Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "The Empowerment of Women in Heart of Darkness" by Connor Y. (Spring 2014)

"The Empowerment of Women in Heart of Darkness" by Connor Y. (Spring 2014)

In this essay I utilized critiques of Joseph Conrad’s work by Katherine Smith, Asit Biswas, Jeremy Hawthorne, and Gabrielle McIntire. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, women may seem like they are omitted from the exploration of Africa but in fact they make multiple appearances hinting at their strength behind the scenes of the story.  As anyone who has read and thought about Heart of Darkness may find, the story is largely based off of Conrad’s experiences and is used to showcase his personal views on imperialism. That being said, it is interesting that although he denies having any major female characters in the story the females are usually in a position of power or higher standing. Conrad denies the presence of female characters and leaves them to be background or scenery, and yet they act against the female stereotype by wielding power that is greater than most of the main male characters in the story.

The women in Heart of Darkness are confined to their respective regions but this is not an indicator of their weakness. Meanwhile, Gabriel McIntire incorrectly believes that Conrad’s female characters are weak because they are confined to certain areas Mcintire claims, “Mostly the women are sedentary, stationary, and confined to their own territories, metonymically embodying the separate cultural, racial, and geographic identities at play in the novel.” McIntire claims that Conrad portrayed women as weak because they were ignorant of the situation in Africa. However, a deeper interpretation of the text reveals that this is a false assumption. In this situation only company personnel in Africa truly comprehend the gravity of the situation, while both men and women outside Africa are oblivious. The women’s confinement to Europe prevents them from maintaining better control of the operation in Africa. This is not the fault of the women, as McIntire suggests. According to her interpretation, “Mostly the women are sedentary, stationary, and confined to their own territories, metonymically embodying the separate cultural, racial, and geographic identities at play in the novel.” This is in fact not a weakness because the vast majority of men going to work in the Belgian Congo also carry a separate cultural and racial identity than the people living in Africa. This cultural divide leads the men to lead a disorganized and faulty operation in Africa. Even Kurtz, the best man of the entire outfit is unable to adequately resist the darkness of Africa. When Marlow finally encounters the company’s best agent, he has impaled a ring of heads on spears around his station and he is on his deathbed dying of fever. The inability to travel does not make the women of Hear of Darkness weak, nor does their cultural difference from the native African population.

Far from being weak many women within Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” are actually in positions of authority. One major example of this is Marlowe’s aunt who single handedly secures Marlow his desired job within a trading company going to Africa. The amount of influence this woman has in order give Marlowe such a specific position must be astronomical. As Biswas clearly articulates, “Marlow’s aunt who managed the job for him in the Belgian Limited Company for Trade in the Upper Congo, and that too within a very short time, represents great power, the power of the women over men”(Biswas 158) without Marlowe’s aunt the very nature of the story would have changed. Similarly, Conrad actually extends the ending of the story to include Marlowe’s interaction with Kurtz’s intended. As she asks Marlowe Kurtz’s last words Marlowe contradicts his earlier condemnation of lies in general. As Biswas wisely concludes, “Marlow’s intense introspection and experiences about colonization in the Congo Africa make him realize its hollowness. He fails to form any positive opinion about it and also can hold no faith on it. Hence he hardly had anything tributory to speak to the Intended about Colonial activities, and he had to lie.”(Biswas 160) Both Kurtz’s intended and Marlowe’s aunt are so powerful that the nature of the story hinges upon their actions.  

From the following paragraph not only can we gather that women are often more important than the main male characters but also that they are more powerful. When Marlow is looking back upon the glowing lights of London he reflects on the beauty of civilization and organized society. This society is governed by men but has key influential women who also work behind the scenes to achieve their own goals as demonstrated by Marlowe’s aunt. Meanwhile the attempts to establish civilization in Africa are disastrous. Marlowe observes that under the company’s command, natives are chained together and forced to work, there are sick and starving everywhere, and much of their equipment they are attempting to build is broken and unusable. The main difference in leadership here is the bureaucratic form of government that is championed by men who unlike women do not harbor idealistic notions of civilization or imperialism. The lack of women who are champions of idealistic imperialism leads to the poor state of the trading company’s efforts to expand into Africa.   

While Conrad keeps the few female characters present in Heart of Darkness in the dark, the symbolism surrounding them and their actions reveal that they are far from powerless. McIntire wrongfully assumes that because the women do not move they are weak. She ignores the fact that characters like Marlowe’s aunt are the reason we get to even hear the story. Without her influential position Marlowe probably wouldn’t have been permitted to captain a steamship for the trading company. Smith goes on to further explain that women within Heart of Darkness are purposefully kept in the dark from the nature of their power, and in this way Conrad is forming a metaphor for imperialist states. He conveys this through women, whom he admits were not going to be a romantic part of the story. Heart of Darkness uses the image of powerful yet ignorant women to convey a metaphor of the European imperialistic paradigm. 


Annotated Bibliography 

The Women Do Not Travel: Gender, Difference, and Incommensurability in Conrad's Heart of Darkness Gabrielle McIntire Journal: Mfs Modern Fiction Studies 2002
DOI: 10.1353/mfs.2002.0032


1.) This Journal article by Gabriele McIntire looks at “The Heart of Darkness” with the perception that Conrad makes female characters scarce and insignificant with generally little power. I intend to use this as a counter argument, whose points I will address in my essay. If you agree that with the author’s main idea than this could be an excellent source to support your argument.


Biswas, Asit. "Conrad's Heart of Darkness: Negotiating Space for the Women." Journal of Literature, Culture and Media Studies. Vol.I(2). (2009): 154-165. Print.


2.) This Journal article looks at Conrad’s depictions of women in a more positive light; while they may not always be present the story seems to empower many female figures. If you believe that “The Heart of Darkness” has many moments of feminine empowerment then this methodical argument will be a great aid.


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


3.) In “Revisiting Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” the author points out that while it may not have been Conrad’s intention to write Heart of Darkness with the goal of empowering women, however when examining the few times women are mentioned in the story there is usually a significant amount of symbolism that leads the reader to believe they are more powerful than they seem. This text takes on the perception that Conrad tried to limit and subdue instances of female characters in the story.


Hawthorn, Jeremy.“The Women of Heart of Darkness” Rev. of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. 1990: 10 Print.


4.) Jeremy Hawthorne makes the claim that Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” favors keeping women and men separate so as to protect them from the horrible world of imperialism. He does believe that women are not powerless in the story but he does point out that Conrad makes them stereotypical characters. He also believes that Conrad’s book reflects an artistic version of Marlow’s views, whose roots are found in the mind of the author. Essentially he believes that Heart of Darkness is not a clear representation of Conrad’s beliefs. This source looks at the symbolism surrounding women in greater detail, which was actually something some of the previous sources admitted to omitting.


Karuna, Edith. Kurtz's Painting. 2010. Painting. deviantart.comWeb. 3 Mar 2014. <http://fruitdioxide.deviantart.com/art/Kurtz-s-Painting-156889455>.


5.) This watercolor painting by Edith Karuna is based off the description Marlow gives of Kurtz’s mysterious painting. As Marlow describes it, “… I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber- almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torch-light on the face was sinister.” This is one of the few female characters within the novel and the painting itself is wrapped up in symbolism.