Wading Through the Tides of Tone in W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Comet”

Posted by on September 18, 2011 
Filed under ENGH 451-Science Fiction

After reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ short story “The Comet,” I was intrigued by the author’s employment of water as the element by which I could gauge emotion/tone at critical points in the narrative. Not only is “The Comet” included in a collection entitled Darkwater, but Du Bois begins “The Comet” by referencing his character Jim as having “stood a moment on the steps of the bank, watching the human river that swirled down Broadway” (253). Du Bois, by beginning the narrative this way, is commenting on Jim’s alienation from society as he is standing on the bank of a river in which the rest of humanity is privileged to wade. This passage also implies humanity’s imminent destruction with Du Bois’ use of the verb “swirled” as the collected action of humanity. The use of “swirled” implies humanity is headed for a collective destiny because objects we observe as swirling are usually moving with a gathered force to a collective end. For humanity to have “swirled down Broadway” is Du Bois’ method of implying that humanity is collectively moving towards, as yet, an unknown fate, of which Jim is not a part.

The next instance of water guiding the narrative occurs when Julia finds Jim “standing beside the black waters.” Jim is at his lowest point in the story at this moment as he thinks he has lost his family and all hope of communication with the world, so the water being black reflects Jim’s feelings of doom for having lost everything he held dear. The water, through being described as “black,” also mirrors the isolation Jim and Julia feel as well. They can identify with the water because it seems just as isolated an entity as they are through its refusal to permit them to see past its blackness and into its depths. Du Bois magnifies Jim’s doomed feelings by continuing to describe the water as having “lapped on in luring deadly rhythm,” and coupling this image with Jim stating/asking, “ ‘The world lies beneath the waters now—may I go?’ ” (267). Du Bois, by describing the water this way, is not only implying Jim’s wish to die, he is implying Jim’s wish to finally join “the human river,” (253) even if it is in death. The water “luring” Jim to “the world…beneath the waters” (267) expresses Jim’s despair in his plight and eagerness to end his pain.

The water begins to impart a tone of promise when Du Bois imparts that, “Below lay the dark shadows of the city and afar was the shining of the sea” (268). Du Bois, with this statement, is beginning to imply that a positive outcome to Jim and Julia’s situation may be a not so distant reality as we had once thought. This statement directs attention toward the future by dismissing the immediate realm of the city for a focus on the beauty of the sea’s horizon. Transcending the doom of the city for the sun reflecting off the sea evokes hope for humanity’s future.

While Du Bois begins to instill hope for humanity’s future by evoking an image of beauty in the sea, he dashes this hope by re-evoking the correlation of humanity to water moving en masse when he describes “the crowd” following Julia’s father and Fred as having “poured up and out of the elevators” (272). This image is reminiscent of the first line of this story wherein humanity is described as being a “river that swirled down Broadway” (253). Again, humanity moves like a body of water, isolating Jim in the process. Julia is whisked back to her own class/race of people and Jim is again alone until he encounters his wife. Although the tone is elevated by Jim reuniting with his wife, a sense of despair is left lingering through the realization that humanity’s views on acceptance of cultural diversity has not improved. White humanity will continue to drown Jim as it moves with the force of a large body of water, engulfing everything in its path.


One Response to “Wading Through the Tides of Tone in W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Comet””

  • Mark Sample on September 22nd, 2011 11:20 AM    Reply

    What a great reading of “The Comet” using one simple concept (water) as your lens! This technique shows the power of connecting a close reading of a single word (or related words) to the broader theme of the text.

    I also like how your focus on the natural imagery (something you did effectively with Frankenstein too) illustrates that nature is not simply a backdrop to the story, but part of its very essence. I think we could apply a similar technique to the imagery of the Antarctic in “Who Goes There”…

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