Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "Sexism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness" by Emanuela F. (Spring 2014)

"Sexism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness" by Emanuela F. (Spring 2014)

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has many underlying tones about social issues such as racism, sexism and corruption. For this essay, the idea of sexism and gender roles in Conrad’s writing will be discussed. The following articles delve into discussing different critic’s viewpoints on Conrad’s writing in the hopes of uncovering pertinent information on Conrad’s views of women during the time Heart of Darkness was written (late 1800’s). Throughout Heart of Darkness there are minimal references to women, yet the references made towards women are incorporated into the story in quite a unique way. Some of the critics argue that instead of having a main plot line or being a supporting character, the women are seen as background figures, motionless, not adding or detracting, just neutral. Other critics see the women as being depicted in a negative light, instead of a neutral one. These different interpretations of how Conrad depicts women in his writing leads to the discussion and debate of Conrad’s use of sexism in his stories.

One of the many interpretations of the sexist tones in Conrad’s writing can be seen in Martine Hennard Dutheil de la Rochère“Heart of Darkness” As a modernist Anti-Fairy Tale. This article emphasizes the neutrality of women in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and compares a woman’s place in Heart of Darkness to a woman’s place in Grimm Brother’s Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale. When read in comparison to the fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, the notion of female exploitation is made very clear. Dutheil claims that Heart of Darkness can be read as a “collaboration between imperial and patriarchal structures…it represents colonial exploitation as inseparable from the feminine and justifies the exclusion of women in the name of a feminine ideal that Marlow attempts to preserve” Conrad supports the concept of separate spheres for men and women. Neither of them should cross over into the other’s sphere. In Heart of Darkness women are shown as needing to remain ignorant of all harsh realties. This can be exemplified when Marlow hid Kurtz’s dying words from his intended in order to protect and keep her in the dark. Therefore, women in the story are shown as being out of place figures, not adding to the story but people who are shielded from the realities of life. Heart of Darkness is shown as a masculine appropriation of the traditional fairytale structure. Heart of Darkness has the features of fairytales such as greed, lies and exploitation yet Conrad turns these topics into social criticisms, making it a deeply rooted piece of literature touching on these subjects. Conrad emphasizes the place of women as being a translucent background figure, shielded and protected from the separate sphere of a man’s world.

Another interpretation of sexism in Heart of Darkness is seen in Gabrielle McIntire’s “The Women Do Not Travel: Gender, Difference, and Incommensurability in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” McIntire holds the viewpoint that women are not neutral background figures, unable to transition between place and time, but they are background figures with subtly strong effects on the text. This article demonstrates Joseph Conrad’s intentional displacement and removal of women from his story, viewing them in a negative light. Gabrielle McIntire writes, “Through out the book the only female name ever mentioned is the name of the ship” Women are disregarded by Joseph Conrad due to their limited role in the text. The concept of women being in the background of Conrad’s thoughts is ironic because even though the women have a limited role they have a very strong impact on the characters in the story. An example of this can be seen with Marlow’s aunt who gets Marlow this job with the company, something he could not necessarily do on his own. There are also different traces of women through out the story, like the knitters working with the black wool; in essence, welcoming Marlow “into the negative world of darkness.” Conrad intends for women to be outside characters with no real role, yet they end up having a lot of power. Gabrielle McIntire emphasizes that feminist readers of Heart of Darkness are troubled by the readings because of their sexist undertones and that the majority of analysis and report on the story is from males. The sexist and gender stereotypes in Heart of darkness are argued in this article as being directly linked to the issues of racism, which is also prevalent in the story. McIntire reiterates that women --though not intentionally meant to have a strong role—do. Even though they are in the background, they are seen as, “workers of darkness, afflicted with the same blackness that Conrad abhors in the Natives of Africa.” Conrad’s purposeful exclusion of women from story provides an opportunity for analysis, allowing the readers to interpret the possible message of these women, adding to the argument about the underlying sexism in Conrad’s writing.

Shane Bombardieri’s explain's Conrad's use of sexism in his writing in his article, “Heart of Darkness Analysis.” Bombardieri writes to give readers a better understanding of the background information on the time in which Heart of Darkness was written. This is done in order to make sense of Joseph Conrad’s viewpoints, which are reflected in his writing, almost as a means of defense. Men are shown as being stable pillars in society and women are shown as neutral figures due to them being overly emotional and separated from society. Men are the powerful figures while women are the subordinate figures. Conrad depicts gender in his story in relation to the gender stereotypes and cultural norms during the time he wrote Heart of Darkness. Through “studying the binary oppositions of men and women in the text the audience gains a deeper understanding of the values of gender that Conrad is endorsing and channeling” The characters in Heart of Darkness are written and act as they do because of the cultural and social norms of the time. Heart of Darkness is written in a patriarchal society during the time “of the scramble for Africa when social Darwinism and Eurocentric ideals were prevalent.” (Bombardieri) By better understanding Conrad’s life, the reasons for the sexist ideas in his writing can be better explained.

