A Feminist Criticism of Heart of Darkness
In the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a struggle between humanity and the desire for success and power is told through the bloody sea ventures of Marlow and a crew of men, as well as their leader - A Feminist Criticism of Heart of Darkness introduction. Although female characters aren’t in abundance, their role (and absence thereof) paint a clear picture of their societal value at the time.
The first female presence in the work is Marlow’s Aunt. Because there is no mention of Marlow having any kinship with other females prior, it appears he derives all his opinions of women from her. She lands him a job with a company intent on imperialism, a movement she believes to be a charitable act towards those living in less civilized lands than theirs. Marlow finds her ideas deluded, and uses them as an excuse to write off women as a whole as out of touch with reality. It is ironic that the aunt he considers unable to exist in a practical world is the one responsible for providing him with the means to support himself financially.
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A more subtly referenced group of females in the novel are the majestic vessels on which they explore the seas. Classically, ships have always been identified as feminine nouns, as they are often in this story. They carry great respect, as symbols of shelter and safety from the treachery of the sea. This contradicts how actual females are viewed by Marlow, as a “ball and chain” and cause of restlessness, certainly not things to be respected. The Company’s ship is also referred to once as “the sea’s mistress”. Later in the story, Kurtz’s mistress is described as the only female character that doesn’t lower herself to the meek and mindless level males expect her too. Although she obviously doesn’t earn respect due to her promiscuous ways, she, like their ships, does as she pleases despite the opposition of society.
At one rare point where Marlow criticizes Kurtz, he does so by comparing him to a woman. Marlow states that the dangers Kurtz faced when collecting his wares were comparable to those encountered by “an enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle”. Marlow’s choice of words is indicative of just how out of touch with women he is. The “fairy princess” he referenced in truth is his idea of the stay-at-home wives of crew members, or anyone else who lives comfortably without having to do strenuous work.
Another of the few female characters introduced is Kurtz’s fiancé, also known as “the intended”. It took close reading to understand that this connoted disrespect on Marlow’s part, and wasn’t just an expression of the period. Due to Marlow’s delusions regarding women as a whole, he can’t muster anything near support towards his colleague’s impending marriage. He sees the union as having two separate effects: to bring his “intended” into the real world by having a man to guide her, as well as bringing Kurtz down in worth by wasting his energy on her.
Marlow’s attitude towards women isn’t able to be explained by the time period alone. Not only is the protagonist disrespectful towards women, he refuses to acknowledge that they may be a part of anything practical or successful. This refusal to see the truth about an entire gender serves to emphasize Marlow’s dysfunction in his entirety, as well as humanizing the likely sociopathic Kurtz, who is able to have a normal (albeit dishonest) relationship with the woman he intends to marry. Overall, Joseph Conrad employs the scant amount of female presences in Heart of Darkness as a stabilizing force to better understand the psyche of the main players of the story.