, we get the actual sensation of a crusty sailor spinning a yarn before us. If Conrad had written the whole novel in the first person, dispensing with the primary narrator, he'd have ended up with a more "writerly" book, in which Marlow's hesitations and digressions-which are such an important element in the style-would have no place. We would also miss the feeling that Marlow was working out the meaning of his tale as he went along, and that we were a part of that process. A writer, unlike a talker, usually has things worked out beforehand.
The meaning of the novel lies not only in what happened in Africa, but also in Marlow's conviction that he has to tell others about these events as a kind of warning. The representative Victorians aboard the Nellie need to be told about the threat of the darkness, the threat to progress and enlightenment, because for the most part the Victorian world hadn't acknowledged that threat. By putting his audience, especially the primary narrator, on the deck of the Nellie with Marlow, Conrad emphasizes this warning aspect of Marlow's tale-and its effect on his listeners.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
Heart of Darkness is structured as a journey of discovery, both externally in the jungle, and internally in Marlow's own mind. The deeper he penetrates into the heart of the jungle, the deeper he delves within himself; by the climax, when Kurtz has been revealed for the disgrace he is, Marlow has also learned something about himself. And he returns to civilization with this new knowledge.
Formally, Heart of Darkness looks forward to many of the developments of the modern novel-most notably the fracturing of time. Marlow doesn't tell his tale straight through from beginning to end; he'll skip from an early event to a late event and back again. Thus, we get several pages about Kurtz-Marlow's impressions and evaluation of his behavior-close to the end of Chapter II, but Kurtz himself doesn't appear on the scene until some way into Chapter III. Nor would a typical 19th-century narrator interrupt a buildup of suspense like the depiction of the boat waiting to be attacked in the fog with a lengthy digression on cannibalism and self-restraint. But Marlow does. He's describing the fog and the fright of the white pilgrims on board, which leads him to recall the reactions of the black Africans on board, and suddenly he's off on a tangent about cannibalism that brings the development of the action to a complete halt. In a more traditional novel this passage would have been reserved for a more appropriate place, for example, when the author first introduced the cannibals. But Marlow imparts his thoughts as they occur to him.
Conrad was trying to find a form that more closely followed the contours of human thought-a less artificial form than the traditional novel. (Later novelists notably James Joyce and William Faulkner, took these experiments with fractured time and space much further.) Hence the forward and backward leaps, the interruptions, the thoughts left dangling.