Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a very philosophical novella. It was created in the middle of a period when phenomenology (the idea that our lives are made sense of by certain moments and ideas) was very popular. Conrad uses the novella to put across his ideas about human nature and the darkness of mankind. Instead of writing it as a chronological plotline of introspective events manipulated into a story Conrad uses ideas where and when they are relevant to his point, no matter when they are based.
This is a very uncommon format; most novels- like Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ for instance- progress from beginning to end in the predictable order. In ‘Great Expectations’ the lead character, Pip, recollects his life from a significant moment in his life, to the present day. ‘Heart of Darkness’ does the complete opposite however, which leads to many time shifts in the novella. The novella is, of course, based on true events that took place in Conrad’s life as a sailor.
But he uses a framed narrative (a narrator inside a narrative) to allow him to recollect and use other events of the past to accentuate his point. An example of this is when Marlow, the ‘hero’ of the novella, begins his story of long-gone tales of woe and immediately harks back to ‘very old times, when the Romans came here’. He goes on to talk about how all those years ago even the most civilised modern city of London would have been savage and rudimentary; with ‘swamps’ and ‘wild men’ inhabiting what is now the Thames estuary.
This is a very important point to Conrad’s argument, similar to William Golding’s in ‘Lord of the Flies’, that all humans, no matter how civilised they may seem have a deep underlying evil. Conrad wouldn’t be able to make this point if it wasn’t for the implementation of time shifts. The setting then changes again to the difficult time after Marlow’s last sea voyage, describing how he stayed in London for a time and looked, unsuccessfully for work. This doesn’t really help move Conrad’s point along but it does give us a sense of perspective.
Marlow is feeling slightly depressed at his inability to find work but this is nothing to the distress he will soon be feeling, after several time-shifts, in the Congo. Then Marlow swiftly turns to his childhood and recalls the times that he would look at maps and dream about discovering empty areas, such as the Congo (‘the biggest, the most blank… that I had a hankering after’). Just as the Roman scenario is used to get across a point this one is too. In remembering his daydreaming childhood Conrad is pairing the area that will soon be the scene of ostentatious evil with a sense of fantasy and whimsy.
In such a self-examining novel the time shift is again essential in making Marlow’s realisation of the wretchedness of man, the settlers in the Congo in particular, all the more disappointing. The story then returns to Marlow’s jobless phase as he decides to try and get a job going up the Congo river. It is only a brief stop as soon Marlow’s narrative leads to a story based in the near-past-of-the-past in which a Danish captain, Freslaven has just been ‘killed in a scuffle with the natives’. He describes this death as his ‘chance’ that made him ‘the more anxious to go.
‘ He does however says that Freslaven was described to him as ‘the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs’. This shows the reader that the effects of the Congo, as Marlow would later find out, are debilitating beyond belief of even the greatest man. In a chronological novel like ‘Great Expectations’ a point like this would not be accessible but because of the constant switching of setting and time implemented by Conrad the reader can interpret more for Marlow’s first-hand experiences.
The narrative then returns to Marlow’s earlier quest for employment with the (Belgian) Company, in charge of trading with the colonised Africans. He describes the garish capital city, (by which he means Brussels) as a ‘white sepulchre’, and the intimidating offices of the Company. He speaks to his yacht-going companions back in modern London about the secretaries of the office who reminded him of Clotho and Lachesis, two people in Greek legend who were said to have controlled the fate of men.
This is the last event of the first eleven pages and sees the eighth time shift. All of these were imperative to realising Conrad’s point, and none of them would have been available if a chronological, first person format had been used. The fact that there are so many time-shifts in so short a time shows how necessary the change in setting is for Conrad to get his introspective point across, and explains why it is one of his most potent literary tools.