Garry Gillard > writing > lectures >

Narration and Narrative Structure

Garry Gillard, 1976, 1978

I gave more or less this lecture at Murdoch University on this topic in 1976 and again in 1978. There is also a chapter in my 2003 book, Empowering Readers, on Conrad's novella.

My purpose in this lecture is to say something about Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and in so doing to suggest the use of some critical tools which may be of use to you in thinking about narrative. I'd like to begin with a quotation from The Nature of Narrative by Scholes and Kellogg: "For writing to be narrative, no more than a teller and a tale are required." I want to look at these two aspects of narrative, at the teller and the tale, at the process by which the world of the tale is presented, and at the imagined world which is created in the tale. I want to call these two aspects of narrative presentational process and presented world. Let us look first at some aspects of the process, beginning with the primary stratum: the material level.

When we hold a book in our hands (thinking now of written narrative) we are dealing with an artefact, an object of a certain size containing pages with black print on them, which we must scan in a certain way in order to decode the message. We may become aware immediately of the size of the book and of the narrative(s) which it contains. In the case of Heart of Darkness, we notice that the story does not seem to be long enough to be what we think of as a 'novel', but clearly it is not a 'short story' either. However, we are not deterred, because we know that we can put a printed story down at any time and pick it up again when it is convenient. We also know that we can read fast or slowly, reread passages, and even look ahead to the end to see if they get married or not. We will usually take the print level for granted, unless the print size is very large, as if for learners or myopics, or too small, causing eye strain; but whether we suspend our natural attitude and become aware of these factors or not, the fact remains that this material level is an essential stage in comprehension.

Turning our attention to the next level of the text, the level of the words and their combination into clauses and sentences, we become aware of a narrator or a narrative situation. When we begin reading Heart of Darkness, we soon notice that the narrator is involved in the story to the extent at least that he is telling it in the first-person. Of course, it is not long before his narrative gives way to Marlow's, which is also given in the first-person, but we are reminded throughout of the mediation of the first narrator by the presence of inverted commas at the commencement of each paragraph, as well as by the occasional interruption. Because of the way in which the first narrative encloses the other, it may be called the frame-tale. The first-person situation is of course not the only mode of narration. Other important possibilities are: authorial narrative situation, when the narrator is felt to be viewing the action from outside; and figural narration, when the point of view is consistently within one of the actors, or personae. It must be added that it is often the case that the situation shifts from one of these basic situations to another, frequently even within the sentence.

Another consideration is the position of the narrator in space and time in relation to the action: its spatial and temporal locus. The case of Heart of Darkness is complex, in that there are two narrative situations. In the frame-tale the unnamed narrator looks back from an undetermined time to the evening when he heard the story told by Marlow, the narrator of the central action, who in turn looks back a number of years to an earlier part of his life. It is fruitful to consider the degrees of distance between the central events and the reader, and the effect that this has on his reading of them. Any story is mediated in the telling by some apparatus - at its simplest a single "voice". In Heart of Darkness there are several degrees of mediation. What we know of what happened in Kurtz's mind at the "midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites" was "reluctantly gathered from what [he] heard at various times" by Marlow, interpreted by him, and told some years afterwards to the frame narrator, who later, we imagine, writes it in its present form. It can easily be seen how the qualities of distance and indeterminacy will influence the kinds of interpretation available to the reader.

Due to the distance in time between the action and the narrative and to the fact that we are dealing here with first-person narration, it is possible to distinguish a special kind of distance: that between what we may call the experiencing and narrating selves of the narrator. There is a fruitful disparity between the youthful ideals of the young Marlow as he begins his voyage and the views of the disillusioned narrator.

This is a small example of the way in which tone can control meaning.  The question of tone is of special interest in this story; quite a lot of criticism has concentrated on this aspect, and some critics have felt that Conrad has strained too much in his melodramatic use of an excessively emotional tone to create an impressive effect. The author himself has commented on its special use of tone (in his Preface to "Youth"): "That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck". But, pace Conrad, before making judgments of value about its use, one should consider whose is the voice and what is the context and what other factors are interrelated. The voice telling the main story is not author's, but the persona Marlow's, and should be judged accordingly. One factor which provides contextual control, for example, is the tone of the frame narrator, which is contrasting, and interesting to compare.

Turning to the presented world of Conrad's story, one notices the significant part played by aspects of space, whose importance the narration makes quite explicit. The overall spatialization of the narrative is indicated by the references to the maps of Africa, three in all, which Marlow sees at various times. The large plan of the action is a cyclical journey, a journey of discovery and return. The starting-point is 'civilization' where one lives with a "butcher round one corner, a policeman round another"; but the point of entry to the quest itself is the city like a "white sepulchre" where Marlow passes through what he sees as the portals of Darkness, guarded by the two knitters of black wool. After this initiation the hero is ready to proceed on his voyage of discovery.

Evocation of spatial details on the voyage up the river seems to be of two kinds. Compare for example the quite precise descriptions of the steamboat, the helmsman and the African woman with phrases like "the mute heavy spell of the wilderness" and "Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest". There is on the one hand a pragmatic desire to explain as clearly as possible the appearance and nature of all the factors involved, while on the other there is an awareness of large areas of experience which are indescribable and unspeakable, though the attempt to convey them must be made somehow. As Marlow says, in connexion with his close attention to detail in keeping the steamboat going: "When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality - the reality, I tell you fades. The inner truth is hidden - luckily, luckily."

