Works of literature are not simply of novels, poems, plays, etc. that individuals read, rather they are like doors that allow people to enter an entirely different world—a world where they can perceive things through various lenses and enlighten their mentality. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is the epitome of enlightening literature that presents a lense to controversial topics. This novella specifically demonstrates ideas like postcolonialism, racism, and marxism. Though this may be, one of the most apparent and significant topics throughout Conrad’s novella is the unequal representation of women compared to men. Some people believe that Conrad writes about females this way because during the time that Heart of Darkness was written traditional gender roles were prevalent. However, there were also women’s suffrage movements and the spark of feminism, which Conrad was well aware of.
Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness ultimately portrays anti-feminism through Marlow’s lack of respect and disconnection to women, Conrad’s portrayal of specific gender roles and narrative voices for women compared to that of men in the novella, and the prejudice representation of Kurtz’s African Mistress and the Intended. Thus, this demonstrates that Conrad belittles women because he feels insecure with the thought of strong women who could substantially threaten his masculine identity. At the onset of the novella, the protagonist Marlow immediately reveals his sentiments about women’s mental state with the world around them. He finds it “queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be” (Conrad 10). In other words, Marlow makes a prejudiced remark. He implies that women including his aunt are not mentally prepared or capable of undertaking the realities behind colonialism. He feels that women are too enclosed in their elusive fantasy of the world.
He believes that all women are ignorant based off of the few women he slightly got to meet. For example, the two women knitting black wool are perceived as “guarding the door of darkness” and creating this “eerie feeling that came over Marlow” (Conrad 8). It appears as if Marlow is afraid of women’s lack of concern with what occurs within Congo’s wild jungles. The wool is specifically described as black just like the dark heart of the Congo. This symbolic wool represents the truth of colonialism and the fate of European voyagers. These women contain “unconcerned eyes” as they watch many men in particular walk into the offices of the company where “not many of those she looked at ever saw her again” (Conrad 8). Clearly, Marlow emphasizes how apathetic women are as they hold the truth right in front of their hands and can see for themselves how most men’s fate end after journeying out into the heart of Africa.
Marlow’s view of females as being so distanced to reality might also be due to the fact that he has no true connection with female figures. Once again, he lived in a time when women were seen as incapable of doing or distinguishing most things, so having no female to actually grow familiarity about caused him to accept the already prevailing stereotypes about women. Thus, his lack of connection and acquaintance with his opposite sex results in disrespect towards females throughout the novella. There was only one female that Marlow has a seemingly close relationship with. Marlow’s aunt was special to him because she helped him obtain his job to sail the Congo.
Be that as it may, Marlow admits that her intelligence “made him quite uncomfortable” (Conrad 10). Marlow conveys that men have a responsibility to protect women and their innocence. He believes that if a female were to hold too much knowledge then she could potentially be in danger since she is mentally unequipped to survive society beyond the sugar coated tales. Although his aunt helped him get employed, he considers her with little respect as he saw her more so as a tool rather than a respected equal. She had social skills that instead of being acknowledged they are critiqued.
To Marlow, his aunt was just like every women kind that obtained such skills because they fed off of false western news from others. As a result, he took advantage of her skills in order to benefit himself. His lack of respect and disconnection to women is also evident when Marlow never tells Kurtz’s Intended the truth behind Kurtz’s last words. Near the ending of the novella, the Intended begs Marlow to tell her her lovers last words. Marlow hesitantly responds by assuring her that “the last word he pronounced was–your name” (Conrad 71).
Importantly, the hyphen is meant to show how reality hit the characters, meaning that as Marlow was about to tell the truth he realized how mentally weak women are and if he told her then accepting the reality of Kurtz’s degradation would require her to lose her imaginative world, sanity, and overall herself. Thus, Marlow here prefers to lie to the Intended which shows that he does not value female’s mind. He wants to be like Kurtz so he secretly likes the idea of having control over others. By lying, Marlow is manipulating the Intended and hopes to keep it this way for all women. This allows men to have someone who believes in them at all costs and generally who depend on them. As many readers have predicted, it is believed that although Marlow is just a character in the novella, at times he tends to represent Conrad’s mindset as well. With that being said, Conrad plays a significant role in why Marlow views women this certain way and why women are almost invisible throughout the novella.
Beyond Conrad’s actual words, the simple roles he has his characters play say so much more about the story and himself. Conrad intentionally makes his women characters and even female readers dependent of men. The female readers must wait for Conrad to introduce the females of his story. Once he does, the female characters are given this role where they need men to uphold their beliefs that Europeans are “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways” (Conrad 10). In short, just as the women characters like Marlow’s aunt and the Intended depend on Marlow for assurance, Conrad has the female readers depend on him to give them more information about his women characters.
Yet, Conrad takes none of the women including the female audience very seriously. Conrad refuses to give a voice or even names to his female characters. This lack of identity is a sign of disrespect and inferiority.
Conrad is showing that he is the one who has the power to give women a role and voice. The only thing in the novella that has an apparent female name was a ship called the Nellie. Marlow even finds lifeless objects like this ship much more important than a female. He might feel that naming women is a waste of time. Conrad might make Marlow feel uninterested towards the names of the novella’s women, but he makes the appearance of women very vivid.
Kurtz’s native mistress was immediately described by Marlow. He first saw her come out of the jungle moving like “a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman” with her “head high” and “tawny cheeks” (Conrad 55-56). She was indeed attractive, yet Conrad dislikes the idea of a strong women so he made Marlow add details to her physical description that degraded her. Marlow adds on that she was “savage, wild-eyed, and ominous” (Conrad 56).
Marlow had never truly met her before and he was already identifying her character. This prejudice approach reflects Conrad’s insecurity because it shows how placing the spotlight on women made all the reader’s attention steer away from the masculine figure, Marlow. Thus, from that point on Conrad refuses to make his male characters express awe or sympathy for any other women throughout the novella. This is evident towards the near end of the novella as Marlow confronts the Intended. While speaking with Marlow, the Intended is indirectly characterized as naive and ignorant to Kurtz’s activities in Africa.
She repeatedly praises Kurtz as a “remarkable man” who had “goodness that shone in every act” (Conrad 69-71). Her image of Kurtz is nothing compared to the corrupt Kurtz that Marlow knew. Without taking the time to fully understand the Intended, Marlow characterizes the Intended as he wishes. Also, instead of showing sympathy to her loss and telling her who Kurtz really was and what he said before dying, Marlow attempted to be heroic by lying to the Intended to keep her away from what existed outside her sphere. Conrad illustrates how men with control and power help women live a better life. The Intended needed Marlow to tell her “something–to–to live with” (Conrad 71). So, Marlow tells her what she needs to hear to feel better.
Conrad is showing how women are weak, dependent, and mindless without men. Women can only take part in the world alongside men if they continue to live up to their “beautiful world” and not get involved with the real-world. Conrad is actually expressing his insecurity as he uses Marlow’s conversation with the Intended at the end of the novella to advocate that women should stay inferior to men in order to stay safe. On the whole, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novella that exemplifies anti-feminism because of its failure to represent women as equal to men. The novella represents women with poor roles, no names, and no great significance to Europe or the Congo. By the end of the novella, the reader knows so much about the round characters such as Kurtz and Marlow, but women lack individualism.
Marlow’s focus on women’s appearance rather than their mentality, influence, or purpose demonstrates the intended audience which excludes female readers.