The novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad has historically been regarded as a novel comprising of a variety of sexist as well as imperialist ideologies. The following essay analyses the two female characters, the Mistress and the Intended, who both possess contrasting class as well as racial backgrounds in order to emphasise the fact that these two women paradoxically through their agency demonstrate resistance to the Victorian societal norms, thus making them noteworthy, influential characters within the novel.The novel can be seen as an influential male text due to the fact that the narrator and protagonist as well as all the major and minor characters are European men whereas the female characters are reduced to minor roles and are not given names.
The novel has inspired over a century of criticism which has varied over the years. While the novel gained momentum in the late twentieth century, in this period, Postcolonial, feminist and Marxist critics disparaged the text’s treatment of Africans as well as women. Bode (1994) contends that despite criticism focusing on the theme of brotherhood within the novel, bonds of sisterhood within the novel exist simultaneously. Additionally, Bode implies that the two women complement the intents of each other, thus serving as each other’s reflections however, these ties are found within the literary devices comprised within the novel rather than through their actions. However, upon a closer reading of the text, it is evident that there exists more textually-based examples of agency and power through the Mistress and the Intended’s actions. The female characters within the novel have a vital yet invisible presence as it is through this invisibility that they are able to exert influence over their male counterparts. In the initial part of the novel before he embarks into the Congo region, Marlow states, “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 is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before sunset” (p.16).
In this context, Marlow criticises his aunt and assumes that she is naïve about the possible dangers of his expedition. Marlow believes that women reside in an isolated world which is “too beautiful altogether” to be a sustainable reality. This dismissal is noteworthy as it reveals how female agency is restricted within the novel, yet these female characters nevertheless exert an influence over Marlow. When Marlow encounters the Mistress, it is said that she has already captivated Kurtz and her beauty temporarily captivates Marlow. However, after this moment, Marlow diverges the reader’s attention to the jungle in the background by implying that the Mistress possesses a dark aura. Within the novel, Marlow comments on the silence of the surrounding jungle. These mentions of silence on the surface appear to be isolated occurrences. However, when combining and contrasting them, silence can be seen as a powerful weapon within the novel. The Mistress utilises the silence in her interactions with the colonisers. This is made evident when Marlow states that, “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.” (p.60). it is therefore evident that Marlow realises that the Mistress is not an object but rather a powerful force daring to be reckoned with. It is therefore evident that the Mistress expresses herself through her actions and the few passages containing her character are sufficient to highlight the subversive influence she has over Marlow as well as the rest of the colonisers and even Conrad himself.In the novel, the colonialist mindset of seeing Africans and particularly African women as inhabitants of the land becomes one of the Mistress’s strengths.
The colonisers are disparaging towards the jungle as they fear the darkness and perceive it as chaos. Through her alliance with this darkness, the Mistress has a mysterious hold on them. According to Morrison (1992) blackness, as well as darkness, need not be seen in a negative light but instead should pose as an answer to the static whiteness that is prevalent in Western texts. It is therefore evident that this depiction of darkness aids in the removal of the negative connotations that Marlow places on the African civilisation and additionally sheds light as to why Marlow fears the Mistress. By associating her with the darkness, Marlow sees her a symbol of chaos; the opposite of his preferred orderliness and stability. From the given extract and through the Mistress’s actions, it is evident through a close analysis that this passage indicates the inscrutable strength of the Mistress’s power. Marlow appears to be frightened of her due to the fact that her character is similar to the wilderness itself. The extract therefore symbolises the Mistress’s power of resilience and passion as well as highlights the reasons why Marlow and Conrad himself underestimate the power of the Mistress. The Mistress and the Intended are connected by their relationship with Kurtz despite their contrasting racial and class backgrounds. The Intended’s domestic role is however, mirrored with the Mistress due to her darkened surroundings, her ironic mimicking of the haunting aura of the Mistress and her control over her mourning of Kurtz.
