Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, holds fluctuating levels of merit among various scholars. Aside from people who view Conrad as a racist, he has also angered many feminist writers by portraying women as inferior to men and selfish manipulators. In the eyes of Marlow and Kurtz, women are objects to blame, for they are the prime reason the men sojourned into Africa. Kurtz believes he holds the burden to bring ivory back to the Intended, while Marlow yearns to understand Kurtz’s relationship with his Intended. Even though it is arguable that the only beauty in this novel is women, it is a beauty wrapped up in shadows. Marlow and Kurtz, essentially represent a masked Conrad. They have an underlying difficulty in understanding women.
Marlow portrays his chauvinistic attitude while gazing at Kurtz’s oil painting. He “noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch,” (Conrad 46). Assuming the painting is of Kurtz’s Intended, to Marlow, the Intended symbolizes all upper-class European women, blinded by a passion for ivory and the men sojourning out into the wilderness to bring their precious ivory back to them. In Marlow’s eyes, or Conrad’s, women can only bring light to Africa when satisfying their own selfish desire.
After arriving at Kurtz’s Inner Station, Marlow was “anxious to deal with this shadow” by himself, (104). Later, when he goes back to the Intended, he says she was “all in black” and it was “…as if all the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead,” (119). The Intended shadows Kurtz by finding satisfaction in sending him to Africa for ivory. For once, she had complete power over him. He loves her, for Marlow describes her as on Kurtz’s “elevated sentiments” (110). She has been a nurturing helpful spouse to Kurtz, but she possesses the fire of desire. The light, or satisfaction, that the Intended brings into Kurtz’s life is only for her selfish needs. At the end of his life, Kurtz is still trapped within the darkness, rotting away in sickness. Ultimately, Conrad cannot accept that women could possess such power over men. He rejects this idea by labeling their power as evil and selfish, and their selfishness leads men into sickness. The men are caught in the darkness of Africa while the women remain in the light of Europe.
After Kurtz’s death, Marlow clearly reveals that women are dissatisfying and inferior. Marlow says, “My dear aunt’s endeavors to ‘nurse up my strength’ seemed altogether beside the mark. It was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination,” (114). Throughout the art world, women have been the muses of men, but in Heart of Darkness, Marlow cannot find any qualities in women that would satisfy him. They lack the ability to give advice or offer companionship.
At the end of the novella, Marlow lies to the Intended by saying that the last thing Kurtz pronounced was her name. Kurtz’s last words, “the horror! The horror!” (112), is a homonym for “the whore, the whore!” Kurtz could be referring to The Intended, or Marlow is interpreting it that way, reinforcing the idea that the Intended was the prime reason for Kurtz’s journey into darkness. The homonym could be a masked symbol for Conrad’s chauvanistic view toward women.
Even though The Intended speaks to Marlow, her real name is never revealed. By lacking an identity, Conrad dehumanizes women, as opposed to Marlow and Kurtz, whose names give them a strong masculine identity. Furthermore, the words “the Intended” is a symbol. To “intend” is to have a plan or purpose. Did the Intended plan to send her beloved Kurtz into the Heart of Darkness?
Conrad’s view on women seem highly stereotypical and chauvinistic. Marlow and Kurtz believe women are merely selfish whores. There is no doubt that Kurtz loved his “Intended” but it only appears that way on the surface. Women could be the cause for the author’s own journey into darkness.