Conrad Essay, Research Paper
Harbingers of Truth: the Female Role in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness As our narrator, Charlie Marlow, stoically anticipates his departure for the Belgian Congo, he relates to his audience his conception of women as trivial and idle in their interaction with reality: “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own . . .” (27). One may be so inclined as to concur with Marlow’s dismissive statement, to discard any notion of feminine importance within Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to focus instead upon issues of “greater importance” within the novel, such as the question of Marlow’s racism or Conrad’s narrative frame and its implications. However, to ignore the role of women in this novel would effect an injustice upon one’s fully developed interpretation of Heart of Darkness, as women play an essential part in the comprehension of these dominant issues, particularly in the unveiling of Marlow’s greatest curiosity: the veiled “truth” within the enigmatic character of Mr. Kurtz. In fact, women serve as clandestine vehicles in uncovering the impetus behind Kurtz’s penchant for the untamed Congolese wilderness, facilitating Marlow’s discovery of Kurtz’s multifarious nature, and, ultimately, illuminating Marlow’s perception of the “civilized” world. Kurtz’s captivation by the unruly African wilderness indeed baffles Marlow. What could possibly entice a man of Kurtz’s relatively “civilized” pedigree to become entranced by a land “whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters [were] thickened into slime, . . . [resembling] the extremity of an impotent despair” (29)? The answer to this question lies in an examination of Kurtz’s African companion. This ornamented African woman, however, does not directly assist us in our understanding of Kurtz’s attraction to the primordial jungle; rather, her physical description, interpreted as a reflection of her natural surroundings, acts as an indirect catalyst through which the reason for Kurtz’s presence in the jungle is disclosed. Kurtz’s African consort warrants such descriptions as “wild and gorgeous, . . . savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent . . . ominous and stately” (77). She exudes an unmistakable air of ominous savagery, yet retains an aura of irrefutable elegance, much like a snake whose vibrant colors provoke admiration, but whose virulent venom demands veneration.. Marlow summarizes the relationship between the African woman and her environment when he muses that “the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it has been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul” (77). In this manner, the imagery allotted to Kurtz’s African concubine unequivocally mirrors that with which Marlow conveys the menacingly solemn Congolese jungle. While in the jungle, Marlow’s natural surroundings secrete a “stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” (49). In this passage, Marlow portrays the Congolese environment as blatantly intimidating, while maintaining a demeanor which both perplexes and intrigues him. Later in the novel, Marlow again contemplates the obvious relation between wilderness and woman, as he remarks, “she stood . . . like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose” (77). Both the African woman and the African ambience share an earnest ambiguity and an unfamiliar, feral nature which seduces Kurtz and forces his submission. Marlow compares this seduction to a “heavy, mute spell . . . that seemed to draw [Kurtz] to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions”(82-83). The savage, unruly characteristics attributed to the African jungle arouse in Kurtz his suppressed, primal “instincts”; as the physical incarnation of her environment, the African woman represents all that enraptures Kurtz with the African wilderness. In this fashion, the intangible nature of Kurtz’s obsession with the Congolese region becomes tangible, as well as lucid, in the convenient form of his African consort. Thousands of miles away, in a land so distinctly alien to the African jungle, remains Kurtz’s Intended, who, though physically distant from the novel’s primary setting, nevertheless offers as much insight into Kurtz’s character as her African counterpart. Outwardly, it appears as though Marlow’s argument portraying women as “out of touch with truth” may accurately depict Kurtz’s Intended. However, her failure to comprehend the entire “truth” concerning Kurtz’s complex character is precisely what elucidates certain aspects of his multifaceted personality. As Marlow consoles and converses with Kurtz’s Intended, she proceeds to elaborate upon Kurtz’s rare combination of remarkable virtues; to her, the deceased Kurtz was comprised of nothing less than “promise, . . . greatness, . . . [a] generous mind, . . . [and] a noble heart” (93). In her relationship with Kurtz, she had grown accustomed to his brilliant, dignified disposition; he had left her with no reason to suspect in him an entirely different person. Certainly a woman who “understood him better than any one on earth,” who was convinced of Kurtz’s incapability for anything less than greatness, could not have foreseen such sinister lack of restraint and grotesque disregard for humanity as Kurtz had exhibited in the jungle (92). Is it conceivable that this same man, who seemed to emit greatness from his very pores, found human heads suitable decorations for his jungle dwelling, or whose concept of an appropriate final solution for the African people was to “exterminate all the brutes” (66)? An obvious contradiction exists between her lofty perception of the “truth” regarding Kurtz’s personality and his drastically diametric identity assumed in the jungle. The ignorance of Kurtz’s Intended regarding Kurtz’s many personalities would indeed appear to relegate to her character the sense of an ineffectual, ingenuous victim of Kurtz’s deception. However, under the circumstances, the ostensible naivete of Kurtz’s Intended effectively exposes Kurtz’s diverse, often deceptive nature.
