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Women in Heart of Darkness: Role & Quotes Video

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  • 0:04 Women in The Heart of Darkness
  • 1:47 Marlow's Aunt
  • 2:47 The Native Woman
  • 4:44 Kurtz's Intended
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

Women are sidelined right off the bat in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'. None of the female characters even have names. Let's take a deeper look at the role of women in the book.

Women in The Heart of Darkness

In this lesson, we will take a closer look at the women in Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella, The Heart of Darkness. Although there are few women present in the book, the way they are treated is specific and consistent. We'll examine their role in the novel through quotes about three key female characters: Marlow's Aunt, Kurtz's native mistress, and Kurtz's Intended.

In the world of Heart of Darkness, women are second-class citizens at best. They don't know what goes on out on the water or in the jungle, and for the narrator Marlow and most of the other men of the novel, they don't need to know - telling women the truth would wreck their innocence and politeness. Best that they stay naive and simple. Marlow says at one point:

It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is 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.

Later, he says:

(T)he women...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.

Everything Marlow observes about women is through this lens of protectiveness and separation, to the point of being really patronizing. One of Marlow's biggest moments in the novel is keeping one of these precious women in the dark about the truth of the world - we'll get to that later.

Marlow's Aunt

The first female character we meet is Marlow's aunt. Marlow is out of a job and wants to go to Africa, but can't get a gig through talking to men. He clearly thinks of women as lowly, and is loath to depend on one. Here he is in his own words:

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.

Marlow appreciates his aunt's enthusiasm, but he only respects her as far as she can help him get the job. He's humiliated to even have to ask a woman for help - happy to have a job, but disappointed that it had to come by his aunt making a fuss in high society, rather than by Marlow pulling himself up by his bootstraps.

The Native Woman

While Marlow is in Africa, we don't meet any women for a while. The next significant woman Marlow mentions is Kurtz's native mistress. First he describes her beauty:

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;.... She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her.

The native woman is dressed for battle, with her gauntlets and helmet-like hair. She's also 'gorgeous,' according to Marlow. Her world is as closed off to Marlow as the world of women in Europe is, but for different reasons. Kurtz's native mistress, to Marlow, embodies the beauty, mystery, and danger of Africa. He explains:

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