’s Heart Of Darkness Essay, Research Paper
Feminist Imagery in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Many feminist critics have used Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to show how Marolw constructs parallels and personification betwee women and the inanimate jungle that he speaks of. The jungle that houses the savages and the “remarkable” Kurtz has many feminine characteristics. By the end of the novel, it is the same feminized wilderness and darkness that Marlow identifies as being the cause of Kurtz’s mental and physical collapse.
In Heart of Darkness, the landscape is feminized through a rhetoric of personification. The landscape is constructed as an entity that speaks and acts, and is consequently made to appear as something which is alive. The projection of a face on the landscape works through this same personification. Reference to “The sunlit face of the land. . .to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart” (48) is an imitation of apocalyptic resignation, filling Marlow with an apprehension that “it looked at you with a vengeful aspect” (49). Marlow’s suspicion is not that there is someone in the forest watching him, but that it is the forest itself which is watching him. The rhetorical personification of the landscape illuminates the wilderness and gives it life. It is this that Marlow presents as his source of unease as he travels in search of Kurtz.
The significance of Kurtz’s undoing by the wilderness and Marlow’s ethic of restraint is accentuated above all by the account Marlow provides of the “wild and gorgeous apparition” of a native woman he observes from the steamer:
She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, 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.
She came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us. Her long shadow fell to the water’s edge. Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. (77)
The wilderness is figuratively embodied in the form of the native woman, and simultaneously personified as a particular type of femininity. The woman becomes a figure for the fearful consuming embrace of the wilderness and darkness which Marlow identifies as having been the cause of Kurtz’s collapse, and from which he is protected only by his restraint:
Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky, and at the same time the swift shadows darted out on the earth, swept around on the river, gathering the steamer into a shadowy embrace. (78)
The woman spoken of in the above quotation is seen as being Kurtz’s mistress throughout the novella. Marlow realizes the sexualized nature of Kurtz’s fall through the feminization of the wilderness. This aspect is emphasized when the Russian harlequin tells Marlow that the woman is a confidante of Kurtz himself-she was his mistress, his queen.
The suggestion that Kurtz’s relation to the native woman is a sexual one is finally confirmed by the representation of the wilderness, of which she is the embodiment, as cannibalistically devouring him. The play between metaphorical and literal imputations of cannibalism establishes that it was Kurtz’s own urge to devour the jungle and all of its holdings that leads his own self to be swallowed by the wilderness. The very same wilderness he lived in and made money off of was what destroyed Kurtz in the end. The metaphors of cannibalistic desire are combined with the representation of the wilderness to present Kurtz’s predicament as the result of an encounter with an all-powerful feminine sexuality that is the cause of his loss of masculinity. And if Kurtz’s transgression of sexualized boundary leads to a loss of self-identity, Marlow’s story concludes by affirming the value of maintaining sexual identity by keeping women in their proper place. Marlow’s own way of dealing with this issue results in his keeping the truth away from the women and allowing them to live in their own world.
The lie Marlow tells at the end of the story also personifies the femininity of the wilderness and the women that Marlow comes in contact with, and he tries hard to find restraint and security within the jungle. It is his lie to the “Intended” that enables him to finally secure his own integrity and resist the embrace of the “Other.” Marlow’s resistance to the “Other” mirrors that of the wilderness, which was the undoing of Kurtz. Marlow confirms his view of a feminized wilderness and the discourse of cannibalism when he speaks of Kurtz:
The wilderness had patted him on the head, and behold, it was like a ball…it had caressed him…he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation. (p. 64)
Marlow has begun to come to the conclusion that Kurtz has been absorbed and consumed by the wilderness of the jungle like that of a child who is absorbed by the arms and love of its own mother.
The personification of the wilderness in Heart of Darkness is the means by which pleasure and security is transferred to an inanimate object [landscape/jungle] in the same sense that the landscape is feminized. The rhetorical attribute is that the subject of women themselves is denied in the text, so that women’s identity as an embodiment of both darkness and illusion is established in the way they are spoken about but are, themselves, not allocated as a true component or actual human embodiment of the narrative. The women in the text are never given any voice or name and they are treated only as speechless objects that happen to be part of the overall jungle. Unlike the men in Joseph Conrad’s story, the women are set apart from the rest of the story and no matter how important the y actually were to the society of the jungle, they were only spoken of as inanimate objects that happened to have the power to walk across the land. In the end, it is by the hands and powers of these unspoken women who bring the downfall of Kurtz and his empowerment over the African jungle. It is the “horror” of truth and reality that finally tears him down, the same truth that was withheld from the women of the story in every possible way.