Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Women and Femininity

By Joseph Conrad

Women and Femininity

Chapter 1
Charlie Marlow

"It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It's too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over." (1.28)

Marlow thinks that women are naïve and idealistic, believing in fantastic and utopian worlds that would never work in the reality he knows. Dummies. (Okay, but he's secretly totes jealous.)

"Then—would you believe it?—I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work—to get a job. Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: 'It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It's a glorious idea. I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence with,' etc. She was determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat, if such was my fancy." (1.20)

Look at that—only twenty paragraphs into the book, and we've already met a powerful woman. Sure, she only has power because she knows powerful men, or powerful men's wives, but it still counts, right?

Chapter 2
Charlie Marlow

"Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she's out of it - completely. They - the women, I mean - are out of it - should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse." (2.29)

At the first mention of the Intended, Marlow scoots back to his opinion of women as completely out of touch with reality. But their fantastic visions of world peace are so touching and beautiful that he does not want to disillusion them with the ugly truth, since they probably couldn't handle it.

Chapter 3
Charlie Marlow

"And the girl talked, easing her pain in the certitude of my sympathy; she talked as thirsty men drink." (3.60)

This conversation with the Intended doesn't do much to change Marlow's mind about women.

[Marlow]: "'It was impossible not to—'

'Love him,' she [the Intended] finished eagerly, silencing me into an appalled dumbness. 'How true! how true! But when you think that no one knew him so well as I! I had all his noble confidence. I knew him best.'" (3.56-57)

Oh girl, you don't know him at all.

"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." (3.14)

Notice how Marlow describes this warrior woman's magnificent brass ornaments in terms of their value? We did, too, and we're thinking this isn't much different from judging European women based on the value of their ornaments.

"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." (3.14)

Woman or warrior? She walks regally and fearlessly, her hair is "done in the shape of a helmet," and she wears protective brass coverings. She's basically the opposite of the soft, fragile Intended—but does she serve the same purpose for the Africans? She seems to be a rallying symbol for the Africans just like the blonde European women are for Marlow.

"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." (3.14)

Just like the Intended is a symbol of civilization, with its fires and its tea and its couches, the warrior woman is a symbol of the wilderness—elephant tusks and all.

"Their [the Intended's eyes'] glance was guileless, profound, confident, and trustful. She carried her sorrowful head as though she were proud of that sorrow, as though she would say, 'I - I alone know how to mourn for him as he deserves.'" (3.53)

Marlow sees the Intended as pure and "guileless," especially noting the honest expression of pain in her eyes. But is she really, or is this just, like, his opinion, man?

"She struck me as beautiful—I mean she had a beautiful expression. I know that the sunlight can be made to lie, too, yet one felt that no manipulation of light and pose could have conveyed the delicate shade of truthfulness upon those features. She seemed ready to listen without mental reservation, without suspicion, without a thought for herself." (3.50)

Marlow is attracted to Kurtz's Intended not only because of her feminine beauty, but for her seemingly open expression and innocence.

"'Yes, I know,' I said with something like despair in my heart, but bowing my head before the faith that was in her, before that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her—from which I could not even defend myself.

'What a loss to me—to us!'—she corrected herself with beautiful generosity; then added in a murmur, 'To the world.' By the last gleams of twilight I could see the glitter of her eyes, full of tears—of tears that would not fall." (3.62-63)

The Intended is so blinded by her love for Kurtz and her idealism that she immerses herself in the lie she created and does not even consider questioning its veracity. Marlow does not dare destroy her beautiful illusion, even when she goes so far as to call his death a tragedy on a global scale. (Er, there is a global tragedy here—but it's not Kurtz's death. It's the destruction of a continent.)

"She put out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them back and with clasped pale hands across the fading and narrow sheen of the window. Never see him! I saw him clearly enough then. I shall see this eloquent phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her, too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness." (3.73)

In case you weren't sure, Marlow tells us that we're supposed to be seeing some parallels between the warrior woman and the Intended, who both want to believe that Kurtz reciprocated their love absolutely. It's interesting that they both want the same thing when they live in such different worlds, right? Women.

[Marlow to the Intended]: "'The last word he pronounced was—your name.'"

"I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. 'I knew it—I was sure!' […] She knew. She was sure. (3.85-86)

To Marlow, all this is just one more piece of evidence that women don't get it.

"There was an eddy in the mass of human bodies, and the woman with helmeted head and tawny cheeks rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her hands, shouted something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a roaring chorus of articulated, rapid, breathless utterance." (3.31)

The warrior woman seems to speak for all the native Africans, which makes us wonder if she's actually their leader. Wouldn't that be crazy—a woman leader! Nonsense. Next you'll be telling us that a woman might be president some day.

"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. A formidable silence hung over the scene." (3.15)

The warrior woman is an extension of the wilderness—a sexy one. Notice words like "desire" and "embrace" and "bared arms"? We're starting to understand why Kurtz doesn't want to leave.

"'. . . Who was not his friend who had heard him speak once?' she [the Intended] was saying. 'He drew men towards him by what was best in them.' She looked at me with intensity. 'It's the gift of the great,' she went on…" (3.61)

The Intended puts great store by Kurtz's words, believing that they lured men to him and earned him his admiration from all mankind. She's naïve about the true motivations of men, which we have seen to be far darker and more self-serving.

"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." (3.15)

Is this just an individual woman who's worried about Kurtz—or is this really the wilderness, ticked off that these white men are ripping through the jungle?

"'If she had offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot her,' said the man of patches, nervously. 'I have been risking my life every day for the last fortnight to keep her out of the house." (3.17)

The harlequin feels threatened by the warrior woman, so much so that he works to keep her away from Kurtz.

"She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left. Once only her eyes gleamed back at us in the dusk of the thickets before she disappeared." (3.16)

Like the wilderness, the warrior woman seems content only to show off her power, not to actually harm the pilgrims...yet.

"And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman." (3.13)

The fact that the woman is described as an "apparition" makes us think that Marlow isn't quite sure this woman even belongs in the same category as white women. You know how he's all chivalrous and protective of the Intended? We're pretty sure he doesn't feel the same way about this lady.