The Portrayal of Women in Joseph Conrads "Heart Of Darkness"

Essay, 2018
13 Seiten, Note: 1,7
Johannes Viertel (Autor)


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Kurtz’s intended

3. Kurtz’s mistress

4. Marlow’s aunt

5. Female side roles

6. Conclusion

7. Literature

1. Introduction

The novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad has been discussed in depth by various students, professors and literature experts. Opinions vary widely in the racism debate, colonization / imperialism, and the representation of the female gender. For many it is a great piece of fiction and far ahead of its time. For others, the advocacy of slavery and imperialism as well as the oppression of women characterizes this novella.

This paper has the intention to display that the portrayal of women in Heart of Darkness is deeply sexist and shows characteristic differences between the male and female gender in terms of intellect, dignity, power and character.

Since the term “agency” appears in the title, it should be briefly defined to determine the exact focus of the work. The term appears in many different fields, for example in sociology, psychology, the world of work but also in literature. Even within the literature, there are several ways of looking at agency, mostly related to the work itself, the reader or the intention. In this context, we define agency as “the sort of free will required for moral responsibility […] compatible with the causal determination of action by factors beyond the agent’s control” (Pereboom, 2014: 1). In simpler terms, the paper deals with the question of how the female characters in the novella act according to a free will and put their needs in the foreground. Does the character have the ability to make purposeful decisions which serve its own good and interest, or are they trapped in a world where men make decisions and a woman has at most the status of a "helping hand"?

Using this definition of agency and the examples given, I will attempt to present the novella as a sexist portrayal of women, at least in this regard.

Some may say that the view of women during the time period in which Heart of Darkness was written would legitimate the characterization of women in the novella. Other voices, in turn, argue that it does not represent the burgeoning feminism in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the 20th century.

The two female characters, Kurtz's intended and his mistress in the Congo, will be the most important characters. But also, Marlow's aunt and other female supporting roles are used in terms of proofing the papers thesis.

Some characteristics, such as the first appearance of the black mistress, are obviously recognizable as sexist. Others, such as Marlow's aunt, tend to be hidden and indirectly portrayed. However, the exact analysis reveals that all women in this book are at most "supporters" of the male sex, but in most cases even as means to an end, whether through the absence of female first names, the role of individual women in their occupations or by ignoring the female opinion.

2. Kurtz’s intended

It's queer how out of touch with truth women are! They live in a world of their own and there had never been anything like it and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over

(Conrad, 2014: 15)

Although this quote is not directly related to Kurzt's intended, it already serves as an in-depth statement and characteristic of the novella right at the beginning of my analysis. I will return to this quote later in the paper and argue why it can be understood in two ways.

Throughout the entire plot of "Heart of Darkness" Kurzt's intended is in her homeland Belgium and does not appear directly. Only at the end of the novella, about a year after Kurtz's death, there is a meeting between her and Marlow and the reader gets a first direct impression: “This fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me. Their glance was guileless, profound, confident, and trustful” (Conrad, 2014: 95). In this quote, she is described as a confident, strong, adult, young, mature, and decent woman who radiates a certain sadness and darkness through her dark eyes, but her first appearance resembles that of an angel (or demon?). Marlow seems fascinated by this almost perfect look and appearance. In front of him stands the woman who always stood by Kurtz's side, even if it was only from a distance. Even the room itself seems to speak for this perfect wife.

The dusk was falling. I had to wait in a lofty drawing-room with three long windows from floor to ceiling that were like three luminous and bedraped columns. The bent gilt legs and backs of the furniture shone in indistinct curves. The tall marble fireplace had a cold and monumental whiteness. 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 (Conrad, 2014: 95)

So far, the reader would not suspect that this woman actually takes only a rather weak supporting role she can not even rudimentary compete with the male gender in the novella when it comes to trust and self-perception.

But if you go a step further and immerse yourself in the meta-level, you do not need much evidence to destroy that illusion of perfectionism.

Strictly speaking, Kurtz's intended is "free". Free in the traditional sense that she is not a prisoner, can move more or less freely and go wherever she wants. She can freely make decisions in her world. But what exactly is her world? The following quote defines the world in which she lives: “We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse” (Conrad, 2014: 61). Marlow undoubtedly claims that women have the main purpose of beautifying the world of men, or of making them utopian with their naivety and loyalty. Although women may be free in the traditional sense, at least the wealthy, white European women, they are only free within the man's world. They have no totalitarian and unlimited freedom, because they must be loyal, they must not oppose the man and do nothing that harms the man, psychologically or physically. Thus, they are merely the most valuable "object" of European men. They need the women to be dumb and beautiful and at the same time to beautify their world and everyday life.

A good example of this is the appearance of the intended. Even after more than a year of Kurz's death, Kurtz seems to have died recently. Even if Kurtz and his intended had an exemplary relationship and he had not cheated on her, one would think that the period of mourning is gradually over. But the intended offers a very different picture. She gives the impression as if Kurtz's death has ripped her out of her life, as if she has got no reason to go on living. The only thing that gave meaning to her life is irrevocably gone and it can not be replaced by anything.

