Heart of Darkness: Description

“And if it is for your comfort to pour your darkness into space, it is also for your delight to pour forth the dawning of your heart.”

~Kahlil Gibran


So recently, we started reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It’s an interesting book, a story within a story, but what I think I find the most striking is the language he uses. There’s something poetic about it, something dark. Before even opening the book we know this is not going to be a happy story, just look at the title, there is always a constant undertone of something ominous and sombre. But I think that’s what draws some people to Heart of Darkness, it’s definitely a big part of why I liked it. Then again, I’m a total description fanatic.

One of the most important parts of being a writer is being able to paint a picture inside your reader’s head. To do that you need to use description, or descriptive words. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate certain description words. Paltry. Jaded. Lackluster. Words that make a story into something real.

A great example of a “descriptive writer” is Erich Maria Remarque and his book All Quiet on the Western Front.

“But most beautiful are the woods with their line of birch trees. Their colour changes with every minute. Now the stems gleam purest white, and between them airy and silken, hangs the pastel-green of the leaves; the next moment all changes to an opalescent blue, as the shivering breezes pass down from the heights and touch the green lightly away; and again in one place it deepens almost to black as a cloud passes over the Sun. And this shadow moves like a ghost through the dim trunks and rides far out over the moor to the sky– then the birches stand out again like gay banners on white poles, with their red and gold patches of autumn-tinted leaves.”

~Erich Maria Remarque

Just like in Heart of Darkness, Remarque uses great language that makes the reader really think they are in the woods watching the leaves as they shift in the light.

Anyway, the point of this post wasn’t really to go anywhere. It was to acknowledge an important part of writing. Description in writing is an art. You can’t use too much or too little. To those of you who are able to write with description, and write with it well; I commend you.

I’ll part with one of my favorite parts from Heart of Darkness:


“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention…”

~Joseph Conrad


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