Within Kurtz’s discrepant disposition, however, Marlow discovers something of constancy, of certitude, in Kurtz’s last words which modifies his perception of the civilized realm. Following Kurtz’s final utterance, in which he exclaims “the horror!,” Marlow ruminates that “this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, . . . conviction . . . the appalling face of a glimpsed truth . . . the strange commingling of desire and hate” (87). Kurtz’s declaration invokes intrigue within Marlow, and compels him to contemplate the nature of European civilization. Marlow’s contemplation quickly mutates into repulsion, as he rebukes the pettiness of his fellow European countrymen. According to Marlow, the motivation for their very existence exists in “hurrying . . . to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, . . . to dream their insignificant and silly dreams, . . . [and to go] about their business in the assurance of perfect safety” (88). The apathetic, self-important European mindset repulses Marlow after he discovers the perverse sense of purpose, the assertive proclamation within Kurtz’s last expression. Much of the responsibility for Marlow’s “enlightenment” as to the shortcomings of civilization indubitably falls upon Kurtz. However, once again, women, as well as objects with feminine connotations, act as Marlow’s ultimate propellants toward his final illumination. Prior to the commencement of Marlow’s edifying journey, his desperation for sponsorship ceases as a result of his aunt’s determination “to make no end of a fuss to get [him] appointed skipper of a river steamboat, if such was [his] fancy” (23). Without the initial benevolence of his aunt, Marlow’s journey to the center of the Belgian Congo and subsequent education at the hands of Kurtz would never have materialized. As the first crucial impetus toward Marlow’s didactic meeting with Kurtz, Marlow’s aunt establishes herself as an imperative stimulus affecting not only Marlow’s final social outlook, but the outcome of the novel as well. Perhaps the most literal of all vehicles aiding Marlow on his course to Kurtz consist of the steamers which transport him both from Europe to the African coast and from the mouth of the Congo into the “heart of darkness.” While these steamers are obviously not women, they are treated as such throughout the novel; Marlow regularly refers to both the French steamer and the “little sea-going steamer” with such feminine pronouns as “she” and “her” (27, 29, 44, 61). Certainly, without these means of transportation, Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz could never have been consummated; the feminine imagery associated with these steamers only lends support to the important female role in Marlow’s quest.While women and feminine imagery outwardly appear to enact minor roles in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, they compose an illuminating undercurrent which proves to be just as indispensable to the novel as any major character, symbol, or image. Whether aiding Marlow on his journey to a reconsideration of European social norms, providing him with insight into Kurtz’s complex character, or elucidating elements of the jungle which captivated Kurtz, feminine roles consistently bring to light the often shady “truths” within this novel. However, their effect is not limited to broadening Marlow’s understanding of Kurtz or of the world around him, but, through Marlow’s relation, extends to the audience a more complete comprehension of the novel in its entirety.