What is the role of the Black Mistress in Heart of Darkness?

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Kurtz's black mistress serves to emphasize the extent to which Kurtz has gone native, so to speak. He's been out in Africa for so long that he's started to become more African and decidedly less European. In some respects, his mistress can be seen as a metaphor for the...

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Kurtz's black mistress serves to emphasize the extent to which Kurtz has gone native, so to speak. He's been out in Africa for so long that he's started to become more African and decidedly less European. In some respects, his mistress can be seen as a metaphor for the temptations that were thought in Conrad's time to lie in wait for the unsuspecting white man once he'd set foot in the so-called Dark Continent.

Here, in the middle of the steaming jungle, thousands of miles from home, Kurtz has been seduced by what, to the average white man, are the exotic trappings of indigenous culture. There is a sense, then, that Kurtz is somewhat less of a white man for having gone native. He's certainly presented to us as displaying the kind of savagery which the predominant racial prejudice of the time attributed to black Africans.

In portraying Kurtz like this, Conrad undoubtedly hopes to remind his reader of the fine line between Western civilization and the supposed barbarism of African culture, and how easily that line can be blurred if the white man succumbs to the exotic temptations of indigenous culture, including the intoxicating allure of a black mistress.

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Though Conrad is often considered a progressive writer, and Heart of Darkness is usually seen as an indictment of imperialism, he nevertheless embraces clichés and stereotypes that mark European colonial literature in general and are basically another instance of a typically prejudicial and exploitational attitude.

Kurtz's mistress is portrayed as a "native" woman who is perhaps intended to represent both the allure and the "darkness" of non-European cultures. Similar figures appear in works as diverse as the play and opera Madame Butterfly, George Orwell's Burmese Days and Rumer Godden's Black Narcissus. In Heart of Darkness, the mistress of Kurtz is one of several focal points meant to illustrate the fact that Kurtz has taken leave of his senses, setting himself up as a god-like ruler of the "natives."

Much of the colonial literature depicts interracial liaisons in an ambivalent fashion. The implication is that such relationships are wrong but inevitable. They function in literature as an emblem of the power dynamic of imperialism, but, of course, only when the man is European and the woman is non-European. When the opposite occurs and the female is European, the message is unsurprisingly a quite different one, as in Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown, where the romance between Daphne and Hari ends in catastrophe.

In Conrad, the entire Kurtz affair is usually read (correctly) as a symbol of the European exploitation of other cultures. In one sense, however, the fact of Kurtz having had a "native" mistress can be seen as an indication that he himself had genuinely become a part of the culture of the exploited people, though the opposite interpretation—that his mistress was a victim of Kurtz—is just as valid.

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Kurtz's African mistress is first mentioned in the third part of the novel and is described as a "wild and gorgeous" woman wearing heavy ornaments. This "savage and superb" African woman is adorned with brass leggings, brass wire gauntlets, and many necklaces made of glass beads, which Marlow says are worth several elephant tusks.

In the story, she plays a small but significant role. She is very protective of Kurtz and has much influence over him. It is she who leads a chant on the bank of the river when Kurtz leaves the Inner Station.

In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Kurtz's mistress functions as a blank slate upon which the values and wealth of her society are displayed. Marlow frequently claims that women like Kurtz's African mistress are the keepers of naive illusions and that this role is, in fact, crucial, as these naive illusions are at the root of the social fictions that justify economic enterprise and colonial expansion. In return, women are the beneficiaries of much of the resulting wealth, just like the African mistress, who becomes an object upon which the success and status of the men can be displayed in the form of the ornaments with which she is lavished.

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Kurtz's African mistress acts as a foil to his Intended and symbolically represents his inherent savage nature. Marlow describes Kurtz's African mistress as being "savage" and "superb," as she wears magnificent jewelry and eloquently approaches Kurtz. She is aware that Marlow has come to take Kurtz away and openly displays her objection to Kurtz leaving the Inner Station. During the time that the novella was written and published, interracial relations were taboo, which magnifies Kurtz's rejection of the "civilized" world. In contrast, Kurtz's Intended is portrayed as civil, restrained, and naive. The behavior of Kurtz's Intended coincides with Marlow's perception of a civilized European woman while Kurtz's African mistress represents the primitive, unpredictable life in the Congolese wilderness. The African mistress also represents Kurtz's lustful nature and unrestrained desires apart from civilization. His relationship with the African mistress would never be recognized or considered acceptable in Europe, much like his questionable business practices in the Congolese jungle.

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In Heart of Darkness, female characters play a stereotypical role and appear quite infrequently.  Only a few women appear at all, and they serve as elements of contrast for Marlow. 

The Black Mistress in particular serves to contrast Kurtz's Intended.  The Intended is pure, innocent and believes wholly in the goodness of her fiance Kurtz.  The Black Mistress is wild, loud, and vicious, having been Kurtz  lover during his descent into darkness.  She is described as ‘‘wild-eyed and magnificent." 

The contrast between these two women represent the differences between the Kurtz who left The Intended in Belgium and the Kurtz who is worshipped by the natives in the Congo.    They represent, in effect, the duality of his existence.

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Just a few pointers to get you started. It is very important to compare the black mistress to the Intended of Kurtz. Both of course have relations with Kurtz, but the Black Mistress, in the way that she is described and the role she has, seems to symbolise the "darkness" of Africa and the open sexuality that she embodies. It is entirely appropriate therefore that Kurtz has a relationship with her, as this symbolises his relationship with Africa as a whole and how he is able to acknowledge his darker side.

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