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. 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.
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...
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