The African Arena

  • Brian Spittles
Part of the Writers in their Time book series


Heart of Darkness was Conrad’s first profound work: challenging to its readership artistically, philosophically and politically. The framing of events as a narration within a narrative is not a simple storyteller’s device, it allows the creation of deliberate thematic ambiguities, a critical historical perspective and a tone of ironic detachment. The anonymous narrator who retails Marlow’s story warns that it — and therefore the novel — will not be of the conventional sort that other storytellers, and novelists, provide. The novel contains a new kind of content that requires a different form of expression:

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 … 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. (p.30)

This is a clear indication that the novel will not be like other novels, that the form — the shell — is part of the meaning and has to be understood as well as the events described. A new form is necessary because the novel is not a mere reflection of a tangible, and known, reality, but an exploration of different types of realities.


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  1. 2.
    John Evelyn Wrench, Alfred, Lord Milner: The Man of No Illusions 1854–1925 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1958), p. 213.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    R. C. K. Ensor, England 1870–1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), p. 347.Google Scholar
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    Anthony Wood, Nineteenth Century Britain 1815–1914 (London: Longman, 1982), p. 384.Google Scholar
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    Roger Webster, Studying Literary Theory: An Introduction (London: Edward Arnold, 1990), p. 86.Google Scholar
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    H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines (London: Dent, 1975), p. 40. Subsequent page references to the novel are to this edition.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Brian V. Street, The Savage in Literature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 123. This is a very useful introduction to popular literature in the period, despite misunderstanding Conrad’s own purpose.Google Scholar

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© Brian Spittles 1992

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  • Brian Spittles

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