Heart of Darkness Feminist Reading

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Heart of Darkness Long Essay
Toby Anderson
Word Count: 2139

Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” from 1899 is set in a period where ivory was a very valuable commodity and was most common in Africa, thus was a time in which countries such as Belgium were involved in exploring and colonising the wild continent whilst extracting its valuable resources. “Heart of Darkness” is a three-part novella in which the story of Charlie Marlow’s adventure into the heart of Africa down the Congo River is told within the story of a sailor recounting Marlow’s own telling of the story on the deck of a ship as they sailed on the Thames River. The dominant reading that prevails through the thick jungle of adjectives and tangents that is “Heart of Darkness” involves notions of civilisation, comparing the advanced/evolved European to the savage/primitive African. However, there are several other rather concealed readings that can be drawn upon analysis. For example; “Heart of Darkness” contains examples throughout the story that enable a resistant feminist reading to be applied with regards to the western or European characters of the Aunt and the intended. When analysing the way in which ‘the African Goddess’ is portrayed in the story however, one is able to contrast the way in which western females are presented and the way in which gender roles are portrayed in a primitive Africa. It is clear that a resistant feminist reading doesn’t apply to her but rather an alternative feminist reading suggesting women have more power than men in a society of ‘savage natives’; Africa.

Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” provides a resistant reading that can be directly applied to the characters of the Aunt and the intended. As defined by Abrams’ “A glossary of Literary Terms”; it is a wide-ranging critique of the cultural identification of women as merely the negative object, or “other,” to man as the dominating “subject,” who is assumed to represent humanity in general. Both the Aunt and the intended serve as western marginalised characters within Heart of Darkness. The first example of this is that fact that neither is given a name, they’re simply named after how they relate to the key male characters of the story. They also represent the obedience and fidelity of women (as they were expected to be) as they waited for their men to return from their journeys, which they were not permitted to be part of. Not only this, but it is suggested that women should not be included in the truths of the world and rather kept to their own innocent realities; "Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of it - completely. 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 gets worse." This statement infers that women are not strong enough to cope with reality whilst men are, and so women should stand to the side of men for support and help where they can whilst the men experience the challenges of life.

The Aunt serves as the stereotypical nurse/mother role for Marlow, she does much of the organising for Marlow’s trip to be possible in the first place and nursed him back to health upon his return whilst receiving little gratitude and in fact criticism. This displays the difference in how women and men are constructed in this novel; women subservient and respectful in a ‘speak when spoken to’ manner, and men are dominant, with the ability to pursue adventure and excitement. The dominance of males is displayed through the passage; “Then would you believe it- I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work- to get a job. Heavens!” within this statement women are constructed the appear the faithful servants of men, “…put the women to work…” suggests that they are no more than well trained dogs, eagerly awaiting the next command of their master. The manner of surprise within this passage also highlights the attitudes towards women in the novel, as though it...
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