Many of Conrad’s stories take place primarily in the all-male environment of the sailing ship, or other all-male social or work settings. Yet, the female characters in “Heart of Darkness” play an important role in the central themes and symbolism of the story. Female characters here include: Marlow’s aunt, who helps him to get the job on the steamboat; the two knitting women in the office of the Company, in France; the African woman who seems to be Kurtz’s companion; and, Kurtz’s “Intended,” the white woman Kurtz is engaged to marry at the time of his death. The following essay examines the roles of minor female characters—Marlow’s aunt and the two knitting women—in terms of their significance to central themes of the story.
“Then—would you believe it—I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work—to get a job! Heavens!”
The first woman to be mentioned in the story is Charlie Marlow’s aunt, who, through various social connections, secures him the job with the Company as captain of a steamboat in the Congo. Marlow’s attitude toward his aunt is based on his sense of himself as a sailor, a man’s man, independent of any woman. It is with a tone of self-mockery that Marlow marvels at the phenomenon that he, of all people, would allow himself to seek out the aid of a woman in his own affairs.
Marlow describes his aunt’s response to his request for help in getting a job in the Congo in terms that imply he finds it somewhat infantile—in the sense that he seems uncomfortable with having such a “fuss” made over him by a woman. Along the same lines, Marlow finds his aunt’s attentions to him somewhat emasculating, in the sense that the flowery enthusiasm of a society woman is alien to the all-male world of seafaring men in which he is at home. Calling her “a dear enthusiastic soul,” he explains that,
“She wrote: “It would be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It is a glorious idea. I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration and also a man who has lots of influence with,” etc., etc. She was determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat, if such was my fancy.”
Marlow explains his motivation for stooping to seek out the help of a woman as based on the fervor of his desire to find work that would take him to Africa. He excuses his willingness to succumb to his aunt’s “fuss,” by explaining “Well, you see, the notion drove me.”
The next women Marlow encounters are the two women who greet him at the Company offices in France. Upon entering the office, he is greeted by two women, dressed rather austerely, who sit silently knitting. ”Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs knitting blackwool.” These women strike Marlow as enigmatic, and he describes one as a “somnambulist”—a sleepwalker.
The slim one got up and walked straight at me—still knitting with downcast eyes—and only just as I began to think of getting out of her way, as you would for a somnambulist, stood still, and looked up. Her dress was as plain as an umbrella cover, and she turned round without a word and preceded me into a waiting-room.
These women pose a picture of stark feminine domesticity—with their continual knitting, austere clothing, and plain countenance—and yet, they strike Marlow as “ominous.”
“In the outer room the two women knitted black wool feverishly. . . . The old one sat on her chair. Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on a foot-warmer and a cast reposed on her lap. She wore a stretched white affair on her head, had a wart on her cheek, and silver-rimmed spectacles hung on the tip of her nose. She glanced at me above the glasses. The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me. .. . An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful.”
The significance of Marlow’s description of these two women, which contrasts a “placid” domestic picture with an “uncanny” and “ominous” atmosphere, gains greater significance and meaning when contrasted with the “horror” of the Company’s activities, which Marlow eventually discovers in Africa. Once in Africa, Marlow perceives the two women as ”guarding the door of Darkness”; in other words, their role of greeting the men who enter the office of the Company on their way to Africa—men who generally never return—imbues them with both the foreknowledge of the fate of each man, and suggests the dark, evil underbelly of the Company’s exploitation of the African people— a trade in ivory, which, from the vantage point of the Company offices in France, appears to be a ”placid” business, but which is, in fact, brutal and inhumane to the point of “horror.”
“Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes.”
The continual knitting of black wool, and the black dresses worn by the women, resonate with the story’s central imagery of ”darkness”—darkness is associated with death, with the unknown, and with evil. Thus, the ”door of Darkness” that the women “guard” is a passage to death for the men who naively sign on with the Company. Marlow’s description of the women takes on a tone of grim irony with the use of a Latin phrase: ‘’Ave/ Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant”—meaning, “Hail! Old knitter of black wool. Those who are about to die salute you.” The use of this Latin phrase (similar to the phrase used by gladiators in the Roman arena) ironically elevates the impending death of each man whom the women greet to the level of a proud battle cry.
Marlow’s subsequent goodbye visit to the aunt who got him the job with the Company acquires greater depth in comparison to his encounter with the two knitting women. Marlow continues the characterization of his aunt as excessive in her feminine enthusiasm regarding his imminent travels. Marlow’s description of her suggests an affectionate indulgence of her good-hearted “fuss” over him:
“One more thing remained to do—say good-bye to my excellent aunt. I found her triumphant. .. . it became quite plain to me 1 had been represented to the wife of the high dignitary and goodness knows to how many more people besides as an exceptional and gifted creature—a piece of good fortune for the Company— a man you don’t get hold of every day. Good Heavens!”
The domestic setting of tea and a chat by the fireside echoes the “ominous” domestic setting of the two women knitting. I had a cup of tea—the last decent cup of tea for many days—and in a room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect a lady’s drawing-room to look, we had a long quiet chat by the fireside.
But the aunt’s fireside is described as “soothing” in contrast with the Company’s fireside, which is “ominous.” The “ominous” air of the two knitting women—who seem to know that the fate of each man who enters the office is horror and death—is contrasted with the aunt’s complete innocence of the danger and horrors that await Marlow in Africa. Likewise, as the two women who wear black dresses and knit black wool are strongly associated with death and darkness, the aunt’s perception of the Company’s role in Africa is naively associated with efforts at Christian enlightenment of the native Africans. In other words, she imagines Marlow to be a sort of Christian missionary.
“It appears however I was also one of the Workers, with a capital—you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman living right in the rush of all that humbug got carried off her feet. She talked about “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,” till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable.”
Unlike his aunt, Marlow knows, even before leaving for Africa, that “the Company was run for profit”—and that its mission was nothing more than extracting the greatest possible profit from the sources of ivory in Africa.
His aunt’s naive delusions about the nature of the Company’s mission in Africa leads Marlow to make a generalization about women that is key to the central themes of the story. He concludes that women live in a fantasy world that denies the brutal realities of human thoughts and deeds—the ”horror” that Marlow is forced to face head-on in his encounter with Kurtz.
“It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are! They live in a world of their own and there had never been anything like it and can never be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living with ever since the day of Creation, would start up and knock the whole thing over.”
Conrad’s treatment of these minor female characters—who seem only incidental upon first reading of the story—take on greater depth with closer examination. They function to set up a contrast of the ‘’placid” world of female domesticity in Europe with Marlow’s experience of “horror” on the part of Europeans in Africa. A central irony of the story is the idea that European “civilization” rests upon the “horrors” of colonialism in Africa. Furthermore, Marlow’s affectionate, yet indulgent, descriptions of his aunt add a note of playful irony to the “dark” ironies that characterize the story as a whole.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Liz Brent, Critical Essay on “Heart of Darkness,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.