The Narrator and the Value of Having a Good One in HoD

January 12, 2021 by Essay Writer

Blanchot’s view of the status of the narrative voice is very pertinent to any discussion of Heart of Darkness. ‘Something indeterminate’ and ‘spectral’ implies a lack of stability and centrality which is rendered strongly in the novel by the use of multiple narrators within a frame narrative structure. This essay will explore each narrative layer in turn and show how each one adds a layer of uncertainty and doubt to the narrative being told. It removes any sense of a fixed centre to the work which belies any attempt to accurately question and interrogate the voice speaking.

The actual ‘I’ in the text is the man sitting on the Nellie listening to Marlow’s voice. However, this ‘I’ is an unknown quantity. Barthes defines character creation as ‘when identical semes traverse the same proper name several times and appear to settle upon it’[1]. However, here no such form is given. It is only the occasional use of ‘I’ that allows us to easily distinguish this first-person narrator from a third person narration. It takes until the fourth paragraph to even establish this ‘I’[2] figure, prior to this the more inclusive and therefore fragmented pronouns ‘us’ and ‘our’ are used. The haziness of this voice has led many to identify this unknown narrator, who barely figures in the novella, as analogous to Joseph Conrad himself.

The novella certainly follows closely the personal experience of Conrad who himself travelled up the Congo river in 1890.[3] This device may have been used to create some distance between himself and the controversial narrative he was telling. The tale is told to the I figure, the Lawyer, and the Accountant, who would have benefitted from colonisation whilst living in ignorance of its excesses. The controversial aspect of the novel begins from Marlow’s first speech, ‘And this […] has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ (1955) ‘Dark’ in the context of the novel is analogous to uncivilized and this is emphasized in subsequent descriptions of the darkness of the Thames to the Roman colonisers, reversing traditional Social Darwinian[4] logic of the Europeans being ‘fitter’ than those they enslave. This implies a cyclical aspect to colonisation, implying that, as the Roman Empire colonised and then fell, so the European Empires and fall, replaced by the very people who were once oppressed. However, this autobiographical reading does not generate clarity and stability to the narrative voice. Instead it simply adds another layer of complication to the voice, where the ‘I’ figure is a battle between multiple persons vying for supremacy in the work. This battle can never be resolved, meaning the narrative ‘I’ is inherently in flux with no fixed centre to refer to.

The instability of the narrative voice is heightened by the fact that the story we hear is told by another character, Marlow. Blanchot argues ‘the narrator is not a historian. His song is the domain where the event that takes place there comes to speech, in the presence of memory.'[5] This implies the power the narrator has to manipulate the story: ‘in the presence’ highlighting that the narrator has no obligation to follow the events as they occurred in his memory. And even these memories will be biased as we see from the phrase ‘it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are.’ (1961) Peter Brooks observes that ‘If Marlow is simply voice, then the authority of his narrative depends wholly on his verbal act, on rhetoric'[6] and it is clear in this case his views of women are creating a bias in his narration, moving the narrative further away from the truth of the situation. This power of interpretation can also be extended to the anonymous ‘I’ in the text who would have the same power to omit and interpret Marlow’s story as Marlow had over his own story. The fact that Marlow literally disappears in the context of the story is emblematic of this narrative power: ‘I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air’. (1972) This sentence has an intoxicating quality to it. The long forty-word sentence draws the reader into the text and keeps them suspended, whilst the language creates a sense of dread. ‘Uneasiness’, ‘seemed’, ‘without’ and ‘dark’ all imply uncertainty and the phrase ‘without human lips’ implies that there is in fact no narrator at all. It emphasises how the narrative voice has no inherent truth beyond its recitation, meaning it is impossible to arrive at one ‘true’ account of the story. This means the narrative voice is inherently ‘indeterminate’, as there was no one truth to which it is referring to.

This unreliability is further highlighted by his failure to follow a traditional narrative structure where we go from a state of mystery to a state of clarity. Barthes asserts that ‘To narrate […] is to raise the question as if it were a subject which one delays predicating; and when the predicate (truth) arrives, […] the narrative, [is] over.’[7] However this ‘hermeneutic code’ does not work for Heart of Darkness, as Marlow fails to offer the reader any resolution to his tale. The inherent mystery created by the first line of dialogue, which serves to catalyze the narrative, is never resolved. A series of what Bathes calls ‘delays […] in the flow of the discourse’[8] are established through the repeated failure to meet Kurtz at stations further and further inland. This delay implies that there is a hermeneutic structure which will lead to a final dispensation of meaning. Even the title suggests this, the word ‘Heart’ implying that there will be a journey towards a discovery at a central point. However, there is no central meaning, and our desire for meaning is mocked by Marlow’s lie to ‘the intended’ about Kurtz last words. To this lie she responds ‘I knew it—I was sure!’… She knew. She was sure.’ (2011) The repetition of her words indicating certainty by the narrator to what we know is a lie creates irony in the passage. She demands meaning from the story and so constructs it through a lie. The fact that the tale has no obvious meaning is foreshadowed early in the novel: ‘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, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.’ (1955) The phrases ‘misty’, ‘glow’ and ‘haze all imply the light is indistinct and not totally visible which is highlighted by the fact that these indistinct hazes are only ‘sometimes’ made visible. The lack of any core also implies it will always be illusive and unobtainable in its totality. The failure of Marlow to follow traditional narrative rules leads his voice to become ‘spectral’, as we attempt to decipher meaning in a text that refuse to offer the reader any easy solutions to the multitude of questions it raises.

David Applebaum argues that ‘The mind redeems absence by explaining how the poem’s voice is mere copy, and saves us by forbidding that we strive after the only apparently real’[9]. However this does not apply to the voice of Heart of Darkness. Instead of forbidding that we strive, the spectral nature of the narrative voice invites us to search ever deeper for meaning, trying to get to the centre of the ‘kernel’ or ‘heart’ to uncover it. However, this search for meaning through an interrogation of the various voices of the novella is inherently cyclical and can never be truly resolved, leading to a narrative voice that is inherently ‘spectral’.

[1] Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. by Richard Miller (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990), p. 67.

[2] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 9th edn, Vol. F, (New York: Norton, 2012) p. 1953. All further references to Heart of Darkness will be to this edition, with page numbers indicated parenthetically.

[3] John G Peters, The Cambridge introduction to Joseph Conrad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 4.

[4] The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, Social Darwinism (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014), <> [accessed 10 November 2016].

[5] Maurice Blanchot, The gaze of Orpheus, and other literary essays, trans. by Lydia Davis (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1981), p. 135,1.

[6] Peter Brooks, Reading for the plot: Design and intention in narrative, 4th edn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 295.

[7] Barthes, p. 76.

[8] Ibid.

[9] David Appelbaum, Voice (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), p. 122.


Primary Works Conrad, Joseph Heart of Darkness, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 9th edn, Vol. F (New York: Norton, 2012)

Secondary Works Appelbaum, David, Voice (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990)

Barthes, Roland, S/Z, trans. by Richard Miller (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990)

Blanchot, Maurice, The gaze of Orpheus, and other literary essays, trans. by Lydia Davis (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1981)

Brooks, Peter, Reading for the plot: Design and intention in narrative, 4th edn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992)

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, Social Darwinism (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014), <> [accessed 10 November 2016]

Peters, John G, The Cambridge introduction to Joseph Conrad (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

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