In the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, women symbolize “pretty illusions” and the European civilization’s capability to hide its bigotry and racism behind “pretty” ideals. In many areas in the book, women are described to be “out of touch” with the truth, and oblivious to the horrific events happening around them. This depiction of women is meant to portray them as lesser than men, and only as followers to the nefarious ideas of the West. They are also seen as devotees that elapse the beliefs of the white colonists, illustrating them as stupid and naive. Throughout history, women have been depicted as such, and Conrad’s novel is no exception.
Joseph Conrad became a citizen in the late nineteenth century— and introduced the public to new perspectives regarding the autonomy of women and the gender roles assigned to them. Due to the presence of these perspectives—and the difficulty in ignoring them due to their controversy—Conrad’s text can ultimately be found sexist due to its portrayal of women as non-complex figures for the male gaze despite the author’s likely introduction to the contrary.
This demonstrates how Conrad’s decision to portray women as dull characters, is not justified. This choice of characterization connects to the symbolization of women as “pretty illusions” because they have no real importance other than acting as a bulwark for the barbaric principles of the colonists during this time. One example of this depiction would be Marlow’s aunt when he tells her about the “beautiful” ideas behind colonization, and how it conceals the execution of colonialism. She agrees with him, and this establishes how women are symbolizing the civilization’s failure to acknowledge its corruption. His aunt also leads him to the heart of Africa to spread the “glories” and ideas of the West, demonstrating how she is blind to the fact that pushing ideas onto people without consent is ethically and morally wrong. All in all, this, along with many other examples, ties into the blatant sexism of the novel because women are painted as naive and oblivious to surrounding situation. Another being how Conrad gives women little to no narrative, and how they aren’t given actual names other than, “Marlow’s Aunt” or “Kurtz’ mistress”.
As pointed out by Gabrielle McIntire in “The Women Do Not Travel: Gender, Difference, and Incommensurability in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” the only traditionally feminine name that appears in the novella is placed on an object: Marlow’s ship, the Nellie. While McIntire includes that the naming of vessels under feminine names was common for the period, she concludes that naming the ship a traditionally female name “nevertheless underscores the fact that he leaves every woman of his text unnamed” (McIntire 257).
This lack of individuality displayed in the novel represents how women weren’t viewed as singular people, but always paired with a man, or an inanimate object; However, Conrad never hesitates to describe their physical appearance, which is evidently more important than their current personality or name. “she was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent,” (Conrad 56). This shows the reader how he mentions how magnificent she is, but also throws in the fact that she is ‘savage’. The use of this word gives an understanding as to how Marlow describes the women as beautiful, however, since she is African, he still sees her as an animal because of her race. Overall, this connects with the theme of women being used as shields to hide the barbaric ideas of the West, because it displays how Marlow describes their appearance, but fails to mention anything about their personality. Thus, women are seen and used in the novel only for their beauty, painting them as the ‘pretty illusions’. This is exemplified because Conrad also gives names to inanimate objects used by men and the colonists, but leaves out the names of actual people, while still pointing out how beautiful they are. Implying that their beauty is their ‘only use’ in the novel, and something that isn’t even human has more worth than them.
As previously mentioned, in the novel, women are depicted to be more sensitive, fragile, and naive than men. This portrayal ultimately paints them as oblivious to the events happening around them, and men see it as their job to “protect them” from the real world since they’re “hiding” in the world they’ve created in their head. This establishes blatant misogyny having to do with men feeling the need to protect women, as if they aren’t capable themselves. There are a few key examples from the book that demonstrate this representation, with one being Kurtz’s fiancée.
The Intended is Kurtz’s fiancée. Marlow goes to visit her after the death of Kurtz. She seems to exemplify Marlow’s earlier statement that women live in their own world. She is naïve to the extreme about Kurtz and about his activities in Africa. Her version of her fiancé has little to do with the reality that Marlow has witnessed, yet he cannot bring himself to shatter her illusions. In the end, he decides to lie to her and tell her that the last thing Kurtz said before he died was her name. Marlow says that to have told her the truth “would have been too dark—too dark altogether . . . .” Marlow seems to have decided to heed Kurtz’s request that women have their own “beautiful world” that must not be sullied.
This expresses the motif of the women in Heart of Darkness being blind to society’s issues, and “not being able to handle” the truth about the world. It connects to the central theme of women being used to hide the inhuman ideals of the Europeans. Since the women are painted as naive, it shows the reader how they can easily be used by men to hide their ignorance and discriminatory principles. Overall, the idea of women not being able to handle themselves when faced with the harsh reality and having to be saved from it, gives us the impression that they’re naive and unintelligent. All in all, this depiction of women being deficient in intellect demonstrates how men saw them as an easy way for them
In summary, the women in Heart of Darkness are used as “pretty illusions” for the colonists to hide their hypocrisy and racism behind “pretty ideas”. This is illustrated by the fact that Conrad gives women little to no narrative in the book, how Marlow only sees females for their beauty, and how they’re depicted as naive conformists. The minimal narratives given to female characters combined with the superficial view of women display how, in conclusion, Conrad’s novel exemplifies how women keep a pretty picture of the hypocrisy and corruption of the European colonists.
Symbol of women in 'the heart of darkness'. (2021, Mar 16).
Retrieved October 7, 2022 , from
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