In the beginning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the unknown narrator of describes the setting of the sun experienced by the crew as the ship comes to rest on its anchor. He says, “Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more somber every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.”
The binaries in this text are the darkening of the dusk, personified as “gloom”, “brooding”, and “somber”. Darkness has negative associations and is associated with evil, ignorance, and fear. The sun represents light, and has associations that are positive, such as wisdom, strength, and goodness. Digging further into the etymology of the key words in this passage does initially strengthen the associations on a broad stroke, but presents some surprising deconstructions.
Gloom from Middle English gloumen, meaning “become dark”. Brood from Old English brod, meaning “fetus/hatchling” from the Old High German bruot meaning literally, “that which is hatched by heat”. Reaches from Old English ræcan, “to extend, hold forth”. Somber from French sombre, “dark, gloomy”, from the Proto-Indo-European ando, meaning “blind, dark”. Angered from Proto-Indo-European angh, “tight, painful” and from Greek ankhein, “to squeeze”, and ankhone, “a strangling”.
Based off of these definitions, the sentence could be rewritten as, “The stretching darkness of the west is strangled, blinded, and born from the heat and light of the approaching sun.
The significance of this passage is that the traditional concepts of light and darkness being good and evil are softened in this passage. While there is still a battle that is playing out, there are new and unexpected results. The sun is portrayed as the victor in the battle, but paradoxically cedes its power to the night. And the night, while choked and blinded by the approaching sun, is birthed into its fullness. A battle is certainly not considered won by giving the power to your enemy and birth is hardly associated with pain, blindness, and strangling.
Removing the text from its associated binaries does marvelous and unexpected things to the written word. Being skeptical toward the text “burns away the intellectual ground on which the Western civilisation is built” (Barry p. 63). Destructuralism allows us to play with the text, and learn lessons otherwise unavailalable, probably even unimagined, from the author’s work.
All definitions are taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary at http://www.etymonline.com
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. N.p.” Public Domain, 2010. iBooks.