Joseph Conrad’s seminal 1899 work Heart of Darkness, the tale of Marlow and the mysterious Kurtz, is stark in how it treats the females in the story. This is no mistake or oversight by the author. In fact, in her essay “Don’t Knock the Boat: Feminine Characters in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’,” Kelly Larkin Conway writes that Joseph Conrad had written to his publisher “’It is a story of the Congo. There is no love interest in it and no woman – only incidentally’,” which is, of course, reflective of the Victorian era in which this novel takes place, and was a common theme in literature (and may unfortunately still be). As M.A.R. Habib states in Modern Literary Criticism and Theory: A History, “…the depiction of women in male literature – as angels, goddesses, whores, obedient wives and mother figures – was an integral means of perpetuating these ideologies of gender.” A feminist critique is easily applied to the novel and makes clear the position of women in 19th century European society and their role in the era’s rampant imperialism.
It is clear from his thoughts and words that Marlow sees women as inferior, confusing, and, probably, intimidating. He seems wholly unable to relate to them, and is completely out of his element when forced to deal with females. It is commonly noted that the only “female” referred to by her proper name is Nellie, the vessel that many think of as Marlow’s true love. It may be the only “female” with whom Marlow has a true relationship. Even during his goodbye visit with his aunt (an aunt who made the trip possible because she secured his job for him), Marlow remarks, “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset.” He thinks of women as precious, almost fanciful creatures, or, as Gabrielle McIntire states in her essay "The Women Do Not Travel," “ghost-like, half-presences,” apart from the world of men and hopeless to ever understand it. The plot proves his take is fallacy, and establishes that his attitude toward women is ignorant and blind to the true circumstances of the story.
In fact, the women of Heart of Darkness have very direct and significant influence on Marlow. The narrator, however, spins the yarn in a manner to dehumanize and marginalize them. Two of the main characters, his aunt and Kurtz’s Intended, are simply known by their relationships to the men, and that is the only way in which they are described. All their actions reflect their relationships with these male characters. Other characters, such as the knitting women and the African Queen, are part of, or a representation of, Africa and the Company’s presence there, and are really not characters at all but reflections of Marlow’s journey.
This is further illustrated by the fact the Marlow refers to Africa itself several times in a feminine vein. He refers to “Nature herself,” and states ``The wilderness...it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed its soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation. It was his spoiled and pampered favourite’.” This portrayal of the continent and the jungle as a lover cements the link.
"Marlow feels women are not, and should not, be involved in important decision and goings-on. They are delicate, they are dreamers, and should not be burdened with such things."
For another example of females simply being facets of Marlow’s quest, look to his arrival to sign his contract with the Company. At the office, he is greeted by two women, knitting black wool feverishly, creating an ominous atmosphere that warns the reader of the darkness to come, “reminiscent of the three fates of Greek myth who weave and unweave destinies regardless of individual wishes" (McIntire 16). Marlow notes “An eerie feeling came over me. [One of the women] seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door to Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall…” This darkness they guard, and the ominous overtones that Marlow gleans, casts the women in a macabre light, as if they are harbingers of death and destruction. These women act almost as foreshadowing for Marlow’s journey, unnamed and sinister; they are plot devices, showing the power the Company had over those caught in its grasp, not fully fleshed-out characters. As McIntire suggests, “Marlow's encounter with these women is disturbing enough that this image later returns to his memory, as though from the repressed, to ‘obtrude’ itself on his thoughts precisely as he crosses the boundary from the river (his steamer—as the metropole framed by the dark continent) to the bank (the native territory, the unknown, the unexplored).”
When not treated as omens for the coming darkness, “women in “Heart of Darkness” are also portrayed as frail creatures that need protection from men, notably the African woman and the Intended” (Conway 5). Only the African woman is portrayed as mysterious and magnificent: during the climactic firefight, Marlow remarks “Only the barbarous and superb woman did not so much as flinch, and stretched tragically her bare arms after us over the somber and glittering river.” This passage is a double-edged sword: while Marlow admires her, he also sees her as a personification of Africa, reaching out for Kurtz and the white Imperialists. Marlow forgets the strong, almost regal impression he had when he first laid eyes upon her, and her bravery during the rifle fight, and recasts her in his mind’s comfortable impression of the female’s role in society, that of a lover pining for her lost man, her guardian and protector. As Hyland writes, “because Marlow’s last image of the African woman is of her trying to halt the departure of her lover, [when he realizes he is going to tell his lie] he is able to absorb completely his memory of the savage woman into the image of the fragile woman who must not be hurt, the Intended.”
Marlow feels women are not, and should not, be involved in important decision and goings-on. They are delicate, they are dreamers, and should not be burdened with such things. He states: “They – the women I mean – are out of it – should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.” This is obvious at the conclusion of the story, when Marlow meets with Kurtz’s Intended. Is Marlow protecting the Intended from the truth, deciding that, as this frail, simple woman, she wouldn’t understand it? Or is he selfishly keeping it the truth to himself, as they were words among men, not meant for a woman’s ears? McIntire opines “Marlow refuses to risk the sort of incommensurability that might flourish if he tried to convey ‘the horror’ to the Intended. Clearly he believes it would be impossible for her to understand…in effect, he will guard the difference between male and female forms of knowledge.” Even in this lie, Marlow does not state to the reader the Intended’s true name, because, to him, it doesn’t matter. She is a plot device in his story, not a person. And this is truly his story, as he has just shaped the narrative with his falsehoods. In spreading this lie (and earlier in the story, Marlow had groused about how much he hated lies), he has sentenced Kurtz’s Intended to a life living a lie – mourning for the rest of her days a man who was not who she thought he was – a noble man, not the madman he had truly become.
Marlow’s inability to connect with women, to understand them, may inadvertently be addressed when he states “…it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that one makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone…” In 1899, being along was the only choice men had it women were not to be part of their lives. Maybe Marlow understood that this was his lot in life, considering the utter ambivalence he seemed to show the fairer sex. Likewise, Marlow seems painfully unable to understand the Africans he comes across, which implies a failure to think outside of his white, European, Victorian existence. At one point, Marlow even attempts a “remote kinship” with the natives in the jungle around him, almost as if he is coming down from on high, Wall Street tycoon working a shift at Walmart, to try and understand what the natives are about. He has a certain misanthropy for anyone unlike himself.
Heart of Darkness, and its attitude toward women, suggests the patriarchal society of the Victorian age. This is reflected in Hinkle’s thoughts in her essay, “As does Marlow, Conrad remains faithful to the belief that the delicacy of women and civilization must be protected from ‘darkness’ and the ‘savagery’.” The women of this novel are robbed of true identities, and are seen only in their relationships to the male characters. The men are their self-appointed protectors, reflective of the attitudes of the time.
- Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
- Conway, Kelly Larkin. "Don't Rock the Boat: Feminine Characters in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.'" Verso: An Undergraduate Journal of Literary Criticism. Web. 18 October 2018.
- Habib, M.A.R. Modern Literary Criticism and Theory: A History. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Print.
- Hinkle, Lynda L. "Women and Silence in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'...or Patriarchal Fantasy 2.0." MP: An Online Feminist Journal. Web. 19 October 2018.
- McIntire, Gabrielle. "The Women Do Not Travel: Gender, Difference and Incommunsurability in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.'" Modern Fiction Studies 2002. Web. 19 October 2018.