Women in Heart of Darkness

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In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the portrayal of women takes a backwards step and is reverted back to the primitive, more demeaning viewpoint. Conrad employs characters that reflect the archaic perspectives concerning women. The main character, Marlow, generalizes all women and depicts every woman as living in a dream-like state merely “going through the motions” of life.

His five women characters were kept unnamed and their speech limited, highlighting the belittlement of women in the male-dominated society. Thus, Conrad offered no advancement to the cause of women by following convention and minimizing the agency of females through the creation of two separate, engendered spheres.

Depicting women as unnatural entities, voiceless and agent less, to their male counterparts destroys any shot of redemption for the fairer sex, so Conrad aligns all the women in the narrative with unreality to evolve the importance of separate realms. By holding ignorant ideas, such as Marlow's aunt, or exotic appearances, such as Kurtz's mistress, the women are discounted as impractical, or if they hold some merit, they are viewed as eerie. Either way, they are made of none of the material found in the world of men, and so disaster befalls the men that dare breach the boundary between the worlds.

In his descriptions of the various women characters, Marlow either implies or directly states that women are not mentally equipped to survive in society, and can only function in a dream-like state. He also conveys that it is the responsibility of men to save women and preserve their naiveté. This point of view is reflected often, and stems from his English upbringing and the British society of the day. Marlow speaks utilizing many lewd words and racial slurs. Many of the Victorian ideals still remain within English culture, and this fragility towards women is a prime example of the fragmented set of beliefs.

The first women that Conrad's main character, Marlow, recounts are the two knitters at the Company office in Brussels. The younger one greets the men who come in for examinations before they leave for the "unknown," African wilderness, creating the illusion of a comfortable environment in what is otherwise an unsettling experience. The older knitter does not create such a welcoming image but instead makes a haunting impression on Marlow as only an "uncanny and fateful" person can. Looking up from her knitting only to scrutinize "the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes," she unnerves Marlow with her glance.

Such a troubling incident leaves the reader to wonder if these two women are really of this world. Of course, they cannot be because the "world" to Marlow is the mainstream, male world. Instead, the two women as "guardians of the door of darkness" usher the men into another world altogether - that of the uncivilized jungle. The younger woman, still unwise in the ways of the world, relays the carefree attitude of men before they enter the Congo, but the old woman, not subject to the animal desires of a man, sees all too clearly what happens to men in the "darkness". However, she sits "unconcerned" in her own, objective world and allows the men to discover if they have the inner strength to survive in the uncivilized jungle.

Before Marlow braves the challenges that await him in the Congo, he visits his aunt to thank her for securing the job of steamboat captain for him. Marlow remains critical of his aunt even though he could not get employment without her help. He views her as "out of touch with the truth" along with the rest of womankind, who are in "a world of their own". The world of women may be separate from the realm of Marlow and other males, but these worlds are certainly dependent on each other.

Just as Marlow depended on his aunt's social skills for employment, Conrad has the women characters depend on men to uphold their notions of what happens in spheres outside their own. Marlow cannot break his...
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