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Feminist Criticism of Heart of Darkness

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Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness tells the tale of Charlie Marlow as he documents his journey down the Congo River. With no clear purpose in his telling of the story, one quickly questions the reasoning behind it. He frequently diverges from the story to make clear his opinions on the characters he encounters, the setting of the Congo river, and on the mission he is assigned. A recurring opinion underlying in the text is Marlow's view of women. He seems to view women in the same light as many men in the 19th century. During this time period, men saw women as inferior; unable to do the same work as men. Joseph Conrad eludes to opinions similar to this in the minimal roles given to women in the story, Marlow's confusion of the female sex, and his inability to see women as more than just objects, unable to do the work that men are capable of.

Heart of Darkness tells the story of Marlow, a man, and his adventures down the Congo river with his crew, also made up of all men. During the course of the story, men play a crucial role in the plot. They evoke the traits of power that many men hope to have. The main character, Marlow, is a sailor, who "was the only man of us who still "followed the sea""(68). He appears represent all of the traits of a true man: strong, powerful, hard worker. As he tells the story, he introduces other men who represent "manly" men. The Chief Accountant holds a high position in the company and immediately Marlow respects him. "Moreover, I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair."(84). Marlow also meets the General Manager, who also holds a high position in the company. He beats out other for his position by simply his presence. He is the only man in the company who does not become ill, therefore he stays in his position. His ability to work poorly, yet still retain his job, shows his power. One of the most important staples to the plot is Kurtz. He is the manliest of all men. Marlow worships him, researches him, searches for him. He evokes all the qualities of the greatest men. "'He [Kurtz] is a prodigy,' he said at last. 'He is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,' he began to declaim suddenly, 'for the guidance of the cause entrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose.' 'Who says that?' I asked. 'Lots of them,' he replied" (93) With the spotlight shining on these powerful men throughout the novel, the women of the story take a backseat. The women of the story simply serve as supplements to the men's actions, characters and behavior. The first woman discussed in the story is Marlow's aunt. She found Marlow his job on the steamboat. Although she is a key figure in how the story pans out, she is unappreciated and hardly mentioned. The two women Marlow encounters in the Company's office knit black wool �€" they represent the Fates who guard the "door of Darkness" and to the "house in a city of dead". The black color may be associated with the Natives on whose destruction and exploitation the Company was based. Black is also equivalent to the Darkness into which Marlow descends. The wool may signify the thread of life. Their appearance is foreshadowed by the two black hens which 'decided' about Fresleven's doom. These women continue to show how the female characters are given minimal roles, yet impact the plot profusely.

Throughout this novella, Marlow shows underlying signs of his misunderstanding, or confusion, of the opposite sex. Frequently he shows this when describing the setting of the story or the females that appear sparingly. He describes the journey of Roman seamen as mysterious, dark, and difficult, as if comparing this to the struggles of dealing with a woman. As with any text, one can critique simple descriptions if truly focused on an underlying meaning, even if the text was not written with that vestigial goal in mind. However, Marlow hints at the relationship between a seaman and the sea to the relationship between a male and female by using terminology that can be used in both accounts.

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