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.

One thought on “Brooding Gloom- Colonizing from London to the Congo

  1. I never really thought about the dichotomy here between light and dark, but you make a great point! I loved how you brought out all of the examples too. I especially liked the quote you picked out ”It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him in the brooding gloom.” (17) This very clearly shows that he believes that there is a difference between the two places and that the difference is one is dark or gloomy and the other is luminous. I definitely agree with you that there is this very defined dichotomy and that even though you would expect the uncivilized world to be the dark side, London seems to be the one that is even darker, part of the reason being based in the colonizing and conquering that they were a part of.

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