Women have been degraded and relegated in history to minor roles. Women in Heart of Darkness seem to be more powerful than they have been historically. Marlow’s aunt, for example, has great influence in the Company, as she was able to secure a job for Marlow, and native mistresses have a strong presence in their tribes. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that the patriarchal male view of women, as portrayed by Marlow, Kurtz, and others in the novel, severely limits their importance. In the novel, men are treated and viewed as superior to women, while they appear to be important. The novel portrays women as important but their role is actually dominated by men.
The first woman the reader sees is Marlow’s Aunt. Marlow asks her for help in getting him a job, so she appears to be a major character. Marlow knows his aunt “who is the wife of an extremely high official in the Administration as well as a man of great influence” (44), showing that she’s also respected within society. Marlow does not value her. Marlow says that his Aunt was “ready for anything…if I wanted it” (44), suggesting that the aunt’s sole purpose is to serve him. Marlow actually ridicules all women when he speaks of his aunt. Charles Marlow made the women work to find a job. Heavens!” (44). Marlow’s statements support the notion that men will always turn to women, no matter how powerful they are. It is important to note that women’s inferiority is not a reflection of their own qualities, but rather a result of the male perspective. Marlow’s Aunt makes no comment about her position in society. Marlow, however, is eager to offer his own, explaining why women are considered inferior by men.
Marlow’s Aunt is also presented as detached from reality in the novel. Marlow believes that she is a liar when she says “weaning the ignorant millions” from their horrid practices (49). She believes falsely that the Company is primarily concerned with civilizing natives. Marlow says that his aunt talked about the “rot” that had been released in print at that time (49). She only gave advice on how to dress in flannel for the Congo. Marlow uses this image of a Victorian woman to make a statement about women’s inferiority. “It is strange how far out of touch they are with reality.” There is nothing like their world, and it will never be. If they tried to put it together, it would be ruined before the first sundown. The men who have been happy with the fact since creation, would suddenly start to upset the entire thing. Men are unaware of the importance of women outside their world.
Marlow also uses this idea of “a separate world” when he tells Intended Kurtz’s final words. Intended represents Victorian England’s women, in that it is her “faith in her…that big and saving illusion” that shines with an unnatural glow in darkness that made her life possible. Marlow believes that women should live in an ideal world. “They, the women I’m referring to-are out-should be out-of it.” We must help women to live in their own beautiful worlds, lest we make ours worse” (97). Men continue to treat women as if they are ignorant and show it by treating them as such. For example, Kurtz treats the Intended like an item on his list of property, saying: “My Intended, My Ivory, My Station, My River, MY-” (97). Marlow, Kurtz, and only a few others make such comments about women’s ignorance. It is due to this that Marlow lies.
In contrast to Intended, native mistresses’ first appearance paints a picture of a strong and brave woman. She stands alone by the shore watching men fire guns on natives. It is clear that this native woman’s image is very different from the Intended or Marlow’s Aunt. The native woman appears to be a powerful leader in her tribe. Although she may appear to be important, men view her as disposable. The Russian said, “If the woman had asked to join me on board I’m sure I would’ve shot her.” Marlow, his men and Kurtz are all allowed to assist Kurtz. However, the native woman was not allowed to even suggest assistance.
The Intended’s role in European culture is similar to that of the Congolese mistress: women are powerless without men. The barbarous and magnificent woman stretched her arms tragically after us across the somber glittering river (122), a gesture that is identical to what the Intended did when she “stretched her arms like a retreating figure and clasped pale palms, resembling yet another gesture also tragic and bedecked of powerless charms” (134). This motion symbolizes an inexplicable dependency on men by both women reaching out to Kurtz. The gesture also shows a side to women that has been shaped by men. It is a refusal of reality. The native woman seems to be unaware of Kurtz’s atrocities.
The novel is awash with male influences, and it’s impossible to argue that women played any role. Heart of Darkness is a novel that barely mentions women. In Heart of Darkness, few women are mentioned. This Victorian view is typical of Victorian women as they were male property. This idea is particularly important as it is expressed so clearly in Conrad’s novel.