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Forms and Figures of the Feminine in Heart of Darkness

Essay by   •  April 24, 2012  •  Essay  •  1,541 Words (7 Pages)  •  1,481 Views

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In the first part of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, his protagonist Marlow claims: "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 the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over." This satement illustrates Marlow's point of view about women and the least one can says is that it is a debatable one. He describes them as naïve and idealistic and he considers that they have no sense of reality. Though he scorns them for their utopian dreamings he also admires their purity. Given the fact that the novel was first published in 1899 in a magazine and finally published in 1903 it can be said that Marlow's point of view is very characteristic of the time in which Conrad wrote his book. At the begining of the 20th century en especially before the First Worl War women did not have a voice of their own in a very patriarchal society, they only played supporting roles exactly as they do in Conrad's novel. Heart of Darkness deals with Marlow's journey along the Congo river in search of a mysterious man named Kurtz who has disappeared in the jungle but the main theme of the story is imperialism and its darkest consequences both on the colonized and the colonizer.

I shall examine first the most obvious manifestations of feminity in the text that is to say the female characters of the novel, then I'll focus on the various parallels that are made between women and the personified jungle and finally I'll try to show that it is the same feminized wilderness and darkness that Marlow identifies as being the cause of Kurtz's mental and physical collapse.

In Heart of Darkness, the landscape is feminized through a rhetoric of personification. The landscape is constructed as an entity that speaks and acts, and is consequently made to appear as something which is alive. The projection of a face on the landscape works through this same personification. Reference to "The sunlit face of the land. . .to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart" is an imitation of apocalyptic resignation, filling Marlow with an apprehension that "it looked at you with a vengeful aspect". Marlow's suspicion is not that there is someone in the forest watching him, but that it is the forest itself which is watching him. The rhetorical personification of the landscape illuminates the wilderness and gives it life. It is this that Marlow presents as his source of unease as he travels in search of Kurtz.

The significance of Kurtz's undoing by the wilderness and Marlow's ethic of restraint is accentuated above all by the account Marlow provides of the "wild and gorgeous apparition" of a native woman he observes from the steamer: She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And 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 has been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

She came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us. Her long shadow fell to the water's edge. Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. The wilderness is figuratively embodied in

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