THE IMAGES AND FUNCTIONS OF WOMEN IN CONRAD'S HEART OF DARKNESS
Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, published in 1902, was one of the first novels of the twentieth century. As such, it captures fully the formerly static and now changing world of that era, both by the author's will and despite it, for Conrad too was a man of that time, and as such, he too shared some of the prejudices of his time. This essay will focus on one aspect of Conrad's novella, the role of women, and will try to answer the question, as to whether or not Joseph Conrad was a misogynist.
The first woman that readers are introduced to in the novel is Marlow's aunt, who actually gets him the job on the Congo:
The men said, `My dear fellow,' and did nothing. Then--would you believe it?--I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work--to get a job. [...] I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. [...] I got my appointment--of course; and I got it very quick.
(Heart of Darkness, pg 128)
The quotation above illustrates several things about the relationship between the sexes at the turn of the century. At this time, officially, it was still very much a man's world when it came to power, especially social and political, but unofficially, women were already exerting their influence, if at least behind the scenes. Marlow, now, is a rather typical man of the turn of the century, who probably does believe that men are better than women and gets surprised when he discovers that women can do things when men apparently cannot. Marlow, however, is not Conrad, or even Conrad's mouthpiece; that job goes to Marlow's interlocutor and one of his friends - the true narrator of the story.
Later on, incidentally, Marlow meets his aunt one more time in Heart of Darkness - to say good bye. Here, his cynical and rather sarcastic nature makes itself known once again:
[...] I was also one of the Workers, with a capital--you know. [...] a lot of such rot loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rust of all that humbug, got carried off her feet.
(Heart of Darkness, pg 131)
Now, although just a paragraph or so after this Marlow says openly that women are simply not adapted to live in the world of men - a statement that is most probably sexist, especially by today's standards - the quotation above implies that this may be the fault of men as well: they publish a lot of rot, and the women (but also men, like Marlow was initially), unable to distinguish wrong from right, get trapped in it, like Marlow's aunt was. Alternatively, what Conrad talks about here, is not about the inability of women to live in `a real world', but about the corruption of the imperialist European society, where even its better members, such as Marlow's aunt, get corrupted by its influence into someone worse. To Conrad, men and women are not so different, when it comes to imperialism in Heart of Darkness, and he deals with both genders of imperialists in the same way - negatively.
Some other factors that affect the treatment of women in Heart of Darkness are allegory and symbolism. When Marlow comes to the European office of the company he meets two nameless women, (three, if you count the secretary who is dismissed as soon as Marlow mentions her) and they make a profound impression on him:
Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool. [...] People were arriving, and the younger one was walking back and forth introducing them. The old one sat on her chair. [...] she glanced at me above the glasses. The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me. [...] She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall [...] Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again--not half, by a long way.
(Heart of Darkness, pg 129-130)
On a realistic level, these two ladies were nothing peculiar - just a pair of working working-class women, co-workers of the nameless secretary. Out there, however, in the dark mystery of the Congo, Marlow's troubled memory and increasingly disturbed mind began to attribute more supernatural qualities to them. It is reasonable to assume that the two women and the secretary represent three fates, pagan goddesses, who measured out the lives of people on their looms and when the time came - they cut off the threads and the lives. Marlow, when he mentions how those, who are ready to die, salute the old lady, probably is ironic on some level - but on another, he is equally sincere. One thing here he is not, however, is misogynist - rather, he is quite polite regarding at least two of the women out of three, even if this respect seems to be based on the fear of supernatural, rather than on anything more positive or concrete.
Admittedly, Marlow does not stop at attributing supernatural qualities to women alone: as he arrives at the Congo and goes deeper and deeper into the depths of darkness, the realistic and supernatural interweave more and more tightly. There are, however, only two more women - one in Africa, the other in Europe - where he uses this approach. They are Mr. Kurtz's African mistress and his European Intended.
In certain ways, Kurtz's Intended is similar to Marlow's own aunt. She too exists in a world that appears to be separate from the world that Marlow and the others inhabit, for it is too romantic and innocent by far - and not in a good way. There is even some foreboding, when Marlow talks in the first part of his tale how the world of women would crumble if they were to set it up, and while it is sexist, it is also true, for the world of the Intended, at least did fall apart after all.
Yet, for all of the apparent misogyny that will appear once Marlow will start to talk about his visit to Kurtz's Intended, when it comes to Kurtz's African mistress, the situation is quite different:
[...] a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.
She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high, her hair was done in the shape of a helmet, she had brass leggings to the knees [...] She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate process. [...] the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.
(Heart of Darkness, pg 162)
It is debatable, whether or not the quote above has any sexist remarks by modern standards or not, but the admiration that is being shown in it is quite, quite obvious. There is allegory too in this persona - Kurtz's African mistress may be the representation of Africa's heart - perhaps of darkness, probably of savagery, wilderness, passion...but the tone of Marlow's voice, when he is describing her, is far less negative, or scornful, or sarcastic, as it is when he is describing the European characters in his tale. Marlow (just like Conrad himself) is a child of his time, which means that he probably believes that the Europeans are superior to the Africans in certain ways, but Heart of Darkness also conveys that when it comes to the colonialism (at least the continental one, unlike the British), then the reverse might actually be true.
The dusk was falling. [...] A grand piano stood massively in a corner with dark gleams on the flat surfaces like a sombre and polished sarcophagus. A high door opened--closed. I rose.
She came forward all in black with a pale head, floating towards me in the dusk. She was in mourning. [...] I noticed she was not very young--I mean not girlish. [...] The room seemed to have grown darker as if all the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead. This fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked at me.
(Heart of Darkness, pg 171)
There are probably few contrasts that are so vivid than the one between Kurtz's African mistress and his European Intended. One is black, the other is white, one is full of life and vitality, the other - of death and sterility. Indeed, Marlow is trying to be objective and sympathetic, when he meets with Kurtz's Intended - there is little, if any, of his trademark sarcasm, and he does decide to lie to her, trying, perhaps, to spare her from Kurtz's horror in the heart of darkness. Yet, despite that, Kurtz's Intended seems to be a nearly perfect counterpart to Kurtz; Marlow, in fact, almost sees them melded together when he meets the Intended in her dark, tomb-like dwelling, reminiscent of the white sepulchres that Marlow talks about in the first part of the novella.
Nevertheless, for all of the negative connotations regarding Kurtz's Intended, few of them can be considered misogynist, or truly sexist. Rather, to Marlow, Kurtz's Intended seems to be another aspect of Europe's imperialist policy, or even, allegorically speaking, she is Europe, just as Kurtz's mistress is Africa. Just like before, when Marlow had encountered the women in the company's office, the realist elements of this encounter became heavily augmented, or even overpowered, by the supernatural ones. Marlow's (and by extension, Conrad's) critique or disapproval of Kurtz's European Intended is not personal - it is just another condemnation of the imperialist Europe.
The novella Heart of Darkness is set in a world of already-set old values, where might made right and black was worse than white. It was written as a piece of work that aimed to challenge such values - and it did so, successfully. However, it was also set out to challenge international, imperialist values - not the internal, more domestic ones, which included the rights of women, and it showed. In Heart of Darkness, practically all of women are allegorized to some point or another, or treated rather according to the social norms of the turn of the twentieth century, norms that appear more sexist in modern times. All of these facts are important when one is reading this novella, but they do not diminish its main, progressive message, and that is what truly important.
Conrad, Joseph. "Heart of Darkness". Ed. Jerome Beaty. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1999