Heart of Darkness as Frame Story

Heart of DarknessI 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “Heart of Darkness as Frame Story

  1. Thanks for writing this piece, a very interesting review. First, I think you explain EXACTLY what my friend’s problem was with Conrad, the ‘racism’-but again, I really don’t think it should be a reason to not read Conrad (not that I’m saying that was your point, just going back to what we talked about before). It’s also interesting that you bring up the ‘anti-imperialist’ aspect, something which seems to have been lost on my friend’s teachers and professors; as I’ve found that same sentiment in nearly all of Conrad’s books. Secondly, Ya know I actually had forgotten that the book was written that way. In fact if I was asked I would have said it was written as a straight narrative piece. Somehow, I completely forgot it was a ‘story within a story’ or a ‘frame piece’ (though I do remember the beginning of the book reminding me of Rashoman, in that there are two characters talking with each other and instead of waiting for the rain to stop are waiting for the tides). I don’t know why i forgot the continual quoting, but I can literally picture the prose in my head, and can’t for the life of me remember it being that way-it’s weird what your mind forgets-and yet thinks it remembers to be true.

    Anyway, sorry to mix conversations here and bring Apocalypse Now into this ‘literary conversation’-but I just happened to have watched some of the extras from AN-Redux and so wanted to show you some interesting videos I found from YouTube (not from AN-Redux) dealing with Milius. I think it speaks better than anything I could have written on the subject?

    This one is interesting, it’s Milius interviewed by Coppola. As usual, I like Milius here. He’s clearly a charismatic fellow and you should definitely notice the influence on the John Goodman character in Big Lebowski here. I think Milius is actually a far better writer than he is a director? Anyway,an interesting interview.


    Now this other video, is from the documentary I was telling you about. This is where Milius tries to blame his ‘lack of a fuller career’ in Hollywood on some kind of modern day ‘black listing’ of conservatives like himself. . .it also shows kinda how ridiculous his concept is at the tail end of the clip.



  2. P.S./UPDATE:

    I was wrong about Milius going to ‘Nam, as you will hear in the video. For some reason I always thought he’d gone, but apparently he was removed from active service due to asthma-which makes sense as it sounds like most of the ‘right’ and ‘conservatives’ of that time. I think if he actually went, he may have come back more like Oliver Stone or Michael Herr and not the gleefully, adolescent ‘war hawk’ he appears to be? Politics aside though, there’s something ineffable I seem to like about Milius ‘the personality’-in fact I think I have a lot in common with him? When he talks of being ‘deliberately contrary’ at University, I was exactly the same way at that age, however. . .I grew out of it! I don’t think he ever has or will? Still, I can’t help but get a ‘kick’ out of him. Anyway, just sayin’.

  3. @karl – I will watch the videos in a moment. I wanted to comment on Conrad. I think the reason you don’t remember HoD being a frame story is that there is no good reason for it to be a frame story. It adds almost nothing.

    Great point about Rashomon! I hadn’t thought about that. That’s really good, especially the rain/tides connection. But Kurosawa makes good use of it. I really like that movie because I love literary vagueness. Both of my novels end vaguely. I’m not saying that’s a good thing–just what I like.

  4. @karl – I’m not sure I’m interested in watching 47 minutes of the first one. I can definitely see Goodman doing him. But right off the bat he annoys me by claiming that Fellini was part of the French New Wave. Wrong generation, buddy!

    The second video was interesting. Kelsey Grammer recently said he thought he wouldn’t get some award because he was conservative. Conservatives are the biggest whiners! Milius has directed roughly as many films as Welles directed. And he wasn’t really more successful. Other than Red Dawn and Conan, his films have been flops. And I suspect that Hollywood sees these two successes as more indicative of the actors and his writing talent than his direction.

    One final point, I wouldn’t have booed Kazan, but I’m none too happy with him either. I wrote about this here:


    I think it is fine to forgive Kazan, but I don’t think it is a good idea to forget the period. If conservatives feel bad about it now, it is probably because they secretly approve. Anyway, I think conservatives benefit from a certain amount of affirmative action in Hollywood. For example: Craig "The government didn’t help me when *I* was on welfare" Nelson.

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