MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 257-284
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The Women Do Not Travel:
Gender, Difference, and Incommensurability in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
It is a story of the Congo. There is no love interest in it and no woman—only incidentally.
—Joseph Conrad, "To Fisher Unwin."
Despite Joseph Conrad's anxious confession to his publisher T. Fisher Unwin in 1896 that there would be "no love interest [. . .] and no woman" in Heart of Darkness, or at least "only incidentally," the novella he produced two-and-a-half years later is radically preoccupied with women and the ways they influence his "story of the Congo" (199). Yet Conrad allows women scarcely any narratological or thematic attention in Heart of Darkness; instead, women appear to function primarily as ancillary details to Marlow's narration about Kurtz and his adventure to the "heart" of Africa. However, despite women's near invisibility—a half-presence that echoes the text's preoccupation with shadows and darknesses 1 —they are an always-palpable presence in the background of the text. They tropologically illuminate the relationships of difference and distance that [End Page 257] Conrad establishes between Europe and the Congo, and they figurally represent the incommensurability between different ideologies and different genres of speaking and knowing that are so central to the text's status as a framed oral narration.
The women of Heart of Darkness have, in fact, suffered from a double invisibility. First, Conrad invites his readers to participate in Marlow's insistence that the women are "out of it" (49) by figuring women as palimpsestic, ghost-like, half-presences. At the same time, the women of the text have remained nearly invisible because so few critics have chosen to examine their roles; when women are considered, critics have focused mainly on Marlow's lie to Kurtz's Intended. Once we begin looking (and we do have to look to find them), no less than eight women are present in Heart of Darkness: the Belgian aunt who secures Marlow a job when his prospects for work in Europe are exhausted; the two women sitting on "straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool" who appear to Marlow in the Company offices as guardians of "the door of Darkness" (14); the "wife of the high dignitary" to whom Marlow's aunt recommends him for employment in Africa (15); the African laundress for the Company's chief accountant, who keeps him looking like a "vision" or a "miracle" (21); the "wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman" (60) at the Inner Station who "rushed out to the very brink of the stream" (66) as Marlow leaves with Kurtz on board his steamer; 2 Kurtz's mother, who dies shortly after Marlow returns to Belgium (70); and finally, Kurtz's Intended, the woman he might have married, whom he "intended" to be his final interpreter, and the woman to whom Marlow lies at the very end of the text. 3
What is going on with these women? Perhaps most clearly, Conrad associates women with the cultures and geographies they inhabit as though by contiguous extension. The principal women of the text are always positioned in transitional spaces in either the colony or the metropole, while they are decidedly static and unable to wander between cultural, ideological, and national boundaries, as do Marlow and Kurtz. In terms of Marlow's understanding of his voyage, the women are neither here nor there;or rather, they are only ever here or there, since they are powerless to transgress the limit that such a boundary implies. Mostly the women are sedentary, stationary, and confined to their own territories, metonymically embodying the separate cultural, racial, and [End Page 258] geographic identities at play in the novel. The aunt sits in her upper-middle-class domestic parlor in Belgium as she sends Marlow off to his adventure in Africa; the two knitting women sit in the outer room of the Company offices and glance at the men en route to the Congo; and, at...