How are the Female Characters Represented in “The Heart of Darkness”

January 12, 2021 by Essay Writer

While presenting a lecture at the University of Massachusetts, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe expressed his alienation from the imperialist and patriarchal themes of Heart of Darkness, famously decrying Joseph Conrad’s novel as the work of “a bloody racist”. Provocative and influential, Achebe’s criticisms served as an impetus for a range of theoretical perspectives on the implications of Conrad’s work, with some feminist critics suggesting that his narrative displays misogynist overtones through its exclusion of women. Writers such as Nina Pelikan Straus and Leslie Heywood identify an exclusive sense of “brotherhood” shared between a male author, male characters, and a largely male readership. This fraternity, they argue, is largely the result of Conrad’s use of overtly masculine language, coupled with his flat and superficial portrayal of female characters and the feminine domain. However, it is important to recognise that the world of masculine activity depicted in the novel is far from ideal; rather, it is one of futility, psychological degradation, and shameful cruelty. As such, interpreting the protagonist’s narration on a superficial level undermines the powerful scepticism at the core of Heart of Darkness and neglects the author’s notable unease with dominant British narratives. Furthermore, it could be claimed that several female characters play an instrumental – albeit understated – role in the narrative; for example, Marlow’s aunt secures his employment as a riverboat captain. When these factors are taken into account, it becomes apparent that Conrad’s female characters are vital to his bitingly satirical critique of the characteristically masculine domain of imperialism and exploitation.

Taking the form of a “tale within a tale”, the story is recounted to the reader through an unnamed male companion of the protagonist, Charles Marlow. Several critics have claimed that Marlow relates his tale using a constricted, overly “male” form of language which largely alienates female readers. For example, he adopts the phallic metaphor of penetration when recalling his journey up the Congo River: “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness” [149]. By describing his mission in sexual terms, Conrad implicitly associates women with “darkness”, a word laden with connotations of confusion and ignorance. To a female reader, this excessively masculinised language may render the text inaccessible, an impression reinforced by Conrad’s overt association of Kurtz’s mistress with the wilderness: “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent”… “She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself” [168]. In this instance, Conrad is clearly equating black women with raw “nature”, thus evoking stereotypical images of unruliness and uncontrolled sexuality, which, in turn, contrasts sharply to the chaste “whiteness” of Kurtz’s Intended (“This fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me”) [183]. Consequently, through the text’s fetishisation of the native woman’s “wild-eyed” and “savage” nature, Africa itself becomes a primitive female body, thereby perpetuating dominant patriarchal ideas associating women with a precarious sense of volatility and otherness.

Indeed, the perception of women as “otherworldly” comes to the fore at several points in the novel. While recounting his adventure on the deck of a ship – itself a symbol of masculine virility – Marlow declares to his male audience:

“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. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over”. [113].

On the surface, this oft-quoted passage appears to subscribe to the popular notion of the time regarding the need for women to be protected from reality. However, it is necessary to scrutinise the author’s motive behind the inclusion of this challenging digression. Throughout the novel, it appears that, ironically, men are the people who “live in a world of their own”, with their oppressive imperial activities portrayed as being relentlessly cruel and fruitless. For example, Conrad exercises satiric distortion to great effect when he describes the unnerving sight of a French man-of-war firing aimlessly at an uninhabited stretch of coast: “There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush… In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent” [114]. The absurdity of the western colonists’ actions illustrates the ineffectiveness of imperial warfare and exposes Marlow’s sexist ramblings as instances of great irony. As Cedric Watts claims, far from serving as an affirmation of the inability of women to relate to the real world, “The joke is on Marlow, as it was on the boy who cried wolf”. Indeed, if Conrad himself believed that a society under the influence of women would “go to pieces before the first sunset”, his vocal advocacy of female suffrage in the early twentieth century strikes the modern reader as remarkably incongruous. Therefore, it must be remembered that the speaker is not Conrad but Marlow, and, as such, Conrad is not directly responsible for his protagonist’s attitudes towards women. Rather than patronise the reader with a clinical and unambiguous account of Marlow’s African voyage, Conrad places the responsibility of moral judgment firmly in our hands through his skilful use of a doubly oblique narration. Consequently, the text’s portrayal of women is more subtle than some literary critics imply, and thus must be regarded with a degree of circumspection.

