How are women viewed and what are their roles in Paradise Lost, Othello, and Heart of Darkness?
Though separated across centuries, all three works view women through the lens of male desire. In all three, women, though not entirely without power, exist primarily to fulfill male or patriarchal needs. All three works depict women as subordinate to men, as ideally submissive, and as the "Other": as different from males.
Eve represents women in Paradise Lost. Milton, though not as misogynist as other men of his period, states that women are inferior to men and that men must be their rulers. From her creation, therefore, from Adam's rib, Eve is subordinate and different: Adam is made for "valor" (courage), Eve for "softness." In a famous passage, Milton ends by stating that Adam was created for God and Eve for Adam:
Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem’d;
For contemplation hee and valor form’d,
For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him:
Eve is lesser than Adam in all other attributes than her beauty. As for her beauty, Eve suffers from the sin of vanity. She looks into water and falls in love with her own reflection. Satan will exploit her weakness. Her vanity leads her to think she can withstand Satan on her own, and so she persuades Adam that the two of them can be separated. She says they will get more work done that way. This gives Satan his opening, and he appeals to her vanity—he "licked the ground wherein she stood." Only after the Fall, does Eve think about wanting equality with Adam—before that, in the garden, she understood her proper place in the hierarchy as below the man. Milton tells us that although Adam is stronger-minded than Eve, for he knows it is a trick to eat the fruit, Eve's feminine wiles beguile him: he wants to be with her. So she has some power over him. But largely, she is created for Adam's needs, is fundamentally different from him as a female, and meant to be submissive. Yearning for equality, if only briefly, is a sign of her fallenness.
In Othello, women are seen as the property of their husbands or fathers and subordinate to them, and are assumed to be prone to be promiscuous, which helps Iago to persuade Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful. Iago too fears "the lusty Moor / hath leaped into my seat" (II.1) with Emilia (i.e., has slept with Emilia), and eventually he kills her. In this world, the male need to uphold honor becomes more important than mercy toward—or even the lives of—women.
Women in Othello are ideally submissive. Desdemona is praised for a spirit "still and quiet." As she is dying, Desdemona says, "Commend me to my kind lord." Emilia, though she will finally betray Iago, feels it is normally right to be submissive to him, saying in Act V: "Tis proper I obey him, but not now," and Bianca feels she must accept Cassio's rejection.
Desdemona does state in Act III that "Nay, we must think men are not gods." Emilia does express a belief in women's equality, but only privately to Desdemona. Emilia argues that women are no different than men: "Let husbands know, / Their wives have sense like them; they see and smell, / And have their palates both for sweet and sour / As husbands have" (IV.3). But in the end the women primarily obey.
In Heart of Darkness, women are subordinate to men and submissive to them, but this plays out primarily in the need to keep them innocent, unknowing, in the garden of Eden, so to speak, which creates an interesting contrast to Paradise Lost. Marlow has an enormous need for the white women to be protected from knowing about the evil he has witnessed. Women, at least white women, must be kept different from men; they must not be allowed the same knowledge of evil; they must be permitted illusions about the world's goodness. This infantilizes them, but Marlow believes this is the way the world should operate. In chapter one, for example, we learn that although Marlow's aunt shows some power by helping him get to Africa, she at the same time naively believes Marlow will be “weaning those ignorant millions [the Africans] from their horrid ways." She believes he will bring civilization to Africa. Marlow notes:
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's too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset.
In chapter two, he says: "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."
We see that the woman's protected innocence meets male needs: the male world will get "worse" without the rationalization of pretending to heroic virtues to protect the women. Whether this meets women's needs is not considered, any more than is the honor code's effect on women in Othello or whether it met Eve's needs to be created as subordinate to Adam (of course, in Paradise Lost, this lesser status is posited as the divine order).
In chapter three, Kurtz's African mistress is described as a possession: "She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her." His intended bride is, however, treated as a purer and more innocent Other. As with Eve and Desdemona, this woman's beauty is important, as is her purity ("truthfulness": ironic as she will be lied to by Marlow):
She struck me as beautiful—I mean she had a beautiful expression. I know 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.
At the end of the book, Marlow tells her that Kurtz spoke her name as his final word rather than the truth that he spoke of "the horror, the horror." To Marlow, to have told her the truth “would have been too dark—too dark altogether . . . ."
In all three works, we can see that women exist to serve male needs.