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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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Representation and symbolism of white and black women in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness


In Heart of Darkness, white women symbolize the idealized, untouched European world, representing purity and naivety, while black women symbolize the exotic, often misunderstood African world, embodying mystery and primal allure. This contrast highlights the stark differences in how European and African cultures are perceived and underscores the novel's themes of colonialism and racial disparity.

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Does Joseph Conrad portray white women and African women differently in Heart of Darkness?

It has been often argued that one aspect that modern readers may find problematic in Heart of Darkness is its depiction of gender. In their relationship to women, male characters oscilallate from Marlow's patronizing to Kurtz's lust. Some feminist critics such as Carola Kaplan have pointed out that women are given only minor parts and mostly remain without names. Yet, this is true of most of male characters too. In addition, Marlow's aunt, although repeatedly belittled by her nephew, is shown as powerful. Rather than living in a world of her own, as Marlow states, she understands the social and political context of the Victorian Era.

Kurtz is connected with two very different women. In Belgium, he has left behind his fiancée, the Intended, who is devoted to him. She fits the canon of Victorian womanhood, the naive woman in need of male protection. The Woman is the other female character with whom Kurtz is connected. She is the African woman Kurtz has been living with and is antithetical to the Indended. While the white woman is virginal and ideal, the African woman is more sensual and statutesque (she's described as "wild eyed and magnificient").

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Discuss the representation and symbolism of white women in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

The most significant white woman portrayed in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness would be Kurtz's fiancee (his "intended"). When Marlow sees her almost a year after Kurtz's death, she is still mourning as if he had died yesterday or even that day: her sorrow has not abated at all. However, she is a part of the "civilized" world and knows nothing about what Kurtz had become while in the jungles of the Congo.

She asks Marlow questions, and he works hard to say what she wants or even needs to hear—without revealing the ugly truth, though it might be safe to infer that this woman so idolized Kurtz that she might never have believed anything but the highest praise of him.

"You knew him well," she murmured...

"Intimacy grows quickly out there," I said. "I knew him as well as it is possible for one man to know another."

"And you admired him," she said. "It was impossible to know him and not to admire him. Was it?"

Marlow treads carefully as he speaks to her. Her admiration and devotion to Kurtz is obvious. She mistakes Marlow for Kurtz's friend, and turns almost with desperation to Marlow to tell him of her worthiness of the man she believed she knew better than anyone else. She pours out her pain to Marlow for she has no one else to tell: no one who knew Kurtz. She is sure that everyone admired him.

He drew men towards him by what was best in them.

Ironically, without knowing how truly she speaks, Kurtz's fiancee notes:

He died as he lived.

Marlow begins to get angry inside, and his rebuttal reflects what he knows of Kurtz that she will never—must never—know:

"His end," I said, with dull anger stirring in me, "was in every way worthy of his life."

Kurtz's fiancee needs some kind of ease for the loss of the love of this man she knew, seemingly not at all—or at least not as he had become in the Congo—so Marlow lies in an effort to give her some peace:

"The last word he pronounced was—your name."

She is greatly comforted, though Marlow expects to be struck down by heaven for such a blatant lie, especially when Kurtz's last words were nothing so dear as his intended's name—they were actually, "The horror! The horror!" It seems there was no place in his mind for Kurtz to remember her at the end for it would seem he had lost even himself.

This woman has no true knowledge of what Kurtz had become. In a sense, she is symbolic of Europe. The women with their lovely fans and pianos that created music of such beauty, were also immersed in the oblivion that surrounded the circumstances of retrieving ivory so that it could be turned into a "cool" profit, while being cherished and enjoyed.

For Marlow, even recalling his horror, he could find no way to share the truth with the grieving woman. She would go on in ignorance, just as Europe did—until word of the atrocities in the Congo began to spread. Until then, the fiancee represents society's peace and complacency—found only in ignorance.

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What does white and black symbolize in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?

Traditionally, the color black was associated with all that was dark, evil, and mysterious, whereas white represented all that was clean, pure, and holy. White Europeans took these preconceptions with them when they colonized Africa, which they christened "The Dark Continent".

In the eyes of colonialists, Africa was a strange, exotic land full of dark-skinned heathens following bizarre customs. This was not a place which the white light of their civilization had ever penetrated. As part of what they saw as their civilizing mission, European colonialists sought to make Africa considerably more "white," or holy, and a good deal less "black," or mysterious.

Conrad challenges this simple-minded dichotomy between white, or good, and black, or evil, in Heart of Darkness. First of all, it's notable that the river Thames, where the frame story begins, is shrouded in darkness. Here we are, in the heart of the Empire's mother country, and yet the atmosphere is gloomy and mysterious as Marlow prepares his tale.

An unmistakable air of gloom continues to hang over proceedings as Marlow makes his way to the Company's office in Brussels. In the outer room, a couple of old women are knitting black wool feverishly. The color of the wool is no accident; it represents the evil of the Company and its morally unconscionable practices.

By the same token, the color white is also used in a completely different way than is traditionally the case. For example, when Marlow's making his way up the Congo he sees the African men paddling boats and notices the whites of their eyes. That Marlow notices this feature of the men's faces indicates that he's seeing a side of the indigenous people that few other white men really see. Far from being backward savages as the prevailing racial prejudice would have it, Africans are no different under the skin than the white Europeans who assume superiority over them.

White can also be a sign of danger, as Marlow discovers when a white morning fog descends upon the river. Far from piercing the darkness, it adds to it. In symbolic terms, this could be said to represent the way that white European colonialists cynically conceal their brutal, exploitative ventures beneath the fog of civilization.

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