Depiction Of Women Roles In Victorian Society In Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness

Written in 1899, Heart of Darkness encompasses how societal roles undermine feminine growth during the Victorian Era. As feminism was becoming increasingly more powerful, the constraints against women and their purpose were exposed. Women were restrained in all aspects of life including education, marriage, and expectation. A proper education for a woman was a loose term for understanding her domestic roles as a future housewife in the late 1890s. A woman was expected to have a thorough, but not exceeding knowledge of music, art, dancing and language, for anything more would be damaging to societal norms. Well educated women and girls were expected to lessen their erudition with a feminine and graceful manner, demonstrating their expected subordination to men and boys. In addition to being intellectually restrained by a patriarchal society, a woman’s sexuality and passions were also expected to be alleviated. A young girl was not expected to focus on finding a husband or love interest. A woman who showed sexual desire was considered too ‘forward’ and suggested a worrying sexual appetite. Women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction. In order to gain permission to marriage, a young man needed to be able to show that he earned enough money to support a wife and any future children, reinforcing the idea that men were to always provide for the women and children. These Victorian societal expectations are not only demonstrated in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but exploit the sexism of the men who enforced them. Through the few female characters that Conrad includes in his narrative, women in his story are depicted as they are in society, while exposing how men limit them by restricting their roles and purposes.

Conrad certainly does not include many female characters in Heart of Darkness, however when he does, Marlow characterizes each one as small and simple. After just receiving a job opportunity from his well-networked aunt, Marlow remarks “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”. Marlow’s opinion of women reflects the same of the majority during the Victorian Era. His comment reveals womens’ subpar education during the 1890s, leading to their being “out of touch” with reality. A woman’s intellect was not expected to surpass that of a man’s, thus they would be considered “blue-stockings,” a negative term for a well-educated women. Women were held back from receiving higher education and expected to remain academically subordinate to their male counterparts out of fear that they may become unmarriable with too much knowledge. Marlow’s generalization that all women are “out of truth” and “live in their own worlds” demonstrates the stigma that held back women from becoming properly educated in the Victorian Era. Men were continually preventing the intellectual growth of a woman by limiting their education process and stereotyping them as simple minded. Furthermore, Marlow’s disregarding of women as naive things demonstrates not only how men were to blame for their stunted education, but the ignorant and sexist opinions of men during the 1890s. As Marlow’s narrative continues, alpha imperialist Mr. Kurtz further contributes to the minimizing of a woman’s potential. He claims that “we must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse”. Kurtz divides the sexes into two, using the pronoun “we” to represent men and “them” to represent women. His division emphasizes the control men exhume over women to determine how much or how little they get to learn about the world. His claim that women must be kept in “their own worlds” not only compliments Marlow's comment that they are out of touch with reality, but exposes how men shaped their perceived ignorance. By controlling how much exposure women get with the “truths of the world,” men ultimately are the ones preventing their growth and purpose in society. Authors Cleary and Sherwood deliver insight on the feminist movement in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, claiming “Conrad’s civilized women are the occasions for movement toward new, more complicated knowledge. But civilized women must also be protected from the implications of this new knowledge”. Their comment reflects Conrad’s depiction of women as a moving force towards equality, but one still being challenged by men. Implications of educated women meant more female representation in society, outcomes unwanted by men. Throughout Heart of Darkness, male characters consistently demean the capability of women as a result of their rising feminism force. As a result, Cleary and Sherwood explain that civilized women must be “protected” from the undermining punishment received by men, further exposing the continual constraint they have placed on women.