As mentioned in the previous articles discussed, there are many instances of sexism and gender stereotypes in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, yet this article, Revis(it)ing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: Women, Symbolism, and Resistance, written by Kathryn Smith, establishes a different viewpoint with regards to women’s roles in the Heart of Darkness. Though the Mistress and Intended do not play a pivotal role in the story in terms of how much they appear in the narration, they do represent, as Smith explains, foundational symbols of colonialism. The women are depicted as symbols in the sense that Kurtz’s Intended is shown as embodying the civilized white woman while the Mistress represents savagery and darkness. These interpretations show the symbolic importance of these women in relation to colonialism. The mistress and Intended play the role of opposites in relation to the explanation of colonial power. Smith claims that, “Despite the patriarchic and imperialist elements written and narrated throughout the text, however, a feminist critique can reveal important ways in which the Mistress and Intended defy Marlow’s categorization.” Smith analyzes the Mistress and Intendant’s role in a new and powerful way. She emphasizes the need to read these colonial masculine-centered literary pieces though a postcolonial and feminist viewpoint, which will lead to a different interpretation of the role of women in the story. Many readers have criticized Conrad for his ignorance of women in his book, yet Smith assesses the text in a different way than usually interpreted, shedding a new light on the role and symbolic meaning of the women in the story. Smith explains that even though Conrad and Marlow reduce the mistress and Intended to symbols in order to try to contain them in the text, the female characters actually end up symbolizing the negativity that comes with the disruption of colonial binaries and bring a new interpretation to the role of women. This article, seen through a feminine lens, reinterprets Conrad’s text, giving women a new place in the story, one much different than seen before.

These articles show the different interpretations of Sexism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Each author tends to have a different stance on the meaning behind the sexism in Heart of Darkness ranging from feminist viewpoints, the general time the story was written and the hidden messages that the women hold in the text. Some interpret the idea that women are seen as being neutral figures, while others claim women are powerful figures that resemble negativity. There is no one explanation for the sexism used in Conrad’s writing but these different articles provide for an interesting debate over the true meaning of Conrad’s writing and the question of what his intentions were with regards to the role of women in his text. Though the question cannot be explicitly answered, having the knowledge and ability to argue different ideas can allow us to come to a closer conclusion about Conrad’s possible intentions. Sexism is a very important and controversial issue, therefore, the multitude of ideas and viewpoints that come along are plentiful.


Annotated Bibliography: Sexism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

"Heart of Darkness" as a Modernist Anti-Fairy Tale Martine Hennard Dutheil de la Rochère The Conradian Vol. 33, No. 2 (Autumn 2008) (pp. 1-17) Page Count: 17

This text is used as an exhibit source, putting Conrad’s writing of the Heart of Darkness into a comparative context. It is comparing his use of characters and story line to the traditional format of a fairy tale. The idea of sexism and gender roles come into play in this article due to the fact that gender roles are also very important in fairy tales, making the comparison between both very interesting and relatable. This article will help provide a different point of view and a more comparative way of looking at Conrad’s writing in relation to more well known fairy tales.

McIntire, Gabrielle. "The Women Do Not Travel: Gender, Difference, and Incommensurability in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002): 257+. Web. <http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/modern_fiction_studies/v048/48.2mcintire.pdf>.

This article examines women’s roles in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the way in which Conrad depicts them in the text. The article examines the idea that women are shown as being invisible characters in the book though Conrad’s intentional exclusion of them from the main story line. They are also shows as being invisible due to their lack of interpretation through critics who have not taken the position of analyzing the role of women in the story but mostly focus on the main character’s lives. This article works as an argument source, and will help to explain the placement of women in the story and their overall role in the interpretation of Heart of Darkness.

Bombardieri, Shane."Heart of Darkness Analysis." By Shane Bombardieri. Humanities 360, 14 June 2008. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

This article is a Background Source, discussing possible reasons such as the time period, social settings and the mindsets of the time that would affect Joseph Conrad’s mentality when it comes to his views on women. It explains that Conrad lived in a time where life was based on a patriarchal society and Eurocentric ideals. This article is useful in giving background information on Conrad’s life and reasons for his sexist undertones in his writing.

Smith, Kathryn M. Revis(it)ing Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness": Women, Symbolism, and Resistance. N.p.: ProQuest, 2009. Print.

This book is an argument source about women in Joseph Conrad’s story and how they seem to be characterized. Unlike the other sources, this source gives a different, counter perspective, to how the women in his story do defy these preconceived notions of how women are depicted in Conrad’s writing, and will show another side to the ongoing sexist argument. This will provide another perspective for my paper, such as how women are not as passive or invisible as though to be. They are seen as being more present and stronger, showing how women might have a stronger role than depicted.

Moore, Gene M., ed. Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness: A Casebook. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

This casebook is a theory source, explaining the difficulty women have with relating to and objectively reading Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness due their inability to separate themselves from the sexist texts in order to read it in a non-personal way. This source will allow me to further investigate the role of women in Conrad’s story and the sexist messages that are interwoven into his writing. This also provides an understanding of other people’s viewpoints on the text, and the reasons why the notion of sexism in Conrad’s writing is such a debate between the idea of accepting the writing of the time or arguing its underlying meaning.

"Joseph Conrad Quote." Iz Quotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. This is a media source; it is a list of Joseph Conrad’s quotes along with photographs of him saying these quotes. These outside quotes will give another viewpoint of Joseph Conrad’s thoughts that are not written in articles or in his books.