Joseph Conrad’s Lack of Ladyhood: Heart of Darkness and Feminist Literary Interpretations

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has since its publishing, fallen under vast scrutiny for its supposed pro- racist, pro- imperialist message, whether it be blatant or implied. Upon closer analysis, and perhaps less obviously, the claim could also be made that Heart of Darkness is also a pro- misogyny piece. Heart of Darkness performs anti-Feminist literary theory- the novella does not uplift the “other sex”, nor is it meant to fortify and empower the female gender. Instead of challenging representations of women as ‘Other’, as ‘lack’, or as part of ‘nature’, Heart of Darkness instead perpetuates this notion(Barry, 92). Its objectification and interchangeable portrayal of women, as well as its lack of women, is of concern to Feminist literary theory. One really has to fish for and closely examine that text of Heart of Darkness to recognize that what is missing is a prominent mention of female prescience. The brief light in which the women of Heart of Darkness are presented makes them dismissible, as well as a vice and a dotty hindrance or danger to men.

In reading Heart of Darkness with a Feminist point of view, a dialogue is created between what the novella may be trying to say about women, how readers and critics interpret this writing, and what these extrapolated critical readings and literary interpretations can mean for the “intentions” of Heart of Darkness as a whole. It is not to say that Conrad sat down to write this highly critiqued and criticized novella with the specific aim of projecting different types of literary theory, or anti- Feminism in particular, onto his writing; as scholars and readers of literature with outside knowledge not known to the author, we are able to make these claims and distinctions about Conrad’s writing in hindsight of its publication date. In a literary culture that is, even today, male- dominated, a positive pro- female writing voice is difficult to be found. Both Feminist theory would argue that the reasoning behind this lack of strong female voices in literary works is that women are always described and examined in relation to man.

In literary theorist Jeremy Hawthorne’s critique entitled “The Women of Heart of Darkness”, he writes “it is salutary to recall that three female characters each play an indispensable role in Heart of Darkness- Marlow’s aunt… Kurtz’s African mistress, and Kurt’s intended”(Hawthorne, 405). The women of the novella are barely spoken of because the structure of the novella makes them a background information or vestigial afterthoughts, as two out of the three women, Kurtz’s aunt and the intended, are not even in Africa to begin with and are themselves far- removed from the setting of the play. A proper woman would never be found in Africa. All three women in total are isolated from the action as they are only mentioned as part of a second- hand opinion or account on behalf of Marlow by the narrator, thus further removing the female from context.

Not only are they mentioned in passing as secondary characters in a male- dominated narrative, but none of them have any speaking roles either. They have no names, no physical description or defining characteristics. Would it even make a difference to Heart of Darkness if women were never mentioned at all? As it is, the mere mention of them does not spark a female support conversation, but a female neglect conversation amongst Feminists and theorists- it is almost as if they aren’t even there. These women are interchangeable as the “female” stand- in. In fact, they become just as dehumanized as the native Africans when Marlow says “Girl! What! Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of it—completely. They—the women I mean—are out of it—should be out of it(Conrad, 59- 60).

The mere fact that Marlow initially refers to the females as girls as opposed to women demonstrates an instinctual response by the male sex to see women as infantile, young, and small. If women are not those things, then they are like the mistress- problematic, exotic, and mysterious- something to be kept behind closed doors and secretive, not appropriate. Regardless of what kind of woman a woman is, allowing her to meddle in “man’s business” is taboo. “Out of it” can be also be taken in a more modern context, in that females are often labeled as too feminine or ditzy to be aware of anything. Part of the allure of the female persona for the male, is this intellectual helplessness that(consciously or subconsciously) men believes demands male prescience in order to supply knowledge.

Both acclaimed Feminist Simone de Beauvoir and theorist Laura Mulvey express their disdain towards a male- centric view of the female in their writing. De Beauvoir states in her principal piece The Second Sex, Woman as Other,

“Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being…. Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man… He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential”(de Beauvoir).

One cannot know the sexes without understanding the differences between them, which tends to derive from a male to female spectrum, as opposed to female to male. The problem this poses is that women tend to be portrayed in society, the arts and the media as existing for the male faction, either to their detriment or their pleasure, as displayed by Conrad. The opinions of Laura Mulvey, who analyses female portrayal in narrative cinema, also applies to Heart of Darkness as another form of narrative in which, through a Feminist reading, women are viewed as “passive objects subordinated to the male gaze”(Mulvcy, 2180). Women exist in the male- dominated arts to appeal to, satisfy and hyper- masculinize men. Whether we like it or not, and whether Joseph Conrad would have liked it or not, the reading we get of Heart of Darkness– Feminist or not- is within a male lense.

One of the wonders of understanding literary theory is that upon close textual analysis, arguments for various performances of theory in literature can be made. One piece can yield numerous opinions and point of view. Various analyses peg Heart of Darkness for using oppressive language, and this rings true whether its racial/ cultural oppression or gender oppression. Choosing to analyze Heart of Darkness from a Feminist standpoint yields an anti- Feminist critique. Demoting the female gender to nothing more than something to be pushed aside and used for sexual pleasure goes against the desire of Feminist literary theory to break down these compartmentalized and long- followed views of women of only being good for “one thing” or being considered proper only if they behave in this “one way”. Heart of Darkness makes us think of how we function as a global society, whether it’s civilized man versus uncilivized man or whether it’s man versus woman.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. “Feminist Criticism.” Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural

Theory. Manchester [England: Manchester UP ;, 1995. Print.

Beauvoir, Simone De. “Simone De Beauvoir The Second Sex, Woman as Other 1949.” Simone

De Beauvoir The Second Sex, Woman as Other 1949. MArxist Internet Archive. Web. 17

Apr. 2015.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness(Collins Classics). Kindle ed. HarperCollins, 2010. 59-60.


Hawthorn, Jeremy. “The Women of Heart of Darkness.” Heart of Darkness: Authoritative Text,

Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New York: W.W. Norton,

  1. 405-15. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and

        Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. 2179-93. Print.


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