Aspects of time and space are closely related. In Heart of Darkness time is treated with a similar kind of relativism. It would be necessary to study the expansion and contraction of periods of narrating time, and their relationship with high-level interpretation. One special point to note is the factor of anticipation: Marlow's narrative often foreshadows its eventual disclosures, particularly in relation to the hollowness of Kurtz and the lie to his Intended.

The action of a literary work of art is simply all the events, both physical and mental. It might be fruitful to consider which of these is more evident in Heart of Darkness. Certainly there is a stratum of physical action, but it is often delayed by the interruption of mental reviewing and anticipation, and at certain significant points neither kind of action predominates. It is worth mentioning that there is only one strand of events in the work, which follow one another in chronological sequence. However, a number of phases are clearly discernible: Brussels, the downriver station, the attack, Marlow's sickness and so on; and some of these occupy much more of the narrating time than others, depending upon what kind of significance they have. All are subsumed under the overarching pattern of the quest, as mentioned before.

The same kind of limitation applies to the area of personae. The single strand of the action is due to the fact that the whole narrative is seen from one point of view: that of Marlow. (I refer of course to the main narrative.) He is both narrator and protagonist, or main actor; and it is the process of his self-discovery which is the principal factor of the unity of the work. That other personae mostly tend to be types is indicated by the frequent use of labels to refer to them: the Intended, the Manager, the Harlequin, the Pilgrims. Even Kurtz, the "short man", is largely limited to two faces, the enlightened developer and the megalomaniac. One view of the work could put forward the notion that Kurtz is merely an embodiment of the ambivalence of man, containing both positive and negative moral extremes. In the present, more limited view the persona is a selective representation of a man. It is interesting to consider how he is represented. Even when he is described (p. 169) in some detail, there are metaphoric interruptions, which turn the attention of the reader from physical details to imaginative and emotive associations. ("It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze.") But the most striking aspect of Kurtz's presentation is that he does not actually appear as an actor until after fifty (of Kernan's) pages of the sixty-seven, by which time a good deal of suggestion and association has accumulated around the idea of his nature.

The element of atmospheric qualities is a product of the linguistic stratum of the work which is closely related to aspects of tone space and personae as they have already been discussed. In fact this work is loaded with atmosphere to an unusually high degree, extending even to the title, and indicating that it is a work of an essentially emotive nature.

Another realm of the work which must be considered is that of stated ideas, which are directly presented statements, made by the narrator or another personae, and apparently serving as interpretative guides. Such statements, whether presented as thought or speech, may be ironically slanted, in which case they will have to be referred to an overall interpretation; or they may lead directly to the pattern of interpretative abstractions, without first establishing an imagined world. Marlow of course makes many such statements in his commentary on the action though in considering them it must be remembered that they are not made by the author directly, but are completely contained within the presented world of the narrative, and must be interpreted in relation to all other aspects.

The inferences that we draw from a consideration of any or all of the aspects of a text which I have mentioned we might call interpretative abstractions. Some of these will make sense in terms of the rest, and some may not. We will tend to reduce our reading, our individual understanding of the text, to that group of statements which seem to combine into a single unity, and in which we can perceive a structural principle. of course, we do not wait until the act of reading is completed to make such abstractions. Instead, at a certain stage in the reading process and more or less consciously, we tend to take far-reaching interpretative decisions, we choose an interpretative standpoint towards which, more or less obstinately, all our further interpretative activity is oriented. You will all therefore have more or less formed your opinions on the subject of Heart of Darkness. Nevertheless I suggest that you reconsider the work in relation to some of the formal features which have been mentioned in this lecture, leaving yourselves open to the possibility of a new synthesis.

Look again for example at the words of the frame narrator which express his views about the enterprise of colonialism (Kernan, pp. 120-121). His tone is enthusiastic, almost rhapsodic, as he eulogises past and present empire-builders. Perhaps his attitude may be seen as representative of conventional, educated, middle-class opinion in England at the turn of the century, and therefore of Conrad's contemporary readers' thinking on the subject. These are the ideas which are implicitly brought under critical scrutiny by the context which is established by Marlow. Instead of the vague honorific terms of the frame-narrator, he uses an incisive language which evokes the pragmatic nature of conquest. Despite, or because even because of the disclaimer "Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this", the reader is led to perceive the similarities between Roman, Renaissance and Victorian imperialism. Marlow suggests that the pious ideals of the later variety tend to redeem it, which sets up a context in which the nature of such ideals must be examined. Kurtz is the highest embodiment of such notions at the outset with his "Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things", but the narrative reveals that his ideals turn into "horror".

Consider the frame-narrator's brief conclusion to the story, and compare it with the opening setting, where "The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth." At the end of the narrative exactly the same words are used to denote the river, but the context and the tone have changed: "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." Is the reader not bound to conclude that a change has occurred in the narrator as a result of hearing Marlow's story - a change that is in some ways analogous to that which may have occurred in the reader himself?

These brief examples I hope suggest the kind of meaning revealed by a close reading of story. As Conrad himself said, in writing to his publisher about the story he was then composing: "... the value is in the detail".


Conrad, Joseph 1973 [1902], Heart of Darkness, Penguin, ed. intro. Paul O’Prey.

Kernan, Alvin B., Peter Brooks, & J. Michael Holquist 1973, Man and His Fictions: An Introduction to Fiction-Making, Its Forms and Uses, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, (includes Conrad's story: 119-185).

Scholes, Robert & Robert Kellogg 1966, The Nature of Narrative, Oxford University Press.

Garry Gillard | New: 1 October, 2009 | Now: 20 December, 2018