How Do Early and Late Feminists Have Read “The Heart of Darkness”

January 12, 2021 by Essay Writer

Smith asseverates that she has “tried to show the utility for imperialist ideology of a gender ideology that constructs a feminine sphere as ‘too beautiful altogether’” (Smith183). She presents her thesis through an engagement with feminist “rethinking” (169), successfully noting the binary relationship between men and women. This paper pares down Smith’s argument into its most elemental form: By clannishly attributing undesirable feminine interpretations of imperialist ideology to women, using the literary tools of silencing and symbolizing, Marlow is empowered to formulate his personal masculine construction to obviate the collapse of the separate spheres of genders. In her supporting points calling on the representation of each significant woman in the novel, Smith indeed stays true to the ‘first-wave’ feminist methodology of, “identifying and opposing the various ways women are excluded, suppressed, and exploited” (Lynn 212). However, an important point to note is that she only sporadically ventures beyond, into post-feminism thinking of, “exposing the arbitrariness of this (male) privileging by reversing it, advocating matriarchal values” (214). Evidently, Smith has an ambiguous rending of feminist criticism.

Smith’s analysis of the representation of the laundress can be condensed into this statement: “That the laundress is silenced indicates Marlow’s power” (Smith 173), connoting that Marlow has full control over the portrayal of the laundress. The work of a feminist critic is “to expose this opposition … thereby undermining its power by exposing its artifice.” (Lynn 220) However, Smith does not go beyond stating “the laundress becomes vividly present by virtue of her absence” (Smith 173). In my opinion, her silence does not just render her “present”, but also ratiocinate a form of strong hold over the men. Marlow “respected” the accountant purely on the account that “his starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character” (Conrad 33) and the accountant’s appearance is wholly contributed by the laundress. To add on, the fact that the men are discussing about her in her absence also indicates her importance in the accountant’s life. Hence, Smith herself should do away with the assumption that it is only “natural that a native woman should do a white man’s laundry” (Smith 173) and gain new feminist perspective that the laundress might indeed be the silent ‘power-holder.’

Smith rightfully identifies that Marlow has a “condescending construction” (Smith 177) of his aunt. However, the closest Smith goes about to reverse this binary relationship is to admit that the aunt’s belief is not “unambiguously feminine,” but a “variant of the masculine imperialism”. (178). She advocates that Marlow “uses (his aunt) feminine lack of experience” (179). In Smith’s perspective, his aunt is likened to be Marlow’s chess piece – her only function is to produce “an ideological defense of masculine belief” (179). Indeed, her feminist criticism is undeniably right, showing that Marlow manipulate women’s representation to achieve his own aims. However, she falls short of elaborating the fact that Marlow might be the aunt’s chess piece. Dependent upon his aunt for his position as ship’s captain, Marlow realizes that he has been “represented to the wife of the high dignitary” (Conrad27). “Represented”, he is the object of someone else’s signification over which he has no control. “A piece of good fortune for the Company” (27), he is also an object of economic exchange. When Marlow says of his aunt “she made me quite uncomfortable” (27), it has been repeatedly assumed that his discomfort emanates from her naïve religiosity. A more covert, but more plausible, reading suggests that Marlow, sensing that he has become an object of someone else’s discourse, becomes uncomfortable in the realization that the ideology of male dominance might not hold true.

Smith decorously points out “the Intended is Marlow’s construct” (Smith180). Just before Marlow visits the Intended, he concludes from her portrait “she seemed ready to listen without mental reservation” (Conrad 90). However, Smith does not conform to, “the most obvious critical strategy” of feminist criticism, which is “to look for contradictions … as the author speaks different things to different audiences with the same text” (Lynn 224). She fails to enumerate that when Marlow encounters the Intended, he finds his representation of her challenged. She desires to talk far more than she wishes to listen, and her focus is more on herself than it is on Kurtz: “He needed me! Me!” (Conrad93). Instead of her listening to him, Marlow finds that he listens to her. In effect, she presents to him with an alternative representation, which threatens to undo his constructed theory of male superiority. Marlow in the opening exchange with the Intended is reduced to echoing the Intended’s words. It is uncanny that Marlow, who propagates a constructed narrative about women as narrative truth, who attempts to subjugate women as the weaker sex, is reduced to the same fate.

Moreover, her ratification of Marlow’s lie does not “break down our preconceptions and prejudices” (Lynn 215) which feminism criticism ought to. She surmises “Marlow’s lie functions to stabilize both the feminine sphere of “saving illusion” and the masculine sphere of “confounded fact” (Smith 181). In my opinion, that assay of Marlow’s lie is just brushing the surface of feminist criticism. His lie supplants the woman that it names, rendering woman and lies interchangeable. Lies or the untruth become linked with the body and the feminine – that which Marlow wishes to escape. Therefore, Smith should bring up that it is highly paradoxical that Marlow himself lies, which creates a blurring of gender within his character.

On the other hand, Smith does a competent feminist critique of the representation of the savage woman and the Company women. She goes beyond the basics of determining that Marlow symbolizes and commodifies the woman’s body as the enigma of the jungle and as a thing on which “value” is displayed respectively. She achieves that by challenging the notion of a female identity, advancing that “she might not be the conventionally feminine or conventionally native figure constructed by Marlow’s ideological narrative” (Smith 175). Smith also uses the woman’s silence to indicate ideological stress, thereby revealing “ideology as ideology” (Smith 175). Similarly, Smith’s assertion that the company women “dramatizes the futility of Marlow’s attempt to separate the realm of domesticity from that of colonial adventure, the feminine sphere from the masculine” (Smith 176) is developed relevantly in feminist methodology. By showing the dismantling of the separate spheres, she managed to “deconstruct the binary, dismantling the very oppositional structure that makes oppression and prejudice possible” (Lynn 214). In the substantiation of these women, Smith succeeds in “(undermining) the very idea of stable sexual oppositions” (Lynn 215), holding true to feminist methodology.

In my summary and evaluation of Smith’s article, I have endeavored to show the limitations of her argument, which attempts to hold on to feminist criticism by fundamental identification of sexual oppression and rather sketchy analysis of how Conrad had presented women in his novel. Attempts to “replace dualism with diversity and consensus with variety” (Lynn 214) are too exiguous to regard it as a commendable piece of feminism criticism.


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed Ross C. Murfin. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Bedford/St. Martina, 1996.

Smith, Johanna. “Too Beautiful Altogether” Ideologies of Gender and Empire in Heart of Darkness. Ed Ross C. Murfin. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Bedford/St. Martina, 1996.

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts. 4th Ed. Pearson Education, 2005.

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