womenhod Gender in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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Gender in Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness colludes with Western patriarchal gender prescriptions. Women are ominously absent from the bulk of the narrative, and when they do make an appearance they are identified through the powerful narrative viewpoint of the character Marlow, who constructs them in terms of the values of the dominant ideologies of the British gentleman. The contrast between Kurtz's Intended and his Mistress reveals to the contemporary reader this undeniable Victorian provenance - women are effectively marginalised from power and silenced by the text's endorsement of British values.

"The women", Marlow declares, "are out of it". Indeed, the five women of Heart of Darkness make only brief appearances and are given only a passing mention in Marlow's narrative. His aunt, given a cameo role in the text, is supremely naïve and "out of touch with truth"; she reminds him to "wear flannel" when he is about to "set off for the centre of the earth". The knitters of black wool in the Company headquarters are defined by classical mythology, taking on a symbolic significance by "guarding the door of Darkness"; they are not characters in their own right. Kurtz's mistress is identified as a product of the wilderness, "like the wilderness itself", and is described in terms of natural processes, a "fecund and mysterious life". Kurtz's Intended, by contrast, lives in a place of death rather than of life, darkness rather than lightness, delusion rather than reality. A feminist reading identifies that females are silenced and cast as cultural archetypes in Heart of Darkness.

The juxtaposition of the Intended with Kurtz's mistress highlights the traits of the culturally constructed Victorian woman. She has assembled for herself a tomb of darkness, where everything personifies the sterile and lifeless existence of her kind. The Victorian woman was expected to adhere to high standards of behavioral decency and to subscribe to the Puritan ideals of sexual and emotional restraint. Kurtz's mistress throws these characteristics into focus because she is vibrant, vital, and lives out her sexual urges. The sexual language used to describe the mistress emphasises that she is a social 'other' and foregrounds the dichotomy between women of Europe and Africa. While the Intended embodies the characteristics of a Victorian woman, her behaviour is also enormously hypocritical. She remains alive only by deceiving herself; her condition, as C.B. Cox suggests, "symbolizes that of Western Europe".
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