Joseph Conrad & Charles Dickens: How To Describe Setting

Descriptive passages are difficult to master, yet necessary in most all creative writing. They can be a bore to read and a chore to write; how do we overcome this?

When in doubt, turn to 19th century literature.

HEART OF DARKNESS

In what will probably be a string of Joseph Conrad posts (as I am doing a thesis project on the Polish-British master), here is an exquisite descriptive passage from Heart of Darkness. Below, Conrad describes the natural wonders of a river in prehistoric fashion:

“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 sandbanks, 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.”

BLEAK HOUSE

Compare this to Dickens’s use of prehistoric language describing London in the opening of Bleak House:

“London, Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

Conrad and Dickens differ greatly in their approaches and styles — Conrad brutalizes the English language into submission, while Dickens uses it with precision and grace — yet they both achieve remarkable, vivid effects. It’s difficult to express preference for one over the other; rather, what can we learn from these two masters?

TONE

Chiefly, both authors emphasize the importance of setting. They use provocative imagery to draw the reader in and then spend time fleshing out these depictions as to set the proper tone for what’s to come; in both cases there seems to be a sense of foreboding.

LENGTH

Next, notice the differences in length. Dickens is much more concise, where Conrad chooses to take his time. Both, in my open, serve the purpose of the story.

In Dickens’s case, the passage is part of a large picturesque set of descriptions that move quickly, effectively covering most of London. The majority of the first chapter is written this way, (he uses fragments, not a single verb appears until well into the second page), so that the reader becomes as disoriented as the residents of the novel’s London.

Conrad, however, is dealing with a main character (Marlow) who is taking a slow, careful boat trip up a convoluted river way; thus, he must take his time, describing things as they come to him, slowly building the full picture so the reader feels as if they are taking the trip with him.

IMAGERY

Their differences align in the use of animal imagery. Where Dickens uses the fantastic image of a dinosaur waddling up Holborn Hill through mud and fog and waters, Conrad settles on a decidedly more simple image of a hippos and alligators sunning side by side; both achieve the goal of translating a prehistoric earth, but rather take different approaches (Dickens leans on spectacle, Conrad is more grounded).

Please, take a moment to imagine both pictures and realize the power of bold descriptive passages, the control that words can have over a reader and our responsibility as authors to transport the reader in more creative, provocative ways than pedestrian descriptions of the sun, wind, or trees.

BREAKING CONVENTION

Lastly, let’s look at the ways these two authors break conventional tropes.

Note the following sentence from Conrad:

“There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine.”

This is my favorite part of his passage. I can’t recall another time I’ve seen sunshine described negatively. Adding to his trickery, Conrad uses the word “brilliance”, and still manages to achieve a dark tone. He concedes the sunshine as brilliant, but in relation to the dreary, foreboding scene around him, all of its magic is dulled. This serves a dual purpose, at once achieving a description of setting and translating Marlow’s downed mindset for the reader.

Dickens’s break from convention is perhaps more obvious. He begins by firmly placing the reader in a bleak, autumnal London; then, with unprecedented audacity, he introduces a dinosaur. This is the bold, confident, imaginative approach we should all take with our work. Dickens challenges himself by juxtaposing two disparate, unrelated images and combines them to translate a cohesive description.

These breaks from convention are not arbitrary; they’re thought provoking. Imagining a joyless brilliant sun, or a dinosaur marching through modern London takes brain power, and it forces the reader to analyze and consider more deeply.

CONCLUSION

When an author overcomes an innovation or challenge in his or her work, it translates to the reader in a positive way. Our job, after all, is to entertain and provoke thought–not to bore people to death.

Feel free to share your work in the comments section.

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