Conrad's portrayal of women in Heart of Darkness has led many critics to accuse him of being a misogynist. Do you agree with this view? Explain and illustrate.

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gpane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would agree that Conrad in Heart of Darkness is misogynistic, but only up to a certain point.  Misogyny is the marginalization or disparagement of women in some way. Certainly, the world of trade and exploration in this novel seems very much to be a man’s world, and the story features very few women characters. In fact, according to Marlow, women live in a separate realm:

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.

 Marlow, then, seems to think that women don’t know reality, or truth, they live fenced off from it, in a secure place of their own. Later, when talking about Kurtz’s Intended, Marlow reverts once more to this theme, declaring that women as a whole are not only out of it but that they should be so, that they should be secluded from the harsh realities of the world:

Oh, she is out of it - completely.  They -the women, I mean - are out of it - should be out of it.  We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.

Such comments appear to deny the fact that women have sense and knowledge and intellect. Marlow, then, seems to be looking down on women, marginalizing the role they play in the world as a whole. At the same time, though, he remarks that the separate world they inhabit is a 'beautiful' one.

The women characters in this novel hardly appear to be rounded out characters. They appear one-dimensional: Kurtz’s Intended is a vision of idealized womanhood, of beauty and love, while his African mistress appears to be little more than the personification of the wildness, the savagery of nature. This can also be viewed as a kind of misogyny, making women appear as little more than abstractions. 

However, women in this novel are not really viewed in such a negative light as has sometimes been supposed. Although women characters may be few and far between, and apparently cocooned, by and large, in their own world, they aren’t weak or helpless. Kurtz’s African mistress is an imposing, most impressive presence when she appears, and his Intended comes to dominate the scene at the end of the novel. We should remember, too, that it is a woman, Marlow’s aunt, who precipitates him into his terrifying journey into the heart of darkness when she helps secure a job for him in the Congo. Even more important than this, perhaps, is the fact that the qualities that are generally seen to attach to women in this novel are positive ones: love, loyalty, emotional nurture.

To conclude: Conrad in this novel does appear to belittle women to some extent, downplaying their capabilities and understanding. However, their emotional qualities are also extolled as an antidote to the darker side of human life and nature. Therefore, women have their own significance in the story, and even appear quite powerful.