Brooding Gloom- Colonizing from London to the Congo

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is well-known for it’s light/dark dichotomy. As I was reading, I also became interested in the way Conrad compares London and the Congo- blurring the lines between the two so that London and civilization becomes just as gloomy, savage and strange as the trip to the heart of ‘uncivilized’ Africa. Some examples:

-“The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.” (17)

-“It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him in the brooding gloom.” (17)

-“The very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.” (18)

-“That gloom brooding over a crowd of men.” (18)

-“And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars. ‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.” (19)

It seems clear in the first three pages that Conrad sets up London as darkness just as strange, scary and intimidating as the heart of Africa and the camps there, and the marshes and woods as light- the places unpopulated by people. The Thames is a massive and famous river juxtaposed against the equally massive and famous Congo River. Marlow speaks of the past, when the Romans came to Britain and colonized, and speaks about how “light came out of the river since”  and declares “We live in the flicker– may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.” (20) He praises these people who conquered the land he came from because it happened far enough back to not be a violent and unpleasant memory to him or any of his close ancestors, and imagines a roman commander’s journey up the Thames, describing a trip similar to the one he is about to unfold:

“Imagine him here- the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke… going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages, precious little to eat fit for a civilised man, nothing but Thames water to drink… Here and there a military camp lost in the wilderness… cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile and death– death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here.”  He continues in a monologue that is chilling and revealing, saying “The utter savagery had closed round him- all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries, He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination– you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” This is all still talk about London, but also a definite reflection on the harrowing journey up the Congo. Then, there is the striking moment when he discusses colonizers and conquerors, saying ” The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

This opening is important because the author is taking a clear stand against Britian and colonialisms. He calls the English out on their imperialism, discussing the sun, the one that never sets on the British Empire, casting a “brooding gloom.” He reminds the British that some time ago they too were “savages” being conquered. London is still a “lurid,” “monstrous,” “dark” place to Marlow and Conrad- but for different reasons. It’s “Crowds of men,” the filth , the embassies with strange people in them, and the greedy hunger to take away land from people who are different.

“Sunny Jim” and Stormy Ireland

Joyce is the product of a troubled Ireland, a repressive religion that he abandoned spiritually but always carried with him in his art, and an inheritor of Irish writers such as “Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats” (5) whom he saw as both venerable authors and enviable rivals. These tensions are ever present in his work, and for a boy nicknamed “Sunny Jim” the darkness and confusion in his works reveals a stormy underside, something that is likely the product of his raising and surroundings.

His disillusion and ambivalence towards marriage and love is seen clearly in “The Dead” and in his love life- In 1904,  “opposed to marriage as a convention, he and Nora left Ireland to live out of wedlock.” (11) The Dead tackles what happens when couples fall out of touch with each other, when the Irish fall out of touch with their present in favor of an idyllic past and an impossible future, and when a man falls out of touch with who he is and puts on a front for his friends and family. The Dead ends bleakly, snow falling and leaving little hope for redemption.

The most poignant moments revealing this tension between love and life come at the end of the story, when he is leaving the party and longing for his wife.

“THere was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.” (48) He paints a picture of her in her head, and calls it “Distant Music,” but he does not know what she is a symbol of. The reader, however, is clearly supposed to consider it. The Distance between the two is physical and emotional. The Music is being made by another man, though he too, in his own way, is creating art for her- the poetic lines in his head, the picture he mentally paints. Yet, if he never forms it in reality, only mentally, how could she know or appreciate it? On the walk home, it is the same trouble- he wants to display his love for her, he thinks about it every moment, and yet, for some reason, he doesn’t.


“There was grace and  her attit