The Africans in the Heart of Darkness
It is an embedded story of an adventurous Englishman who undertakes a journey into the primitive Cogan jungle to rescue a strangely successful Ivory merchant, Kurtz, from the dangers posed by the unknown African people, the greed of his Belgian colleagues, and his base instincts. Through the narrator, Charlie Marlow, Conrad challenges the rapacious Belgian imperialists, specifically King Leopold II’s company, who according to Conrad are destroying the Congo and its inhabitants in their desperate materialism and quest for ivory. Within the novel, Conrad presents the Belgium Company as destructive, greedy, and inept, and an ultimately immoral force.
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In addition, he criticizes the leech-like nature of the Company employees who are essentially passive and do not contribute to the company. In the novel, however, it is possible to see, when reading through a Post-colonial lens, that Conrad presents the Africans as animalistic and inhuman as a means of garnering reader sympathy for their decay as a result of imperialism. Furthermore, the text-only exists within a masculine point of view; therefore the representation of the feminine is distorted. By assuming a feminist reading, it is apparent that women within the novel are presented as an inferior gender and are always defined in terms of their male counterparts. Each of the different reading practices produces its unique interpretations of the text, allowing different ideas to be extracted from the novel.
While adhering to the dominant reading of “Heart of Darkness”, the novel can be read as a criticism of the treatment of the natives by the Belgians. Through the narrator Marlow, Conrad reveals the plight of the Africans and their suffering due to the Belgian occupation of the Congo. Marlow remarks, “They were not enemies, they were not criminals”, highlighting the unjust way in which the Belgians enslaved the natives, exploiting them to drive their quest for ivory. In addition Conrad’s powerful description of the chain gang that Marlow witnesses engender a lot of sympathy towards the Africans:
“Black rags were wound round their loins, and short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck”
This potent imagery explicitly depicts the abuse of the natives and explores their degeneration and decay. The symbolism of the “tail” conjures animalistic ideas, suggesting that these people have been deprived of their humanity. Conrad also explores their decay as a result of the Belgians, “They were dying slowly… they were nothing earthly now”. Here Marlow discusses their slow decay as the imperialists destroy their culture and environment. The idea that they have an innate link with nature is also raised, suggesting that as the Belgians ravage the countryside, they are also ravaging the souls of the natives, who are “clinging to the earth”. Furthermore, Conrad discusses the way the Belgians impose their own culture upon the Africans. They are “fed on unfamiliar food”, which symbolizes the Belgians disregard for the native culture. Similarly, one of the natives has “a bit of white worsted round his neck”, which represents the European’s attempt to mold the Africans into their image, essentially denying their humanity. Marlow displays his sympathy by offering one of the Africans a biscuit, “I found nothing else to do but offer him one of my good Swede’s ship’s biscuits”. This signifies Marlow’s pity for the Africans, however, he is unable to do anything to change their situation, the most he can do is give them brief happiness. Within the novel, Marlow challenges imperialism which in his Victorian society was accepted as a necessary part of establishing an empire.
Although the dominant reading suggests Conrad is sympathetic towards the Africans, when reading Heart of Darkness through a post-colonial lens, and examining the representations of racial minorities Conrad can be viewed as a racist through his negative representations of the blacks. Post-colonial reading practice is grounded in colonial experiences outside of Europe and the consequences and impact of colonialism, revolving around the idea of “the other”, with a focus on racial representations. Throughout the novel Conrad’s representations of black are always incomplete and derogatory, compounded with his frequent use of synecdoche. Marlow refers to “black shadows”, “black shapes”, “moribund shapes” and “sunken eyes”.
These negatives images all dehumanize the Africans, as they are always described as something not completely human. Conrad’s constant use of synecdoche reinforces their subhuman status, as the act of reducing someone to a body part disembodies them and refuses their humanity. In addition, Conrad makes repeated references to their “blackness”, possibly revealing his internalization of Victorian racism. Conrad also makes several animalistic comparisons to the natives. He compares them to a “hyena prowling”, and “a dog in a parody of breeches”, which further reinforces Conrad’s adoption of his society’s inherent racism. While Conrad offers sympathy towards the Africans he never fully acknowledges their humanity, as they are always represented with shadowy or animalistic imagery.
