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162 HEARING THE DARKNESS: THE NARRATIVE CHAIN IN CONRAD'S HEART OF DARKNESS By Dorice Williams Elliott (University of Utah) There it is before you—smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out.l When the wilderness in Heart of Darkness whispers, it is a whisper that is passed along in an interlocking narrative chain that extends from Kurtz in the Congo all the way to the actual reader sitting in his armchair today. At each level in that chain, one hearer/reader responds to the haunting voice from the darkness, and becomes in turn a narrator. At its most significant, the response to narrative is another narrative; those "hearers" who are most affected become narrators themselves almost by an inner compulsion. Thus Heart of Darkness can be read as a dramatization of the hearer/reader's response to narrative—this narrative and, potentially, any narrative.2 Few works of modern literature, in fact, demonstrate so explicitly the process of transmission of experience from teller to hearer as does Heart of Darkness. In addition, Conrad's tale contains within Tt instructions for both "good" and "bad" readings of the text. The privileged hearers in Heart of Darkness, those who hear a voice from the darkness and are in turn compelled to become voices themselves, not only hear, but "see." Marlow uses the word "see" in several significant places. He attaches a special meaning to the word, using it to suggest an understanding that goes beyond mere perception or language : "at the time I did not see [Kurtz]—you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see anything?" (p. 27) This vision, or ability to penetrate beyond language and ordinary sense perceptions, is characteristic of those whom Frank Kermode calls "insiders." Kermode, in The Genesis of Secrecy, explains the role of insiders in Biblical terms: "For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away." To divine the true, latent sense, you need to be of the elect, of the institution. Outsiders must content themselves with the manifest , and pay a supreme penalty for doing so. Only those who already know the mysteries—what the stories really mean— 163 can discover what the stories really mean.3 Kermode's statement can be applied quite directly to Heart of Darkness. While the "instructions" are radically different, in both cases the insiders "divine the true, latent sense." The insiders in Heart of Darkness feel the pull and eventually sense the true horror of the wilderness because the message of that wilderness is the darkness already contained in their own hearts. The wilderness awakens for them the mysteries of their own souls. For the outsiders, however, this awakening never occurs. The penalty they pay for attending always to the "incidents of the surface" (p. 34) is the loss of their "own reality" (p. 29), the knowledge of self,4 and the victory that comes from being able to sum up and judge one's own existence (pp. 71-72). The knowledge the insiders gain, however hazy and inarticulate, is so powerful that it both changes their lives and compels them to take up the chain of narration. The outsiders may hear the same stories, may be in the same places at the same times—and may, in fact, even tell stories—but they remain outside, without "seeing," and hence do not become voices from the darkness. The original voice from the darkness in the narrative chain of Heart of Darkness is the wilderness. Although it is repeatedly characterized as silent and brooding, for Kurtz and Marlow the wilderness acquires a voice—a voice from the darkness. As early as Marlow's sea-voyage to the Congo, he senses the power of this voice: Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you . . . whispering, Come and find out" (see epigram ). On his journey to the Central Station, Marlow...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 162-181
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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