She saw Kurtz only as a hero, as a venerable man and above all as a role model. “And his example,' she whispered to herself. 'Men looked up to him—his goodness shone in every act. His example” (Conrad, 2014: 98).

But what exactly does she think Kurtz has done in Africa? Is she too uneducated or too naive to understand the true meaning of colonization and imperialism? Or does she pretend to be "blind" in order to preserve the perfect world view and not have to challenge or criticize her husband's work? After all, are not women the reason why people are enslaved in Africa? Is not ivory used for jewelry worn by women like her?

And above all the most important question. Why does not Marlow tell her the truth? Why does he hide Kurtz affair? After all this time and grief, would not she deserve the truth to find peace for the rest of her life and become somehow happy again?

As the intended asks Marlow about Kurtz last words, he lies. This lie stands for much more than a single untruth. She defines Marlow's view of women as too weak, too naive, and too unworthy to bear the truth. Marlow thinks the truth would weaken the intended unnecessarily, and not bring Kurtz back to life anyway. He sees himself as a protector, as a hero, as noble, even though he completely deceives the dignity and the right of women. This would be the moment to adjust his image of women, to leave the mistakes of the past behind. But he decides to do the "right" out of supposedly noble intentions. This gesture could undoubtedly be described as a lack of respect and decency.

These are only the essential and clear passages that proof that women are portrayed in the novel as seemingly free, but in reality, they serve as an instrument or a weapon for men.

The society, actually men, lock the women in a cage and tell them that this is the world. Consequently, both the reader and the women get the impression that they are free and can act and live arbitrarily, even though this is only a contrived, a lie so that the men are better off.

But the intended proves that women believe in this illusion and live it. She would never dare to criticize her dead beloved or even harm his reputation. She thinks she knows everything, and so she acts, though in reality she knows very little. “Yes! I am proud to know I understood him better than any one on earth—he told me so himself” (Conrad, 2014: 96).

3. Kurtz’s mistress

She got in one day and kicked up a row about those miserable rags I picked up in the storeroom to mend my clothes with. I wasn't decent. At least it must have been that, for she talked like a fury to Kurtz for an hour pointing at me now and then. I don't understand the dialect of the tribe. Luckily for me, I fancy Kurtz felt too ill that day to care, or there would have been mischief

(Conrad, 2014: 79)

This is how the Russian sailor describes the mistress to Marlow. Based on this quote, it becomes very clear that we have a completely different protagonist here and that the mistress and the intended are fundamentally different.

Of course, the mistress is a prisoner in the strict sense, because the Europeans, especially Kurtz, exploit the African population for their purposes, this is finally the core of the imperialist idea. Compared to the intended she is a "real" prisoner and probably does not approach as many rights as the intended. And yet, a significant difference becomes apparent when comparing the relationship with Kurtz. She talks to him as to a subordinate, as if he were the slave and she the ruler. Her appearance is extremely dominant and charismatic which proves the following quote.

[…] 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 knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, 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.

(Conrad, 2014: 77f)

There is the impression that the mistress not only represents one person but rather the entire continent of Africa, with all its dignity, secrets, suffering and "fire". Although Marlow describes a savage, a slave, she seems to be beautiful, full of life, passionate and apparently without fear. At this point, the reader already knows that Kurtz is a powerful man and has a high rank in white, European society. This completely foreign black woman, however, seems to be equal to this powerful man, if not so higher in the hierarchy. She is not bound to Kurtz and can come and go as she pleases.

There are many reasons why she is even more powerful than Kurtz. On the one hand, she is a woman and at the same time black, at this time humanity's least value as a human being, yet she talks to Kurtz like a white man. One could say that she has retained the pride and dignity of "the black" and Kurtz has lost his “whiteness” in the Congo at the same time, like they swapped roes. Besides, the mistress has got the power of lust. She is sexy and beautiful and even able to control Kurtz with these “weapons”.

In contrast to Kurtz's intended, who is upset and depressed even after more than a year, the mistress behaves down-to-earth, human and full of eagerness. She shows her feelings in public and without shame. This "African fire" and the affection for Kurtz again underline her powerful nature and her almost infinite passion.


Ende der Leseprobe aus 13 Seiten


The Portrayal of Women in Joseph Conrads "Heart Of Darkness"
Universität Hildesheim (Stiftung)  (Institut für englische Sprache und Literatur)
English Literature - Female Agency in the 20th century
ISBN (eBook)
Heart of Darkness, English Literature, Sexism, Feminism, Femal Agency, Literautre, Modernism, Joseph Conrad, Agency
Arbeit zitieren
Johannes Viertel (Autor), 2018, The Portrayal of Women in Joseph Conrads "Heart Of Darkness", München, GRIN Verlag,


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