According to Hawthorne (1999) while the Mistress was abused by Kurtz, the Intended was left in isolation to dream about him and in this manner, the agency of these two female characters within the novel can be regarded as limited and therefore, prevents any form of resistance. It can be argued that both of these women can be seen as defying the patriarchal authority and additionally, emphasise their refusal to conform to societal norms and expectations through their conduct. For the intended, this takes the form of resistance in the final chapter where Marlow’s narrative on women is contradicted. This is made evident when upon Marlow’s arrival, the Intended’s darkened house and clothing contradict Marlow’s depiction of purity and this occurrence therefore highlights the connection between the Mistress and the Intended. Marlow expects the Intended to behave in a certain manner, constantly idealizing her fair skin and white forehead. In this manner, the Intended is seen as a representation of light for both Marlow and Kurtz on their journey. When Marlow accidently mentions Kurtz’s Intended during his storytelling, his composure shifts, and he becomes uncomfortable. This is made evident when he states, “Girl? What! Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of it- completely. They-the women I mean- are out of it-should be out of it. We must help them stay in that beautiful world of their own lest ours gets worse” (p.49).
Marlow’s points are erratic and jumbled, highlighting the fact that Marlow needs the two female characters to remain in their places and when they unexpectedly enter his story, he becomes uncomfortable.The attribution of this female character to a symbol of purity and light highlights the possible power that this female character possesses over her male counterparts. When the Intended does not conform to the requirements of this symbol, her resistance is intimidating for Marlow as she then can be seen as altering the male heroic narrative Conrad attempts to complete. This is made evident due to the fact that Marlow becomes uncomfortable within the Intended’s house as unlike his aunt, she not does not argue for colonization but rather forces Marlow to explain the details about his experience with Kurtz, making his attempt to lie even more problematic. Marlow states that his reason for visiting the Intended is “unconscious loyalty” but thereafter states that, “he had no clear perception of what it was he really wanted” (p.72). It can therefore be implied that Marlow’s reason for visiting the Intended is for closure for himself as opposed to her and his visit to the Intended signifies the collision of the two worlds of Belgian colonialism and the realities of European domestic life. Marlow describes a “tall marble fireplace” which is “cold and monumental” and the grand piano that “stood massively in the corner; with dark gleams on the flat surfaces like a somber and polished sarcophagus.” (p.73). the depiction of the contrasting black and white imagery is symbolic of Marlow’s struggle to separate himself from the darkness following him home from his journey. Thereafter, upon her arrival into the drawing room, all Marlow sees is her “fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow” (p.73) and ignores her morbid appearance as he is aiming to take refuge in her light and fairness. When the Intended insisted upon the fact that she knew Kurtz better than Marlow, Marlow responds with “You knew him best,’ I repeated. And perhaps she did.” (p.73).
Once Marlow states this, he describes how the room became dimmer and only “her forehead smooth and white remained illuminated by the inextinguishable light of belief and love.” (p.73) The fact that Marlow fixates upon her symbolic physical attributes emphasises the fact that Marlow intends to keep the Intended in her prescribed domestic state, despite the obvious collision and influence of the two worlds he has experienced over the course of his journey.When analysing the extract given, it becomes evident that the Intended unconsciously mirrors the Mistress’s movement through her actions and physical appearance. The Intended is described with both of her arms “black” and “pale” symbolising the combination of the binary of black and white. The Intended additionally represents the “Shade” of the African Mistress highlighting the fact that Marlow will not receive the closure he so desperately seeks as the Mistress’s influence is still evident.
Overall, it can be depicted that Marlow’s fear in encountering both female characters are vital to a novel, largely controlled by his actions as through their agency, the female characters within the novel prove their influence as well as their importance. The novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad can therefore be seen as an ironic text due to the fact that despite Marlow and evidently, Conrad himself, aiming to reduce the female characters to mere insignificant symbols in order to restrain them, the Mistress and the Intended can, through a critical close analysis, be seen as symbols of the disruption of imperialist binaries as well as powerful archetypes of female power through Conrad’s utilisation of literary devices and female agency within the novel.