Narrative technique is an important element of Conrad’s literary style. This story is structured as an “embedded narrative.” This means that the central story, narrated by the fictional character Charlie Marlow, is “embedded” in a “frame” narrative, whereby the ”frame” narrator introduces Marlow’s character, and presents the central story as a direct quotation from Marlow. For this reason, nearly every paragraph of the story begins with a quotation mark, indicating that it is a continuation of the frame narrator’s direct quotation of Marlow’s narration. This type of “embedded” narrative constitutes the structure of several of Conrad’s stories, as the character of Marlow is the ”embedded” narrator. This narrative structure focuses the reader’s attention as much on the art of storytelling, and the character of the storyteller, as it does on the central story itself. Conrad’s “frame” narrator calls attention to the significance of the frame narrator in describing Marlow’s storytelling style. The narrator uses the metaphor of a “nut”—indicating that, for Marlow, the meaning of the story lies more in the “shell” (the narration) than in the “nut” (the central story) it contains:
“The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted) and to him 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.”
The setting of the frame narrative is in England, as a group of men relax on a private yacht. The central story, narrated by the sailor Marlow, takes place on the Congo River, in an area of Africa then colonized by the Belgian King Leopold II, who deceptively named it the Free State of the Congo. The story takes place in the 1890s. The setting is significant because the tale is based in part on Conrad’s own personal experiences as the captain of a riverboat on the Congo in the 1890s. Conrad’s character of Marlow relates the brutal, slave-like conditions under which the native Africans were treated by their Belgian colonizers, and the story was interpreted upon initial publication in 1899 as an indictment of Belgian imperialism. The ivory company for which Marlow works represents the historical circumstances of the ivory trade in Africa, by which European colonizers greedily exploited both the African people for their labor and the resources of the continent. Conrad paints an unflattering picture of the European presence in Africa during the colonial period.
Imagery: Light and Darkness
The central imagery of the story revolves around the binary oppositions suggested in the title: light and darkness. This imagery sets up a contrast between the “light” white Europeans in Africa, and the ”dark” native Africans. Likewise, the ”light” is suggestive of European “civilization,” while the “darkness” refers to the culture of the African people, which Europeans perceived as ”primitive” and “savage.” The imagery of light and darkness also refers metaphorically to the ”light” of what is now referred to as the “conscious” self, which the Europeans associated with their own society, as opposed to the “darkness” of the unconscious, which the Europeans associated with African society. The ”light” also represents the realm of that which is known and understandable to the Europeans (their own culture and native land), as opposed to the unknown (darkness), “mysterious” land, peoples and cultures of the African continent. How one interprets the story generally revolves around this central axis of light/dark imagery, and the variety of metaphorical and symbolic implications of this imagery.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2001.