“Heart of Darkness” presents Africa as the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization, and therefore the Africans are subhuman, and the binary opposite of the European man. This idea of “the other” is very prominent in the novel, as seen through Conrad’s grotesque and animalist representations of the Africans and the image of the Congo as a dark, almost primordial landscape, “We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth… a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping”. This intense imagery and use of synecdoche describe a very barbaric and primitive race of people. The idea of the black man being the binary opposite to the Europeans is highlighted, “We were… secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse”. This suggests that as insanity is the opposite of sanity, so are Europeans who are the opposite of Africans.
Therefore if the Africans are depicted as animalistic and barbarous, it follows that the Europeans must be civilized and cultured. Therefore when applying a resistant post-colonial criticism it can be concluded that Conrad is subscribing to the Victorian belief of the black man as “the other”, and thus “Heart of Darkness” can be interpreted as a racist text. This widely differs from the dominant reading in which Conrad can be seen as showing sympathy towards the Africans. Through Conrad’s characterization of the African woman, he portrays the darker, more sexual, and primitive aspect of femininity. Marlow describes her as a “wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman”, representing the feminine sexuality that invokes fear within Marlow. She is presented as the stereotypical evil and manipulating seductress, who exploits men’s desires leading them into corruption. She is also characterized as instinctual and ruled by her passions, “wild-eyed and magnificent… tenebrous and passionate soul”, which symbolizes the dark sexuality of the feminine. This idea of the feminine as evil is further established through the two secretaries who appear early in the novel. Marlow invokes very negative imagery to characterize these women, “One fat and the other slim”, “her dress was as plain as an umbrella-cover”, “had a wart on one cheek, and silver-rimmed spectacles hung on the tip of her nose”. The women are largely defined by their appearance and Marlow’s description invokes images of witches.
Similarly, the “black wool” symbolizes their alignment with the forces of evil. These, “witches” are the only women in the novel who do work, and thus they are the antithesis to the ideal image of “the Intended”. Therefore Conrad is subscribing to the traditional belief that women should remain domesticated and passive. Much like the Africans are demonized and presented as inferior to Europeans through their representations within Heart of Darkness so are women depicted as secondary to men. Both a post-colonialist and a feminist reading reveal the misrepresentation and discrimination of a social group. As a post-colonialist reading reveals inherent racism within the text, a feminist reading exposes the sexist nature of the novel, as Conrad has internalized the racist and sexist values of his Victorian society.
Although there is large evidence of sexism within the novel, it is possible to adopt a reading resisting the feminist reading. By examining the character of the African woman it is possible to interpret her as an empowerment of the feminine, a matriarchal leader. Marlow’s description suggests a raw and savage power, that she is almost an integral part of the jungle itself, “savage and superb”. Her abundance of extravagance jeweler supports this idea and suggests that she has a level of power and authority within her society, “She had brass leggings, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads… charms, gifts of witch-men”. This fierce imagery suggests a warlike nature, the “leggings” and “gauntlets” suggest that she is outfitted for war, reinforcing her wild power. This idea counteracts the traditional feminist reading which maintains that the women in the novel are all disempowered. The apparent power of the African woman suggests that Conrad supported the empowerment of the feminine and recognized matriarchal power.
By its very nature Heart of Darkness is a largely ambiguous novel. Due to its fragmented narrative voice, it is possible to interpret it in many different ways. This can be achieved by adopting different reading practices or by subscribing to the dominant reading. When adhering to the dominant Heart of Darkness can be interpreted as a critique of Belgian imperialism while offering some sympathy towards the native Africans whose lives have been disrupted by the imperialists. However, if a reader was to adopt resistant reading practices, different interpretations of the novel are possible. For example, by adopting a post-colonialist reading and focusing on the representations of race, it is possible to interpret Heart of Darkness as an inherently racist text. Alternatively, by assuming a feminist reading lens and concentrating on the presentation of women, the derogatory and skewed representations of women are revealed.
Bloom in Ulysses
Close analysis of the role of women in Ulysses reveals something of a dichotomy. The aggressive, promiscuous Molly Bloom appears to represent Joyce’s delineation of a self-confident, uninhibited ‘new woman.’ In many respects, Joyce’s presentation of ‘woman’ is ahead of its time – Ulysses provoked outrage on its release for the frankness of Molly’s sexual thoughts in the final ‘Penelope’ episode. However, other readings draw attention to Joyce’s inability to truly understand the female psyche and criticize his depictions of women as flawed and unbalanced. This essay will outline and attempt to reconcile these conflicting observations, and examine the extent to which Joyce succeeds in celebrating females and femininity in Ulysses.
