A Feminist and Deconstructionist Analysis of Women in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness
In his piece for The New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn states that the role of the critic, “Is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way” (Mendelsohn). There are several literary theories available for critics to apply to their work in order to achieve this aim, two of which are Feminist and Deconstructionist Theory. When applied to a critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, these two theories illuminate very different yet thought-provoking perspectives on Conrad’s depiction of civilization and savagery and the similar dichotomy between Kurtz’s two female relationships. While both theories provide excellent frameworks in which to create educational and edifying analysis, the Deconstructionist theory, in the case of Heart of Darkness, opens the door to a more expansive exploration of the novella and its impact socially, historically, and artistically.
Women play an unsurprisingly small role in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. They are mentioned infrequently, and are either mostly silent, like Kurtz’s mistress, or discredited, like Marlow’s aunt. This is not surprising, given the prevailing attitudes towards women at the end of the 19th century. While men began community away from the home to work in the growing industrial cities, women were more and more confined to the home and the overseeing of domestic duties. “Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands labored all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life.” (Hughes). Women were relegated to roles of domesticity and moral guardianship.
A feminist critique of the novella reveals that Conrad’s story is male-centric and does little to challenge this idealistic and one-dimensional representation of civilized femininity. Marlow’s aunt is described as, “Out of touch with truth,” as all women supposedly are. At the same time, she and all women are idealized and said to “live in a world of their own” that is “too beautiful altogether” (Conrad 191). They are, as feminist critic Laura Mulvey describes, “passive objects subordinated to the male gaze” (Mulvey). Conversely, Kurtz’s Congolese mistress is described in the following passage:
“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 had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul (Conrad 1113).
She is described in bold and powerful terms, yet she is received by the men with nervousness and mistrust. The Harlequin states, “’If she had offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot her…I have been risking my life every day for the last fortnight to keep her out of the house’” (Conrad 1113). The men in the story are drawn to her but remain fearful of her power and savageness. She does not conform to the civilized female narrative of the time. From a feminist point of view, the novella seems to promote a misogynistic point of view in which the patriarchy is unchallenged, and the female voice is absent.
Examining the role of women in Heart of Darkness through a deconstructionist lens leads to different conclusions. There is a binary opposition between the European women in the story and Kurtz’s Congolese mistress. The white women mentioned in the story are idealized and easily dismissed, relegated to, “that beautiful world of their own,” as the manager puts it (Conrad 881). But Kurtz’s mistress is described with language like ‘barbarous’, ‘savage’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘ominous’—words that convey unease. She does not fit conveniently into the men’s definition of femininity; in fact, she challenges it, and by doing so, challenges their conception of their own role. Terry Eagleton, a literary critic, and theorist explains that “Woman is the opposite, the ‘other’ of man: she is non-man, defective man, assigned a chiefly negative value in relation to the male first principle. But equally, man is what he is only by virtue of ceaselessly shutting out this other or opposite, defining himself in antithesis to it, and his whole identity is therefore caught up and put at risk in the very gesture by which he seeks to assert his unique, autonomous existence” (Eagleton). Confronted by a powerful image of a woman, male readers must consider how this challenges their conception of self. Perhaps women are not so completely ‘other.’ That this woman is considered a savage as well, further complicates the male response to her existence. If ‘woman’ is the opposite of ‘man’, and ‘civilization’ is opposite to ‘savagery,’ what is to be made of a powerful, composed, savage woman?
Both Feminist theory and Deconstructionist theory provide interesting and edifying insights into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Feminist theory explores social and cultural perspective to the story, particularly in terms of female representation, patriarchal control, and historical morals and attitudes. Deconstructionist theory adds perspective on these topics and more as it explores inconsistencies and inadequacies in attitudes, language, and structure. While either theory would be an appropriate choice for an in-depth analysis of Heart of Darkness, deconstructionist theory offers a wider lens through which to peer and a greater freedom for interpretation.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Project Gutenberg, 2009.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender roles in the 19th century.” Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians 15 May 2014.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. A Critic’s Manifesto. 28 August 2012. 1 August 2018. <https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-critics-manifesto>.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.