Attitude to Feminism in "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad: [Essay Example], 1112 words GradesFixer
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Attitude to Feminism in "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad

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In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s preconceived notion of the naïve and sheltered woman is revealed early in the novel: “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.” (Conrad 10) However, it is because of the women’s purity and naivete that the female characters in the novel–Marlow’s aunt, knitters of black wool, the African mistress, and the Intended–possess a sense of mystery and wield power over the men. The women eventually lead the reader to the discovery of a new truth—not that of the stark reality of the Congo, but of the fact that men yield to women’s will as a way to discover and assert themselves. The women are powerful enough to present the men with a direction, a literal journey, and a sense of purpose.

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Though Marlow’s aunt and the wool knitters appear for only a short period, their presence precipitates and steers the course of the novel. Marlow’s aunt, who is presented as a disillusioned woman stubbornly adhering to the notion of “White Man’s Burden,” is the one who actually directs Marlow into his expedition of self-discovery and truth in the first place. This irony is compounded by the fact that it is Marlow’s aunt who comes to the rescue when his own efforts prove fruitless: “The men said ‘My dear fellow,’ and did nothing. Then–would you believe it?–I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work–to get a job.”  This passage implies that, regardless of Marlow’s condescending views of women, he too realizes (though without admitting it outright) the female influence and his and other men’s powerlessness. It is his aunt’s belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity that gives her power over men; she justifies male imperialistic goals and becomes the object onto which these men project wealth, power, and status.

The women in the Belgian company office knit black wool, symbolizing and foreshadowing a sealed fate, dark and tragic. Their power rests in their possession of this fate, and their presence is so domineering that later in the journey, Marlow yields to their unquestionable authority: “The knitting old woman with the cat obtruded herself upon my memory as a most improper person to be sitting at the other end of such an affair.”  If Marlow’s aunt is the usher into Darkness, then the knitters are the Darkness’ gatekeepers, and Conrad’s representation of fate as two women is no concidence. The connection between the aunt and the knitters, and eventually the other female characters, binds them in a sisterhood, and their roles only complement their own respective goals in maneuvering the men.

The ending of the book is shaped by the African mistress and the Intended. In physical contrast to the ailing Kurtz, the two women are towers (literally, by the descriptions of their height and outstretched arms) of strength, devotion, and purity. Throughout the book, Kurtz is the “remarkable person” , the “exceptional man” , and a quasi-Christ-like figure, but, to Marlow, the Intended is a god: “bowing my head before the faith that was in her”  and “silencing me into an appalled dumbness” . While Kurtz holds truth, the Intended holds illusion, and Marlow’s ultimate lie proves the world of women overcomes the world of truth. It is women’s illusion that shelters men and gives them strength and purpose. This protection can be clearly seen with the Intended: her depiction of Kurtz is drastically different from the reader’s observations, and her distorted image of Kurtz creates his pristine legacy by cleansing him of his corruption. Her “inextinguishable light of belief and love” manages to extinguish the darkness of humanity, of the man’s world.

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Marlow’s asserts women are “out of it” , that they exist in their own ideal space, void of vision and possibility and unbeknownst to truth and reality. Yet Marlow’s journey into the Congo places him into a dreamlike state in which he similarly cannot discern truth from fantasy. The implications of a thick, dark jungle signify a world where “the reality fades” and “the inner truth is hidden” . Thus, though both the female and male worlds are dark, the female characters dominate because they have not fallen into the male abyss—due to their purity and pledge of responsibility and faith. Marlow’s hazy journey into the Congo and hazy views of the female gender are similar, and this similarity is made even more apparent when he encounters the African mistress, who actually embodies the wilderness itself: “And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense darkness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, and though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.”  Ironically, he is strongly attracted to her powerful feminine force, the force of nature, of the female world, which he had once made an effort to avoid. With his travel down the Congo, he has been forced to immerse himself in the female realm, an image of the African mistress with receiving arms, which has similarly “caressed him Kurtz taken him, loved, him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul…”.

Marlow’s confused view of women can be read in parallel with Conrad’s own struggle to overtly and covertly balance the strong female presences in his work. In the beginning of the novel, Marlow is disoriented by his aunt, who manages to throw his opinions of gender and power into question. Thereby, Marlow becomes uneasy about his own powerlessness and the fact that women might have an existence aside from his problematic interpretations. In order to adhere to his viewpoints, however, Marlow refuses to admit the nuances he himself allows the reader to observe (i.e. the unmistakable power of his aunt, the knitters, the African mistress, and the Intended beyond his own), and his omission reveals a fear which in turn imparts an independent and potent sphere to those women. It is with this sphere–and the mystery within–that Conrad is able to reveal female power beyond a literal portrayal. That power is deeply psychological and subconscious, and closely intertwined amongst the women–the aunt ushering, the knitters guiding, the African mistress embracing, and the Intended cleansing–to conform the male characters to the female will.

Works Cited

  1. Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.

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