In any case, however, feminist critics have accurately underlined the lifeless and stylised form in which many of Conrad’s female characters take. As inhabitants of an overwhelmingly masculine world, women such as Kurtz’s mistress and the Intended are given an almost statuesque status, often merely serving as grotesque objects upon which men can flaunt their own material success:

“she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step” [168].

Kurtz’s mistress is given the description of an aesthetic object and is furthermore denied the power of speech, thus suggesting that she is merely a passive, ornamental entity of little significance to the wider plot. Even Conrad’s choice of names is telling – while the protagonist and Kurtz are named, the two central female characters are simply Kurtz’s “mistress” and “Intended”, titles which evince passivity and subservience. On the surface, therefore, it would appear that the novel is overwhelmingly preoccupied with the concerns and activities of men, with Conrad’s neglected female characters serving a superficial and largely decorative purpose.

However, to state that Conrad is embarking on a misogynist and patriarchal narrative would be to assume that the male characters in Heart of Darkness are portrayed in a positive light. As Douglas Brown articulates, “It seems perverse and sentimental to attribute to anyone except Marlow the notion that Kurtz represents a character to be admired… Yet a good deal of criticism appears to suppose simply this to be Conrad’s own view of the matter”. Rather than adopting a heroic status, Kurtz serves as a tragic product of the world of masculine activity in which he resides; he is a man who has been brutalized and corrupted as a result of racism, exploitation, and warmongering. In the light of this, it is likely that Conrad intended the dependability and faithfulness of women such as the Intended to act as a foil to the senseless foolishness and brutality of his male characters. This is made especially apparent during Marlow’s visit to Kurtz’s bereaved fiancée, where he praises the Intended’s “mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering”. While the world of men is unstable and corrupt, the world of women exudes a reassuring sense of loyalty and endurance, thus presenting the reader with an alternative to the destructive sphere of masculine activity.

Moreover, it is possible to develop this argument further and claim that women exert a great deal of power over the plot, both in a practical and symbolic sense. In spite of her naivety, for example, Marlow’s aunt succeeds in securing him a highly-regarded job as a captain. The importance of women to the novel is most strikingly demonstrated, however, through the bizarre and dreamlike sequence in which Marlow encounters two women knitting black wool shortly before his departure for Africa. Their “uncanny and fateful” manner prompts Marlow to speculate that they may be “guarding the door of Darkness” [111], thereby placing them in the symbolic and powerful role of sinister guardians of the other world. Indeed, the elder of the women, who regards two passing youths with a look of “unconcerned wisdom,” may in fact be the character who most resembles Conrad himself – a shrewd outsider, coolly observing the mindless folly of men in power, and the futility of their bellicose activities. While the importance of Conrad’s female characters is understated in Marlow’s account of his voyage, perhaps women are ultimately the driving-force behind much of the novel, with their wisdom and fortitude permeating even the most masculine of environments. Through his ambiguous and unobtrusive depiction of women, therefore, it is clear that “Conrad was not entirely immune to the infection of the beliefs and attitudes of his age, but he was ahead of most in trying to break free”.

In conclusion, while feminist criticism of the novel is largely rooted in legitimate concerns about the marginalised position of women and the protagonist’s use of distinctly masculine language, it would be inaccurate to view Joseph Conrad as a sexist writer, or Heart of Darkness as a misogynist novel. The masculine world of imperialism, with its futile acts of hypocrisy and oppression, is portrayed as an undesirable form of governance, and Conrad’s male characters are the subject of a sharply satirical critique. It is a novel about men; yet female characters are depicted in contrasting and richly diverse ways, with figures such as Kurtz’s intended and the sinister women in Brussels occupying a crucial role in the text’s exploration of the dark side of human nature. Therefore, to simply dismiss the novel as a “boys’ book” deprives the reader of an expressively pertinent insight into human morality, politics and psychology.

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