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Role of Women in Heart of Darkness

written by: Shelia Odak • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

While Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness focuses on Marlow’s passage into the interior of Africa as he searches for the mysterious Kurtz, there are several female characters that play supporting roles.

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    Marlow’s Aunt

    It is because of his aunt that Marlow finds himself headed into the heart of Africa. She sees Marlow’s appointment to the Company as an opportunity for him to spread the message of the glories of the Western world and its way of thinking. She views Marlow as someone who will go about “weaning those ignorant millions [the Africans] from their horrid ways.” She believes he will bring truth and light to a dark place in the world.

    Marlow says about his aunt, “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own . . . .” This sentiment about women is played out in Marlow’s attitude toward his aunt as well as in his later meeting with Kurtz’s fiancée. This seems to be a point of view shared by Kurtz who says regarding women, “We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.”

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    The Knitting Women

    When Marlow arrives at the offices of the Company, he encounters two women, “one fat and the other slim,” who sit knitting with black wool. Marlow sees the two figures as “guarding the door of Darkness.” While these women appear only briefly, they are important in their symbolic meaning. The women correspond to the mythological Fates who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life. It is in the offices of the Company that Marlow’s life is being measured out as he begins his journey into the heart of Africa.

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    Kurtz’s African Mistress

    Though the reader learns very little about Kurtz's African mistress, “a wild and gorgeous apparition of a women,” she has a powerful presence in the novel. She is beautiful and bejeweled, and she seems to have influence over Kurtz. She is also able to create fear in others, as seen when the Russian discusses her. Neither Marlow nor the reader is able to learn anything about her since she does not speak. The main sound heard from her is the shout she gives as Marlow takes Kurtz away on the boat and she is left standing on the shore. She contrasts sharply with the fiancée Kurtz has left back home.

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    Kurtz’s Intended

    The Intended is Kurtz’s fiancée. Marlow goes to visit her after the death of Kurtz. She seems to exemplify Marlow’s earlier statement that women live in their own world. She is naïve to the extreme about Kurtz and about his activities in Africa. Her version of her fiancé has little to do with the reality that Marlow has witnessed, yet he cannot bring himself to shatter her illusions. In the end, he decides to lie to her and tell her that the last thing Kurtz said before he died was her name. Marlow says that to have told her the truth “would have been too dark—too dark altogether . . . .” Marlow seems to have decided to heed Kurtz’s request that women have their own “beautiful world” that must not be sullied.

Study Guide for Heart of Darkness

A study guide for high school level students on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
  1. Role of Women in Heart of Darkness
  2. Guide to Symbolism in "Heart of Darkness"
  3. Comparing the Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness