Female Voicelessness in Heart of Darkness and Marabou Stork Nightmares
While I was wearing out my grey cells recently, trying to come up with a decent essay title, I was unexpectedly aided by a bit of news. A judge in Wales had acquitted a man of rape because the violated woman was so drunk on the supposed crime, she could not remember whether she had consented to have sex with the suspect or not. Although I strongly agree that no suspect should be convicted until there is unmistakeable proof, this specific case made me think of the ways in which women are restricted in what they seem to be able to do. If a woman is to drunk to say anything, does that automatically mean consent or refusal? This bit of news made me think of how often, women seem to be voiceless, even in a world like ours which can almost be described as a post-feminism one. It might well seem a bid absurd or unrealistic to look at the role of women in two novels which have been written by men, maybe exclusively for men, and where women hover at the periphery. But it is exactly these particulars which make an analysis of Heart of Darkness and Marabou Stork Nightmares even more viable and interesting. They are two very different works in terms of style, period of conception and underlying ideologies. What this study of the role of women in these novels will show, hopefully, is that, although Conrad’s and Welsh’s novel seem to be so different altogether, women and their roles and functions they hold within the structure of the narrative are quite similar
This enterprise will most certainly prove to be difficult, as women in both of the novels ‘are excluded from the privileges of power’ attributed to patriarchy. Part of this exclusion is voicelessness, the other ignorance or rather, no access to knowledge. This does obviously not mean that the women in the texts do not speak at all. They do speak, but when this is the case, it is only always in re action to a man’s word or action. In other words, to make out the woman behind the reactive voice might prove quite difficult as their person as such is only ever mediated through a male narrator.
Heart of Darkness (HoD) is a novel narrated by a man- Marlow, to men- the sailors on the Nellie, recounting the voyage of the storyteller in quest of a man, Kurtz. What is apparent from the onset, is that ‘Conrad’s fictional settings are prior to the First World War and Victorian conventions… remain potent’. Women’s place was still that of the ‘angel in the house’, the wife and mother who stays at home, looking after household and offspring. It is therefore not surprising, that in a story, in which ‘central figures occupy roles which were characteristically or exclusively male during that period: sea-captain, trader, entrepreneur, spy, detective’, there is no place for the female sex.
The first woman to appear at all in HoD is the narrator’s aunt. Although it is through her effort only that Marlow gets ‘appointed skipper of a river steamboat’, he announces with pride that he ‘Charlie Marlow, set the women to work’. And with even more smugness in his voice he announces that she had replied: ‘I would do anything, anything for you’, and that she would ‘make no end of fuss’ to get him the job he wanted.
Marlow’s portrayal of his aunt is one of the submissive female, who would to anything to satisfy the needs and desires of an eager young man. And it is indeed but a portrayal. As he is unreliable as a narrator, the authenticity of the aunt’s statement in the letter, if there really was a letter, is questionable. Although the possibility that Marlow does effectively have an aunt who does indeed help him to get a job onboard a skipper does not seem too far-fetched, the question is whether Marlow’s representation of her in the role of a matronly woman, who finds extreme satisfaction in gratifying her nephew’s wishes is accurate. Because the reader never gets the opportunity to ‘hear’ the aunt speaking directly to him, she becomes a pawn without a voice. And this is which, according to Marlow, she should remain, as he seems to be finding it painful enough to acknowledge having had to ask for help from a female: ‘Then –would you believe it-
I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlowe, set the women to work – to get a job! Heavens!’
Women, it seems, are only to be consulted or asked for help as a sort of last resort, as they are so ‘out of touch with the truth’. In reply to his aunt’s comment, that ‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’, one of the most humane statements in all of HoD, Marlow cannot but exclaim, with, it seems, a sneering tone:
 Berthold Schoene-Harwood, Writing men: Literary Masculinities from Frankenstein to the New Man, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 153
 Andrew M. Roberts, Conrad and Masculinity, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), p. 119
 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough, (London: Norton, 1988), p. 12
 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 16