The Significance of Women in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
- Word count: 1287
- Category: Heart of Darkness
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Over the past couple of centuries, and throughout the evolution of the Western civilization, women have been fighting for equal rights regardless of gender, and progress was achieved. Nevertheless, when reflecting on the history of the world and literature, women have all too often been diminished to insignificant and demeaning roles. They may sometimes have been portrayed as dominant, in a protagonistic light, but most of the time women were simply depicted as submissive beings.
Although Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, focuses on men’s role in colonization, several female characters appear throughout the book and play significant supporting roles. Despite the story narrator’s – Marlow – disparaging comments about women, the latter display or represent a substantial amount of power and influence. During the Victorian Period, women had a very particular gender dynamic. They were in the background and viewed as subordinates. They were thought to need protection for their purity and innocence.
Though the state was configured as a woman, since Queen Victoria was the most influential person at that time, the Victorian Period was a patriarchal society, where men were the only ones who could vote and possess property. In a strange, ironic, paradox kind of way, power never works in a way we think it does. For example, The Victorian Period was a social culture. People relied on parties and balls to heighten a family’s reputation, wealth, and influence. Usually, those who fashioned these events were the widows. They had all the power.
They were the ones who “pulled the strings,” marrying young women to influential men. Therefore, this displays that although women were seen as irrelevant and insignificant, they had some of the most power. In Heart of Darkness, women are portrayed as secondary characters. They are viewed as second class citizens and have little to no power. They reflect the values of society and are seen as nothing more than trophies for men. However, the women who seem at first to have little power are in fact extremely influential upon closer inspection. For example, Marlow’s aunt.
Though Marlow relates to his audience his conception of women as trivial and idle in their interaction with reality by stating, “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own” (14), the aunt holds a significant amount of power. For example, when explaining how he got his job as a steamboat pilot, he demeaningly said he “tried the women” and “set the women to work – to get a job” (9). Therefore, the only reason he was employed was that the aunt used her influence with the wife of a high Company official.
Additionally, Marlow encounters two other women at the Company’s office, who “knitted black wool feverishly” (12). Describing one of the older women, he said,“She seemed to know all about them and about me, too. An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful” (12). This description is a perfect representation of the Moirae – the ancient Greek personifications of fate. According to legends, two out of the three Fates spin the life-thread of every human being; the third Fate cuts it when it comes time for a man to die.
The Fates, being immortal, have the foresight and can see every man’s fate, thus being very powerful creatures. In addition to Marlow’s aunt and The Fates, another woman that plays a significant role in Heart of Darkness is Kurtz’s African mistress. Marlow first introduces her by describing her beauty. He states that: She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments.
She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck… She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. (75-76) In other words, Kurtz’s African mistress is not only the role of a person but the personification of Africa, as it is dark and mysterious. Additionally, Marlow’s description of her supports this idea because the mistress is dark and savage, but also “gorgeous,” embodying all the beauty, mystery, and danger of Africa.
Further, she seems to exert an undue influence over the natives around the station. Marlow explains “there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress…the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul” (76). In addition to having power over the natives, she also has power over Kurtz. For example, the Russian sailor tells Marlow how “she got in one day and kicked up a row about I wasn’t decent.
At least it must have been that, for she talked like a fury to Kurtz for an hour… I fancy Kurtz felt too ill that day to care, or there would have been mischief” (76). From this textual evidence, it is clear that the African mistress is the one who wears the pants in her and Kurtz’s relationship, as Kurtz did not stand up to her. Further analyzing this topic, this can be seen as the Congo slowly gaining the “upper hand. ” As Africa lures men full of lusts, she has her way with them, as revenge for the colonization.
This portrays Africa like a siren, luring men to their deaths with her sweet songs, with her awe-inspiring terror and savagery, despite all the damage and abuse inflicted upon by the Europeans. Moreover, the last significant woman in Heart of Darkness is the Intended. The Intended was Kurtz’s fiancee who waited in Belgium while Kurtz was in the Congo gathering ivory.
Marlow visits her more than a year after Kurtz’s death and notices she is still in mourning. Marlow describes their encounter by stating that “She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering… ll in black with a pale head, floating towards me in the dusk… This fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked at me” (92). Furthermore, if the African mistress is the personification of Africa, then the Intended is the personification of colonization. For example, she is utterly infatuated with Kurtz and believes herself the single most definitive authority on his character: “I am proud to know I understood him better than any one on earth” (93).
This textual evidence shows how the Intended is like many Europeans; they believe in the greatness of men like Kurtz without knowing the dark and hidden parts of their characters. Additionally, when Kurtz died, his last words were “The horror! The horror! ” (86). This is represented as the idea of colonization dying. Since the Intended asked what his last words were, and Marlow told her Kurtz said her name. He did this not only to spare her feelings, but he was also telling the truth, that the dream of colonization is dead. Women in Heart of Darkness, even outwardly powerful ones, are sidelined by society and Marlow.
He believes women should be shielded from knowledge of the real world, and how they want the illusion, and the ivory—not the reality of African slaves worked to death. However, after reading the novella and analyzing the text, it is clearly seen that they are far from being powerless. They display and represent significant amounts of power and influence in the Congo and in westernized Europe. Whether aiding Marlow to reconsider the social norms of Europe’s society, or explaining the elements of jungle, women brought light to the dark truths within this novella.