Additionally, Conrad uses characters in his story to depict the norms of prostitution during the late Victorian Era. A prostitute serviced the needs of the men of the house whether he had a relationship or not. The native African women in the middle of the story serves that roll for Mr. Kurtz. Marlow immediately introduces her as “wild” and “gorgeous” when watching her walk through the woods. He continues to describe her as “savage and superb, wide-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress”. The African woman, who has an immediate effect on Marlow, is only described by her physical beauty, excluding everything else about her. Marlow’s ignorance to mention nothing more than her appearance reveals the attitudes of men towards prostitutes in the 1890s. Since these women were used merely for pleasure, men took no effort to further understand them. Their beauty and bodies were all that mattered, as depicted by Marlow. However, even as a prostitute, the native woman is powerful and influential over Marlow and Kurtz. Though she does not speak, her powerful gestures are intimidating and create fear in others. As a native, she stands her ground and represents the beauty of her nation. Authors Reeves and Reagan Lee reflect on the differences of gender roles between civilized and uncivilized countries. They concluded that “the typical European woman during the colonial period and Post-colonial period is, therefore, expected to reflect European gender values by being submissive, moral, chaste, and entirely subservient to her male counterparts, while native women, as Said describes, are necessarily shown as the opposite: dominant, immoral, and more sexually liberated than their European counterparts”. Unlike European women, women from native countries are much more empowered over their bodies and purposes, as demonstrated in Heart of Darkness. Marlow’s response to the presence of the native women represents the European attitude towards women in prostitution in challenge to the native perspective. Contradictory to Marlow’s oversight of her deeper purpose, the native women defies European stigma and remains empowered in the middle of war.

Finally, Marlow exposes the inequalities in a marital relationship by the end of his narrative. Kurtz’s wife at the end of the story is emotional over his death, which is completely normal and is consumed with his life and well-being, which she was shaped to act like through societal expectations. During the late Victorian Era, married women depended heavily on their husbands while serving to always please them. Conrad depicts Kurtz’s wife to be the epitome of an emotional, married woman who relies solely on her husband’s satisfaction and earnings. Kurtz’s wife is lied to by Marlow because he feels powerful enough to assume she is not strong enough to handle the truth. Women are too simple and too weak in his eyes. However, while Marlow’s lies to a married woman depict the vulnerability and conformity of women in the Victorian era, it also exposes Marlow’s predisposed opinion that women aren’t emotionally strong enough to be told the truth. He considers to himself that “the sunlight can be made to lie too, yet one felt that no manipulation of light and pose could have conveyed the delicate shade of truthfulness upon those features. She seemed ready to listen without mental reservation, without suspicion, without a thought for herself”. Moments before Marlow decides to lie to Kurtz’s wife, he rationalizes his precedent actions by claiming she has no cognitive awareness to process the truth. He refers to her as “features,” again only perceiving women as a thing of beauty rather than a human with purpose. Marlow did not want to disrupt her physical features with the truth of her husband’s death, and believed she would not be able to handle it anyways because she had “no thought for herself.” The entire act of lying to Kurtz’s wife single handedly represented how men took advantage of a woman's obedience and manipulated it to keep them on the outskirts of importance. The issue however, is that the wife had just lost her husband, the man she loved most and was judged as emotionally unstable and too feeble to cope with the truth of Kurtz’s death. The stereotype that women, especially those who were married, are not strong enough to be exposed to the truth demonstrates again how men prevented them from growing in society. Marlow’s interpretation of Beatrice spark authors Cleary and Sherwood to believe that “Beatrice is so much the fool that Marlow must lie to her, his lie eagerly accepted as a basis of faith. He ends up regarding her with equal pity, irony, exasperation, and rueful admiration”. The fact is, Beatrice is made a fool by Marlow and by every man who owns the same predisposed idea that women are too frail. Marlow represents the restraint placed on women by European men that held them back from the knowing the truth, from being schooled, and from becoming empowered in society. Marlow shaped Beatrice into a “fool” even though she was so much more.

The generalization of women as a subordinate group is a major element of their under representation and misrepresentation in the Victorian Era. Throughout Heart of Darkness, these levels of characterization and reality emerge and highlight the limits of such women by providing insight into the restricted points of view and misunderstandings maintained by early colonial and Post-colonial society. The narrative authentically portrays female characters through developed characterizations and balanced representations of the effects and influences of European colonization. Conrad’s demonstration of a female in society is not only depicted in the novel, but gives insight to the sexist ways in which men held back women from finding a deeper purpose in a Victorian society.

14 May 2021
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