How does a feminist reading differ from a psychoanalytic reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness ?
The main difference between a feminist and a psychoanalytic reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness is that the former focuses on the role of women and systematic gender oppression, while the latter would focus more on the subconscious workings of the mind of either a character or the author.
One possible feminist reading would examine the roles of the major female characters of the novel, namely Marlowe's Aunt, Kurtz's Intended, and Kurtz’s Black Mistress. Although twentieth century feminisms might have focused on the individual women in relationship to patriarchal oppression, more recent feminist criticism would be more likely to explore the connections between gender and colonial oppression, looking at the different ways in which both white and black women are excluded from centers of power. The two knitting women sit outside the office, and while Marlowe's Aunt helps him obtain his position through social connections, she is not actually employed by the company. Neither of the two women affiliated with Kurtz have independent stories, but rather simply function as supporting characters in Kurtz's story, both the prototypically European Intended who never hears the real truth about the "horror" of colonialism, and the colonized mistress.
A psychoanalytic reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness would associate Africa with the primal Id, lying at the dark heart of the subconscious, as a place where Kurtz is stripped of civilized restraint. Europe and its "civilization" becomes the superego, the place of restraint, and internalization of social conventions and moral systems. Many psychoanalytic approaches to the work look at Kurtz almost as a projection of Marlowe's own conflicted nature.
A feminist critique of Heart of Darkness would examine the ways in which men and women relate to power and love in the novel. For example, such a critique might look at the way in which men hide reality from the women around them and the way in which men seek power while women seek connection. While men, such as Marlow and Kurtz, are the adventurers and are allowed to travel into the dangerous heart of Africa, Kurtz's fiancee is kept in the dark about his doings in Africa. Though Kurtz has a mistress in Africa, Marlow lies and tells Kurtz's fiancee that the last words he uttered were her name. Of course, nothing is further from the truth. Kurtz seems to have largely forgotten about his fiancee, who is powerless, while he is in Africa. While women in Europe and Africa seek connection with Kurtz, he is not really committed to either of them. Instead, he seeks only power and plunder.
A psychoanalytic reading of the novel might, using Freudian theory, focus on the way in which Kurtz's trip to the heart of Africa is similar to his descent into his subconscious desires. The trip that Kurtz makes into Africa resembles a dream, which Freud, the creator of psychoanalysis, believed was a way to access one's unconscious desires. In Africa, Kurtz has a mistress, signifying the satisfaction of his sexual desires, and he also becomes a kind of god who rules over the local people, signifying the satisfaction of his aggressive desires. Despite having these desires met, Kurtz perishes, symbolizing his descent into madness and sickness from satisfying his deepest desires (which, according to Freudian theory, must be kept at bay in order to retain one's sanity and sense of civilization).
A feminist reading would look at how women are depicted in the novel and what that tells us about the society they live in. In a feminist reading, I might focus on the end of the book, where Marlow believes he has to keep the horrors of Africa secret so as to protect the women in his life from the knowledge of evil. Why must women, especially Kurtz's fiancee, be kept "innocent" and "pure"? Why does Marlow harbor such stereotypes? How does this dysfunctional pattern trap both men and women in lies and dishonesty? How does it reinforce patriarchy by justifying male silence?
A psychoanalytic reading would try to understand characters in the novel through the lens of psychology and unconscious drives and desires. For a psychological reading, you could focus on the psychology of isolation, solitude, and living in a jungle environment to try to understand what happened to Kurtz. You could also look at Freud's essay on the uncanny to explore the conception of Kurtz and Marlow as doppelgangers or doubles. What part of Kurtz does Marlow see in himself?
A feminist reading differs from a psychoanalytic reading in focusing on the society and how it treats women. A psychoanalytic reading focuses on individuals in the novel and their interiority.