Heart of Darkness opens with a sense of opportunity and adventure, which instantly created in the first paragraph by imagery of the Nellie, waiting for the turn of the tide; The idea of a river and the sea creates a sense of journey. However whilst there is an atmosphere of excitement, there is also sense of underlying tension. One way in which these conflicting impressions are created, is by contrasting the idea of opportunity through the river to London which is described as oppressive,.
For example in the second paragraph, Conrad describes that the sea reach of the Thames stretched like an interminable waterway” whilst the “air was dark above Gravesend, and condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless. Here the idea of an interminable waterway seems to suggest freedom, and journey which is juxtaposed by the oppressive atmosphere created by the words “gloom and brooding”. The oppressive atmosphere of London and the freedom of the river is reinforced through reiteration of gloom and darkness which contrasted against imagery of light.
For example, the river is described as “shining pacifically, the sky without a speck was benign immensity of unstained light. ” Imagery of unstained light, on water is one of beauty and also gives a sense of purity, and adventure; On the other hand the gloom brooding motionless seems creates a sense of foreboding Conrad uses repetition of the word “gloom” and “brooding” throughout to reinforce this ominous atmosphere. Further in the opening Conrad personifies the gloom and describes how it was “brooding over the upper reaches, became sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.
That London is untouchable by the sun makes London seem unnatural and consequently reinforces a sense of unease especially when contrasted again. The idea of the natural and the unnatural is used throughout to emphasise a sense of unease about; London is described as “a monstrous town marked ominously on the sky/ a lurid glare under the stars. ” Even against the vastness of the sky, London stands out making it seem menacing. In addition the imagery of the stars convey natural beauty which clashes against London which is described as “monstrous”.
Another example is that the sea and sky are described as being welded together without a joint; The use of welded makes it seemed and forced reiterating a sense of something being incongruent about the scene. Arguably, the reason for this contrasting imagery is not only to create a feeling of suspense to the journey but also represents Conrad’s feelings towards colonisation; On the one hand there is the sense that colonisation is positive, it creates opportunity, yet there is also a notion that colonisation was corrupt.
An important motif in the opening of the text which seems to epitomise both these notions is personification of the river Thames. The river Thames represents the power of London as it was the centre of trade and thus on one level, references to the river flowing remind the reader there is much to be gained by the journey. This is demonstrated as Conrad makes references to its historical past.
Conrad describes ” it had borne all those ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time/, what greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth,” language such as the “an unknown earth”, makes it see that the journey will be mysterious and exciting as all journeys have started from the river Thames; There is a sense that history will be repeated. This is emphasised by a sense of constant movement of the river which is created by alliteration and the very structure of the opening.
Joseph Conrad describes “we looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs forever but in the august light of abiding memories” The alliteration makes the sentence flow emphasising the idea of the river being continuous rather than a ” vivid flush” and emphasising an idea of endless opportunities which can add to the “august of abiding memories”. This all adds to a feeling of optimism and idea of colonialism being positive.
The very structure of the text also seems to mimic the continuity of the river by switching from the past to present, creating a nostalgic feel. For example, after the paragraph about the adventures of the men who had made the nation proud, the next paragraph switches to the sun setting. However, the use of the river as representing the power of London also reminds the reader of the ” monstrous town” thus creating a negative impression. Like references to London being marked against the sky, the idea of the river continually flowing reinforces London’s power.
Conrad could be insinuating that whilst there are some positive elements to colonisation such as freedom and adventure, there is something unnatural and corrupt about it as it is based on blood shed.. This idea is epitomised, by the idea of the sun setting and turning from flowing white to a dull red without rays and without heat. Here the imagery of the sun setting, reinforces the idea of a new journey, but the white to red also could be symbolic of the blood shed about to come and blood shed which made London so great.