It is said that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness fails to represent (or succeeds in misrepresenting) women by reducing them to mere stereotypical descriptions. Considering the novel has been observed from various perspectives in terms of racism and colonialism, we have to accept that the same should also apply to the issue of femininity. We must read closely in order to gauge whether the description of the women in Heart of Darkness should be taken literally or as a criticism of – or at least a commentary on – how women were viewed at the time. I posit that the latter is the case and that these characters must be viewed as ironic, or at the very least as an observation of naïve, privileged European women who perpetuated such views. If the novel is misogynistic, it is only to reflect the misogynistic state of mind of the culture in which Conrad resides.
We not only view women through the eyes of the character, Marlow – whose goal it is to become a captain of a boat – but through his observations of other men’s views. The first woman we meet is Marlow’s aunt, who wants to help him get a job on a steamboat working for the Company - an Imperialist outfit in the Congo dealing in slavery and ivory. She naively feels his idea is a “glorious” one and is “determined to make no end of fuss to get” Marlow “appointed skipper of a river steamboat” (23).
Marlow’s aunt is very proud of him and glorifies his position. Before leaving for the Congo, he is made uncomfortable by her ignorance of his job with the Company, and he expresses this to the men on the boat by saying, “it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are” (27). Unfortunately, this is not just Conrad being mean or misogynistic, or even simply how women were viewed at the time – it was how they were raised to be. As Mary Wollstonecraft said in A Vindication of the Rights of Women:
“...Men endeavor to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society” (Wollstonecraft 229).
Not only did men keep the truth from women out of the idea that women “live in a world of their own” (27), but also women perpetuated this sexism out of a desire to keep men happy.
Some women were so pampered that they held their positions with haughtiness and an air of authority, like the women at the Company’s office who “knitted black wool feverishly” (25). These women helped keep the momentum of the Company’s interests flowing with indifference. “The old one sat on her chair. Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on a foot-warmer, and a cat reposed on her lap” (25). She scrutinized “the cheery and foolish faces” of two newly employed youths with “unconcerned old eyes.” This woman knew these boys would probably not come back alive and she didn’t care. It is an apt description of the European privilege at the time; however, it does not follow Marlow’s ideal of the feminine fantasy world. The old woman is aware of the “truth,” but she remains aloof from it.
In the Congo, where people are brutalized and die, Marlow needs to believe that women live in a world of their own, because it means that the real world hasn’t completely ruined everything. In the midst of chaos in part two - after a man is killed and Marlow reacts nervously by throwing his shoes overboard and manically worries that he will never get to “hear” the mysterious Kurtz – there is much talk about this idealistic man who works for the Company, and Marlow has been looking forward to meeting him. He starts rambling about Kurtz’s “Intended,” or his fiancé. “She is out of it – completely. They – the women I mean – are out of it – should be out of it,” Marlow says, grasping, “we must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse” (63). Marlow sees the kept innocence of women as a beacon of promise and hope in a world gone mad.
His desperate attempt to hold on to the belief that all women are blind to reality is ironic, because his own ideals are not completely in sync with the real world. In a sense, Marlow himself lives in a fantasy world where all women are innocent and ignorant, but that vision is shattered when he sees Kurtz’s mistress. With her “measured steps” that tread “the earth proudly,” the Mistress carries “her head high” and “her hair [is] done in the shape of a helmet.” She is clothed in brass and is seen as “ominous and stately,” and “her face [has] a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve” (76-77). It is clear this is not just some female stereotype. She does not represent the naïve and privileged dreamer. This is a warrior and her power clearly upsets the pilgrims and the Russian who are on the boat with Marlow.
The Mistress thrusts her arms to the sky and with this motion her tribe lines the river and surrounds the steamboat. When she disappears into the bushes, the Russian nervously says, “If she had offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot her” (77). Her power is “too much” for him and he is so threatened that he wants her dead. This woman has turned the classic European Colonial sexist ideal on its side.
Back home, Marlow is once again with his aunt, who is oblivious to precisely what he is going through. While she wants to “nurse up his strength,” it is really his “imagination that [wants] soothing” (87). Perhaps if he had told this woman what really had happened she would not have believed him or taken him for crazy? Who knows, because Victorian sensibility did not leave much room for men to give women the benefit of the doubt.
While at first Marlow seems incredulous about the naiveté of women, and then in “the horror” of the Congo he desperately clings to the idea, when he meets Kurtz’s “Intended” fiancé he seems to simply want to protect the innocence. Back then, women were raised to be like children, and it was this expectation that kept them naïve. Marlow seems to feel for her not in spite of her innocence but because of it. He bows his head “before the faith that [is] in her, before that great and saving illusion that [shines] with an unearthly glow in the darkness” (92).
He feels protective because of her naiveté, and while he has been shown by the Mistress that women in general may be capable of seeing the world for what it is and living in it with the strength and power of a man, most “civilized” women are not. While this may indicate man’s willingness to perpetuate woman’s weakness, it does not mean that he does it out of a patriarchal fantasy, but out of a societal necessity.
I would be remiss if I didn’t make the claim that the cycle needs to be broken. The Intended is clearly blind to reality, and Marlow doesn’t stop to think that perhaps speaking the truth would show her that her thinking is small-minded, that there’s a greater tragedy than Kurtz’s death, and that is the death of a continent. The way she raises her hands to the sky is reminiscent of the Mistress’s anger; however, the intended weeps for only one man, whereas the much less ignorant Mistress weeps for an entire nation.
Conrad, Joseph. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Heart of Darkness. New York: Beford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Longman: Harlow, 2000. Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature Volume 2A: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. Longman: New York, 2003. Print.