SPOILER ALERT: This question asks about the last line of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. If you are reading the novel, you may want to skip this question.

The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

Should an adverb (i.e. sombrely) have been used to describe 'flowed'?
Are there any formal terms describing this issue? I question my doubt given Conrad's renown.

Obiter dictum: I lighted upon this while reading The Guardian's 'The 10 best… closing lines of books'.


7 Answers 7


I've just been reading on "depictive constructions" and it seems to be the term used by some lingusts to describe such constructions.

The waterway flowed sombre.

The construction depicts the state of the waterway, not the manner of its flowing. Compare:

  1. John shouted at them angrily. (describes the manner of his shouting)
  2. John angrily read the review. (an intermediate case: describes John's state of mind too)
  3. John left the party angry. (Depictive construction: John might have left the party in a civilized way, perhaps even smiling, but he was angry inside)

This thing called "adjective secondary predicate" seems to subdivide into depictive and resultative:

Mary ate tired. (depictive over the subject: Mary was tired)
John ate the meat raw (depictive over the object: the meat was raw)
Johh pounded the metal flat. (resultative)
We drank the teapon empty. (resultative: the teapot has been emptied)
John fried the fish dry. (resultative or depictive: either the fish was fried to a dry condition, or John was dry while frying the fish)

You might read up on this and decide if I'm right.

Linguists seem to be still in disagreement as to how to treat such constructions. Judging by a quick perusal of different PDFs, some analyse the whole thing as a "complex predicate", leading to the use of the terms "resultative/depictive", some use the terms "small clause"/"adjunct" for resultatives and depictives respectively. I haven't yet got the difference.


P.S. Note that Conrad was a non-native speaker of English, although a brilliant writer. But in your example the usage seems idiomatic to me.

P.P.S. Related questions:

  • 7
    Downvoted?? Heck, no. I'm a bit surprised (and disappointed) to see answers here saying that an established author like Conrad must have made a gaffe. You've at least done some research and tried to explain why the construct is valid, instead of grading Conrad presumptious like a 4th-grade grammar teacher, and have given links to further reading. This is one of the better answers I've seen on ELL for some time.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 9:14
  • 2
    +1, especially for "Linguists seem to be still in disagreement as to how to treat such constructions". Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 12:40
  • 2
    Certainly no gaffe. If this had not already been available as correct English (which it was) Conrad would have been justified in creating a new new usage. The sentence is infinitely better with "sombre" than with the adjective. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 19:19
  • 2
    A more extreme example is Maurice Sendak's line "The ice thing only dripped and stared, and Ida mad knew the goblins had been there". This is much more questionable as "correct" grammar than Conrad's perfectly reasonable line, but wow, what a sentence! It's sometimes reproduced "fixed" as "…Ida, mad, knew…" and the weakness of that shows just why Sendak was justified in it.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 19:22
  • 4
    Right. Resembles hypallage ('transferred epithet'). Compare P.G. Wodehouse "I balanced a thoughtful lump of sugar on my teaspoon", "he uncovered the fragrant eggs and b and I pronged a moody forkful", "As I sat in the bathtub, soaping a meditative foot".
    – A E
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 22:32

I will say that no, Conrad should not have written somberly, for something is either sombre or it is not sombre. There is no such state as "somber-like, in the manner of sombreness, or having the qualities or appearance of sombreness". Sombreness is a state, not a manner, not a show.

  • I will say we should be real careful about saying that an author like Conrad goofed up, and I'm a bit surprised at your claim. How about this: The water moved slowly, like a funeral procession. That sounds somber-like to me.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 9:08
  • 3
    I am saying just the opposite of what you think I'm saying, @J.R. Conrad wrote sombre, not somberly. I think Conrad made the right choice.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 12:19
  • Are you saying that somberly shouldn't exist as a word? Dictionaries say it exists. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 19:39
  • 2
    No, I'm saying that an artist of the likes of Conrad, when using the natural world to reflect an emotion, would avoid any locution that conveyed the idea that the natural world had the semblance of sombreness, which is exactly what the adverb somberly (as distinct from the adjective sombre) would convey.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 20:38
  • @TRomano - My apologies, I misread your answer. I missed the "not", and mistakenly thought you had said, "I will say that no, Conrad should have written somberly..." How embarrasing! Thanks for correcting me.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 9:16

The underlying concept is: The waterway was sombre. "To flow sombrely" would describe the manner of flowing, but there is no sombre way of flowing or a happy way of flowing. Water can flow slowly, sluggishly, fast, but not sombrely.

The problem of adjectives after verbs in adverb position is very tricky and it takes some time to get a feeling for this problem. The school rule "after a verb follows an adverb" is really only a school rule. There should be added in brackets: (But there are a lot of cases where an adjective follows because the intent is not to describe the manner.)

Edit: I looked up the etymology of sombre at etymonline. The meaning is 'gloomy, shadowy' from French and ultimately from Latin sub (= under) and umbra (= shadow). So we could clarify the use of the adjective sombre after flowed in this way:

The water flowed (along) as under shadow. An expression made plausible as there are things that dim the light: an overcast sky and a dark cloud at the horizon and that fits with the last words: leading into the heart of darkness.

  • I've just read Longfellow's poem Excelsior where he says: The light of the household fires gleamed warm and bright. Instinctively you feel that "warmly/brightly" would be wrong. "warm/bright" don't modify the verb. The expression is a variant for "the lights were warm and bright".
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 5:49

It is OK. Same as you can say:

The earth appeared red under the twilight sky.

where red is an adjective.

Using the example and a definition of somber:

1) dark and gloomy or dull

you could write:

the tranquil waterway...flowed dark and gloomy under an overcast sky

  • 2
    It is not exactly the same. I would put to appear and to seem into the box linking verbs + adjective such as to be, to become/get, to remain/stay/keep and to seem/appear (to be).
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 18:31
  • Nice concrete application of the theory @CopperKettle laid out. Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 12:07

Somber is correct. It’s a complement. Whether to call it a subject complement, predicative adjective, or something else is a matter of debate. It’s also an unusually clever and poetic use of English grammar.

Here is a similar, more ordinary example of this construction:

Rinse the shirt under cold running water until the water runs clear. [Source]

The word somber

The primary meaning of somber is: somewhat dark, as if under a shadow. This agrees with overcast sky. But a more common meaning of somber is a certain melancholy, solemn mood. The water doesn’t have a mood, of course, but I’m sure Conrad chose this word carefully, since the characters were surely in a somber mood after the death just discussed and the lie just told to the deceased’s fiancée. The mood isn’t part of the literal meaning of the sentence, but that meaning will affect a reader.

The grammatical construction

It’s ambiguous whether the water became somber as it flowed—that is, led into darkness—or whether it was somber everywhere. Copperkettle’s answer provides linguistic terminology for these two kinds of complement, and mentions that scientists are still figuring out precise categories for them. However, somber in this sentence calls upon both grammatical meanings simultaneously. One meaning is echoed by under an overcast sky and the other meaning is echoed by lead into the heart of an immense darkness. To pick either “the state of the water” or “the shade that the water took on as it flowed” would miss the deliberate double use of the same complement, which gives the sentence its unique and memorable structure.

  • +1. Thank you for the literary analysis and explanation of the double entendre of somber in your last para.
    – user8712
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:42

The word in question is part of a participle clause.

, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed (being) sombre under an overcast sky –

I can convert it to a adverbial clause as below.

, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed (while it was) sombre under an overcast sky –


One waxes lyrical, not lyrically. Same construct.

  • To wax can be seen as a linking verb like to be, to become, to remain etc.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 9:12

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