Role of Women in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Role of Women in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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Women do not play an important part in Heart of Darkness. This is

not too surprising as the text was first published for a magazine in 1898.

Throughout Marlow's voyage he encounters few women and he does not consider

any of them to be his equal. His reference to women places them in their

own little world where they should remain. There are a number of reasons as

to why Marlow may have this understanding of the female being. These

reasons include, but are not limited to, the lack of females in his life,

the fact that he is primarily surrounded by men, and the type of women he

comes in contact with in his line of work.


First and foremost, we will note that Marlow is a seaman. He is a

man who has dedicated his life to the ways of the water. As the narrator

mentions when speaking of Marlow, "he was the only man of us who still

'followed the sea'" (Conrad, 9). He has been picking up and traveling the

world by way of a boat for most of his adult life. The simple fact that he

is able to do this without regret is a hint into Marlow's personal life. He

cannot be a family man, because it would be too hard for him to be away from

family members for such great lengths of time. He may have a mother or a

sister somewhere, but it is obvious that, for Marlow, there is no strong

bond with any female family member. Even his aunt who so willingly helps

him find work is not spoken of lovingly. If Marlow were to have a wife, one

would assume that, it would be hard, if not impossible, for him to maintain

a faithful marital relationship to her while leading such a Nomadic

lifestyle. This is presumably why he is not emotionally attached to a wife

or serious girlfriend.


It is also safe to say that Marlow does not have any platonic girl

associates, because of the statement made about them in their own world. He

makes it quite clear that women and men are on two totally different levels.

In the time that the story was written, it would have been crazy to think of

a woman and a man having a mutual friendship that had no loving or sexual


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It is, most likely, the case that Marlow does not have a

healthy connection to any woman who would pose as a positive role model. It

takes a certain kind of individual to travel the world. Marlow is the kind

of man who can disappear for great lengths of time on a boat because he is

not attached to any close family or friends. Because he is not closely

attached to any family or friends he looses out on a variety of respectable

women who may have proved his female stereotypes to be false.

Living and working on a boat with many men can change an

individuals' opinions on many topics. Even if Marlow had entered his first

voyage with an open and respectful idea of women, chances are he would have

changed his mind before he returned home. When men get together with other

men discussion of any issue is typically very different than it would be in

the presence of women. Many men together in conversation, which passes many

hours on a boat, can also become quite competitive. Stories are embellished

and many of these stories involve experiences with women. One would think

that Marlow's disrespect for women would, then, have been learned at sea.

However, when one of the men interrupts Marlow's story because he has become

too distasteful, the realization is that Marlow may, in fact, be the bad

influence. It is more often the case that Marlow's stories depict women as

incapable and as being something close to property.


The women a man of the sea encounters on a ship for long periods of

time do not tend to be liberal up and coming women. Nor do they tend to be

healthy well-adjusted managers of the home. Marlow talks of concubines or

girlfriends on the ship. These women are what Marlow was exposed to for the

majority of his adult life. The type of women a man is exposed to are what

becomes his universal stereotype of "women." If Marlow is basing his

thoughts about women on the kind of women he comes, and doesn't come, into

contact with on a daily basis, he is being unfair to the female gender.

Marlow does not give women much credit as intelligent, independent,

able beings in Heart of Darkness. The reasons for this all revolve around

the kind of life Marlow was living and its lack of the presence of women.

It is a shame that although we have come a long way in the last one hundred

years we do still have many men who think of women as Marlow did. The most

ironic part of Marlow's feelings towards women is that without the help of

his aunt, undoubtedly a woman, he would have never began the journey on the

Congo River.


Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. W.W. Norton and Company: New York, New

York. 1988.
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