Literary Qualities

Conrad uses a variety of techniques to advance his narrative and to imbue it, like a parable, with a quality of universality derived from specific experience. The technique of the narrative frame, while pervasive in the medieval tale-telling of such poets as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio, became in Conrad’s hands a newly fashioned instrument that allowed the narrator to be a distant observer of events he had witnessed. As is the case in many of Conrad’s works of fiction, Heart of Darkness is related by an anonymous narrator who identifies so strongly with Marlow that the two Characters’ identities merge. The anonymous narrator describes events of Marlow’s recent past, but Marlow must speak for himself as he relates his distant past-a complex psychological matrix of which the anonymous narrator has no knowledge. The interplay between the narrator’s perception of Marlow’s journey and Marlow’s own account establishes irony in both point of view and narrative voice. Conrad’s highly charged and sometimes poetic language, combined with his use of light and darkness, highlights the author’s powers of observation and evokes a range of emotion transferred from narrator to reader. Conrad’s language, moreover, not only gives a clear sense of physical place but also hints at the effect of exterior Setting upon the interior landscape of the soul.

Heart of Darkness has stylistic precedents in the tales of Chaucer and Boccaccio, and thematic precedents in the epic poetry of Virgil and Dante. Its dark vision of the universe recalls the novels of Thomas Hardy. Building upon the tradition of the Victorian novel and the history of the British Empire, Conrad and several of his contemporaries began to develop tales of adventure and travel set in exotic places. Late Victorian writers, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, and Rudyard Kipling, had already set their works in the South Seas, Africa, and India by the time Conrad began writing. In his use of a protagonist who remains apart but can still be recognized as “one of us,” he both shares the Romantic spirit and anticipates twentieth-century literature of alienation. In the love of the sea his tales reflect, he is the literary heir of Homer, Victor Hugo, and Herman Melville.

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