One of the most common criticisms leveled at Joyce is the two-dimensional nature of the women he writes about. Conrad’s female characters inevitably fit into the virgin/whore stereotypes originating in Catholicism, and this has become a widely accepted perspective. However, whilst the reader may notice such an inclination in Ulysses, Joyce neither condones ‘virgin’ as virtuous nor condemns ‘whore’ as shameful. If one compares how he mocks one must ask whether Joyce can be criticized for ‘classifying’ women in Ulysses. Indeed, such broad labels as ‘untouched virgin’ and ‘defiled prostitute’ may be unavoidable in a work in which the author attempts to uncover the deepest workings of the female psyche. Joyce wrote the Penelope episode not specifically to shock, but to illustrate his theory on the female thought process; based, on the theory of mind. However, it is hard to imagine today the disbelief with which many readers received Molly Bloom on the book’s publication. Indeed, the US Customs Office banned the book’s importation for fifteen years because it was obscene.
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Joyce did aim to include a sense of dichotomy in Ulysses as far as its women are concerned, though it was that of ‘narcissistic virgin and phallic mother – between the untouchable and the experienced maternal female.’ Here we find two models into which the characters of Gerty and Molly fit far more readily. Indeed, after such consideration, labels such as ‘virgin’ and ‘whore’ become too blinkered and narrow-minded to encompass Joyce’s modernistic and radical notions of 20th-century sexuality and gender.
This virgin/mother contrast reveals the key difference in Joyce’s mind: sexual experience. As Joyce wrote, sexuality was considered an absolute taboo. Catholic Irish society at the turn of the century was based largely on the ‘cult of the virgin’ – women were permitted to be either the chaste virgin or the benevolent mother, society in both cases maintaining its sexually repressive stranglehold over women’s lives. It was Joyce’s Jesuit education that formed “the image of what he must leave behind.” The ‘benevolent mother’ can exist for Joyce, but only when imbued with Molly’s characteristics. The chaste virgin, however, is solely a source of ridicule for Joyce. His ‘new masculine woman’ is sexually liberated and socially independent.
Ulysses is certainly ahead of its time in its portrayal of male and female sexuality converging – Bloom as the ‘new womanly man’ and Molly as the insatiable ‘manly woman’ who ‘wouldn’t mind being a man and getting up on a lovely woman.’ Androgyny certainly has a strong foothold in Ulysses. Where Joyce may be deemed to have failed is in creating for the feminine Bloom a balanced foil in the masculine Molly. Whereas Bloom has been heralded as a model for the 20th-century man, Joyce is often criticized for his portrayal of Molly. Whereas Bloom appears as an ‘everyman’ figure, Robert Boyle points out those readers tend to ‘particularize Joyce’s male characters but to treat his females as universal figures of womanhood.’ Both Leopold and Molly can be viewed as simultaneously symbolic and convincingly realistic, but whilst Bloom’s character is written sympathetically and with something approaching compassion, Joyce’s tendency in writing his female characters is to generalize.
Despite this, there is much to suggest that Joyce intended as highly favorable an impression of Molly Bloom – and ‘woman’ in general – as could be conveyed by a male writer of his time. Indeed, basing Molly’s persona on Nora, whose mind and company he adored to the point of obsession, was perhaps the highest tribute he could do a character. Let us also remember that Ulysses’ narrative is set on the anniversary of James and Nora’s first promenade. There is little debate over Joyce’s actual intentions as far as ‘woman’ is concerned in Ulysses; he wrote Molly Bloom to rejoice in the differences between the sexes – not, as Florence Howe claims, as a means of “conceiving his power,” but rather to celebrate both male and female mentality and sexuality for their variety. However, in presenting a woman as an equal, Joyce appears to have undertaken a literary charge for which he was ill-equipped.
James Joyce, 1922; Ulysses, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Joseph Conrad (Author), 1990: Stanley Appelbaum (Editor) Heart of Darkness (Dover Thrift Editions)