I just read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness again—the first time I’ve read it since I was forced to in college. My reason for reading it was that I had remembered that it was written almost entirely in quotes. In other words, that the story itself was the story of a guy telling the story that we know as “Heart of Darkness.”
It turns out that my memory is good. The first couple of pages talk about a couple of guys sitting on a boat, waiting for the tide to do its thing. While they wait, one of the guys tells the story of his work on a steamboat in Africa. But reading it didn’t answer my question, “Why did Conrad write the story in this way?”
Heart of Darkness is a Frame Story. This is basically a story within a story, but unlike, say, Hamlet, the story within is the most important story. From a stylistic standpoint, this structure is used to present the story as a real sailor’s yarn. It isn’t Conrad telling the story, it’s Marlow. But that strikes me as a pretty minor reason for all those paragraphs of dialog, which did nothing so much as pull me out of the narrative a few times per page.
Book Rags suggests a more believable reason for the book to be written in this way. It says, “Heart of Darkness is a frame tale, a structure that was quite popular in the last half of the nineteenth century.” I suspect that he was still looking for approval as a writer. But it is unfortunate; I really think we could edit the book into a standalone narrative and it would be much improved.
Having said that, I think Heart of Darkness is a wonderful read. I will grant that it is implicitly racist, but this is made up for by the fact that it is explicitly anti-imperialist. Although Kurtz is an interesting character, what really makes the novel work is Marlow. It works really well as a character study of him.
Of course, I have no intention of ever reading it again. It did, however, make me pick up The Confidence-Man. After only a few pages I thought, “Melville is so much better than Conrad.” And that is not any kind of a slight of Conrad.