Women in Heart of Darkness

August 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

Throughout history, women have often been relegated to trivial and demeaning roles. From one standpoint, women in Heart of Darkness appear to have much more power than traditional roles have allowed. For example, Marlow’s aunt has significant influence within the Company since she is able to get Marlow a job, and the native mistress has a commanding presence within her tribe. Upon closer examination, however, the male patriarchal view of women in society, specifically by Marlow and Kurtz in the book, limits the importance of women. In the novel, women are viewed and treated as only two ways: inferior to men and ignorant of reality, despite any air of importance they may exhibit. Thus, although women appear superficially important in the novel, their roles are actually constrained by their male counterparts. Marlow’s aunt is the first woman readers see. She initially comes across as being a significant character since Marlow turns to her to get him a job. Marlow’s aunt knows “the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence” (44), suggesting that she is also respected by society. But, her worth is still secondary in Marlow’s opinion: Marlow comments that she was “ready to do anything, anything…if such was my fancy” (44), implying that the purpose of his aunt was to serve his whims. In fact, Marlow ridicules women in general when referring to his aunt: “Then-would you believe it?-I tried the women. I, Charles Marlow, set the women to work-to get a job. Heavens!” (44). Marlow’s statement supports the view that men see women as their last resort regardless of how prominent they may be. What is important here is that the woman’s inferiority derives not from herself but from the male’s perspective. Marlow’s aunt makes no comments about her place in society, but Marlow eagerly offers his, which explains why women are deemed inferior to men. In addition, Marlow’s aunt is presented in the novel as being detached from reality. She talks about “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways” (49), when in fact Marlow knows that “the Company was run for profit” (49). She falsely believes that the Company’s goal is first and foremost the civilizing of natives. Indeed, when his aunt talks about what Marlow calls “rot let loose in print and talk just about that time” (49), and the only advice she gives is to wear flannel in the Congo, readers get the sense that she is insulated from the truth of imperialism. From this impression of a woman in Victorian England, Marlow makes a general statement that sets the tone for female inferiority: “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything quite like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful together, 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” (49). Thus, to men, women are only important in their own world, a fictional setting shielded from reality.Another example of this “separate world” notion occurs when Marlow tells the Intended of Kurtz’s last words. Like Marlow’s aunt, the Intended represents women of Victorian England in that her reality was based on “the faith that was in her…that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness” (133). To Marlow, women must live in a perfect world: “They-the women I mean-are out of it-should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours get worse” (97). Again, women are shown to be ignorant of reality and are treated by men accordingly, such as when Kurtz describes the Intended as one item in a list of his property: “My intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my-” (97). Note, however, that only Marlow and Kurtz make these comments on the ignorance of women, and it is because of this view that Marlow lies to the Intended.In contrast to the Intended, the native mistress’ first appearance gives readers an image of a bold and courageous woman. She alone stands on the shore as men fire guns at the natives and is described as a “wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman…savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent” (113). The image she radiates seems unlike that of Marlow’s aunt or the Intended, in that the native woman has a commanding presence within her tribe. In actuality, despite the appearance of importance, she is regarded by men as expendable. The Russian says, “If she had offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot her” (114). Marlow and his men are allowed to help Kurtz, but the native woman is not even allowed to suggest helping. This inferiority of the native mistress in the Congo parallels the same role of the Intended in European civilization: women are helpless without men. This is evident when “the barbarous and superb woman…stretched tragically her bare arms after us over the somber and glittering river” (122), identical to when the Intended “put out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them back and with clasped pale hands…resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness” (134). Symbolically, this motion signifies the inexplicable female dependence on men in that both women reached out for Kurtz. Furthermore, the gesture demonstrates a side of women cultured by men, a refusal to accept reality. This is also shown by the native woman’s apparent unawareness of Kurtz’s atrocities.When taking into consideration all the male influences on women in the novel, it is impossible to support the notion that women were in any sense important. In the entire Heart of Darkness, few women are mentioned. Those that are have minor roles and are either regarded as inferior to men or detached from reality, despite having an artificial sense of value. This view of women is representative of the Victorian era in that women were male property. The importance of this notion, however, is that it is blatantly exemplified in the novel, raising the question of whether Conrad also held the same view as the men in the story.

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