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Feminist Perspective of Heart of Darkness

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Feminist Perspective of Heart of Darkness


 In Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s view of women embodies the typical 19th century view of women as the inferior sex. There are only three relatively minor female characters in Heart of Darkness: Marlow’s aunt, Kurtz’s mistress, and Kurtz’s "Intended." Marlow mentions these female characters in order to give the literal aspect of his tale more substance. While they definitely play specific roles in the story, they do not relate with the primary theme of the story.  The primary theme focuses more on how Marlow’s journey into the heart of darkness contrasts the "white" souls of the black people and the "black" souls of the whites who exploit them, and how it led to Marlow’s self-discovery.

In the beginning of Marlow’s story he tells how he, "Charlie Marlow, set the women to work--to get a job." He tells this in the context that he was so desperate to travel in the trade industry that he did what was unthinkable in those times: he asked a woman for financial assistance. The woman, his aunt, also transcended the traditional role of women in those times by telling Marlow that she would be delighted to help him and to ask her for help whenever he needed it. This incident did not have much to do with the symbolic theme of the story; it simply served to tell the reader how Marlow managed to be able to travel to the Congo. On a higher level, it was intended by Conrad to illustrate Marlow’s opinion of women’s inferior role in society, which embodied traditional 19th century society.

The two other female characters are not mentioned until much later in the story, after Marlow has arrived at the Inner Station. When Marlow reaches this point in his tale, he jumps ahead and tells a little bit about The Intended, Kurtz’s fianceé who was to marry Kurtz when he returned. The Intended woman does not appear until the very end of the novelette, in which Marlow visits her and lies to her about Kurtz’s dying words. The Intended had a more significant role in the story than Marlow’s aunt; however, her role as a whole was somewhat limited and did not affect the main theme of the story.

The third female character, Kurtz’s African mistress, is briefly mentioned two times near the end of the novel. She appears while Marlow is talking to the Russian, and the Russian growls at her and says she makes mischief. She appears a bit later on when Marlow and Kurtz depart on the steamboat, and is not scared off when Marlow blows the whistle. She stretches her arms out towards the steamer, and that is the last time she is seen.

The limited depiction of female characters in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the way in which the three female characters are referred to by Marlow reflect Marlows view of women as inferior. Marlow’s opinion of women manifests the typical 19th century views of women. While the women do play key roles in the plot of the story, they do not influence the main theme of the story, which is of Marlow’s exploration of the darkness which is inherent in the human soul. This darkness is evident in the savage blacks, but more so in the savage treatment of blacks by whites who call themselves civilized.

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