By: Tom Rider
The Role of Women in Heart of Darkness Women have taken an increasingly important role in literature. Only recently, historically speaking, have authors portrayed women in a dominant, protagonistic light. Sophocles and other classical writers portrayed women more as reactors than heroines. Since the ancient Greeks, however, a trend has been established that gives women characters much more substance and purpose. A definite shift from the antediluvian ways can be seen, and the overall complexity of women characters has increased exponentially. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, however, the portrayal of women takes a backwards step and is reverted back to the primitive, more demeaning viewpoint. Conrad employs characters that reflect the archaic perspectives concerning women. The main character, Marlow, generalizes all women and depicts every woman as living in a dream-like state merely “going through the motions” of life. In his descriptions of the various women characters, Marlow either implies or directly states that women are not mentally equipped to survive in society, and can only function in a dream-like state. He also conveys that it is the responsibility of men to save women and preserve their naivete. This point of view is reflected often, and stems from his English upbringing and the British society of the day. Marlow speaks utilizing many lewd words and racial slurs. Many of the Victorian ideals still remain within English culture, and this fragility towards women is a prime example of the fragmented set of beliefs. Nevertheless, Marlow views women as mindless pawns, his stance is evident when he goes to speak with the Intended. While speaking with Marlow, the Intended praises Kurtz and speaks of his many good deeds and respectable traits. Hearing these glorifications, Marlow could not bring himself to tell her the truth. Marlow knew that these falsities were the only barrier between the Intended and the darkness of Kurtz and society as a whole. Marlow also described the Native Woman in depth throughout the novel. In one such passage, he gives the reader an illustration by stating “She was savage and superb, wild eyed and magnificentshe stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.” Conrad describes the Native Woman with such exuberance and detail in order to create a conflict between the African Native and the Intended. Later on in the story Marlow describes the Intended by stating: “She came forward all in black and with a pale head, floating toward me in the duskI noticed she was not very youngI mean not girlishThe room seemed to have grown darker, as if all the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead. This fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me.” By analyzing the differences in these quotes, we can reduce the message down to one of the most important themes of the entire story. The Native represents purity, innocence, nature, and simplicity; the Intended is a symbol of industry, clamor, and exploration. Keeping this is in mind, and noticing how Conrad describes the Native as “magnificent” and “superb” and the Intended as “dark” and “cloudy”, it is apparent in which ideal Conrad supports. Conrad, like many of his contemporaries believed that society corrupts and simplicity key to happiness and fulfillment. Although the Native Woman is expressed as lovely and “purposeful”, Marlow still views her merely as an object, and not a complex being with notable substance or worth. Unlike Marlow, the Narrator has much more respect and adoration for women. The narrator isn’t as much of an integral part of the story as Marlow, and thus the reader has less evidence to build from. The little script devoted to the Narrator, however is very clear in reflecting the viewpoint that he believes women have great importance in society. In chapter two, the Narrator foreshadows the importance a woman will play in the plot of the story. Through word usage and a more respectful tone, the reader understands that the Narrator has a favorable opinion of women. In the “big picture” of this great story, women play a very important role in Heart of Darkness. The intended, like all aspects of the story, has deep metaphorical meaning. In context of the story, she represents civility and industrialization. Another woman, the Native Woman, is also very important to the story. Also in love with Kurtz, this woman represents nature and simplicity. These two juxtaposed women are noble, graceful, and respectable characters that symbolize the opposite poles in Kurtz’s life. They are metaphors for the struggle and theme of Heart of Darkness. The struggle represented throughout Conrad’s time period–the struggle of industry versus simplicity. After reading Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness, one may develop the opinion that Joseph Conrad was sexist. All the main characters are male and none of the women in the story are taken very seriously. The women are viewed as mere symbols and not real characters. There are no quoted in the entire story where a woman says something intelligent, meaningful, or important. Conrad only used the women in the story as symbols for his thematic metaphors. The women represented large facets of society or nature, but were not given much personality on individualism. By the end of the story, the reader knows a tremendous amount of information about Marlow and Kurtz, and Conrad’s novel could be called a case study for either of them. No new information is known about the psyche or inter-workings of the women of Heart of Darkness and even though the females in the story represent vast societies, their personal anonymity could leave the reader empty and searching for substance.
Conrad, Joseph; The Heart of Darkness
Word Count: 958
By: Tom Rider