The portrayal of women in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Conrad’s modernist attitudes towards the New Imperialism may be discerned as containing both pro- and anti-colonial effects, with Achebe scathingly (albeit one-sidedly) attacking the way in which Heart of Darkness is really only concern about the moral degeneration of the West – with Africa acting as the muse and the entropic portrayal of human nature – and thus fundamentally euro-centric.   

The phallocentric way in which Conrad attempts to probe his female Other unhinges his deeply misogynistic attitudes in the novel, which is in spite of Conrad’s perceived liberal humanism. On one level, the masculinized sphere of colonialism has no room to include the white woman, as following Victorian tradition, still clearly demarcates the public and private boundaries in which the different sexes are permitted to present themselves in. In the two sparse and brief appearances of the white woman, as represented by Marlowe’s aunt and Kurtz’s wife, they are logically entrapped within the domestic sphere. Spatial demarcations aside, the exclusive spheres of femininity, portrayed condescendingly as an idealized and fairy world, keep them out of ideological and direct participation in imperial discourse. This may be seen in Marlowe’s dismissive saying, “Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she should be out of it. We must help them stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours get worse”.

Conrad’s highly eroticized and exoticized account of the African woman is a genuine reflection of the way in which the powers of imperialism allow the colonial white man to project  his sexual desires onto the doubly ‘Othered’ African woman. It is as if with the African woman (who is also aligned with the dominant tropes of silence and blackness) is stripped of those civilized and cultural codes of femininity which mark the white woman and may thus be objectified solely as the quintessential sexual object from which the collective group of empowered men (Kurtz, Marlowe, pilgrims, etc) may gawk at.

The India that escapes imagination

The romanticized India that Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested set forth in good will to “see” escapes capture because of its very refusal to be confined by the narrow boundaries of western knowledge, understanding or perception. It is clear from the outset that Foster employs the politics of negation to challenge and counter traditional perceptions of what India appears to be, against what it actually is not. India, as Foster suggests, ‘has never defined. She is not a promise, only an appeal’.

The appearance of things becomes the general “unwritten” code of conduct governing the city of Chandrapore (as is the novel); and while Dr. Aziz seems to be represented as the agent through which the true spirit of India may be accessed in Adela’s view, we are instead presented with a man who is caught in a nostalgic romanticization of the old Mughal Empire and one who is disillusioned by the inferiority of his position vis-a-vis British India at present.

The pivotal turning point of the novel arguably resides in the symbolic echo in the Marabar cave, where all noises are reduced to “boum”, at once exposing the limits of language in its reductiveness. Like India, Marabar refused to be contained or romanticized, since “it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind”. That this reductive nothingness could expose the artificiality of language, codifiers, classification and categorization separating human society from one another from his novel is finally Foster’s trick on readers who attempt to find a unifying meaning to the complex tensions that at once seem to surface but also elude us.

The difficulty of explaining what the term “modernism” really meant struck me on a discussion with a friend about the subject. Suffice to say that I – fourth year literature major with all my intellectual ideas and pretensions – struggled to present a precise and coherent definition of what modernism ought to be.

It is not until several readings that I begin to suspect that perhaps the essence of modernism (with its many –isms) lies in its sheer complexity (form, perspectives, techniques, modernist attitudes towards subject matter). Erich Auerbach’s reading of To the Lighthouse exemplify the complexities of Virginia Woolf’s novel as he posit that in framing objective reality as an external realm, modernist writers like Woolf strive to plunge beyond the surface meanings to expose the multi-layered nature of and the intricate relationship, between language as a mirror and medium to our understanding of  life. But I may be going a few steps too far as the situation seems to entail a paradox – Woolf goes beyond the simple juxtaposition of objective reality against the fluidity and flux of human consciousness; but rather, her writing shows how our subjectivity in turn shape perception, and reveal the constructedness of reality (as opposed to the realist novels of the nineteenth century whereby the external shapes the inward).

In “Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference”, Simon Gilkandi sheds a closer insight into the power relations between the West and the Other, as he exposes the deep hypocrisy by which modernist artists like Picasso (how about Gauguin and his Tahitian paintings?) subsume and objectify the Other into the modernist aesthetics and simultaneously disentangle themselves from the subservient and degraded position of the Other (treating the Other as art object rather than rightful human beings); in so doing, the Other become the aesthetic means to the high modernist ends. In a sense, Pablo Picasso did not paint the Africans out of a complete understanding and empathy with them, but the contrary, he painted them as he saw them and chose to objectify the Africans into his own nihilistic vision of art, politicizing his art against the conventions of western traditional mediums. Perhaps it is how the great painter himself betray the mentality of the white colonialist – in his eagerness to represent modernist art as he saw it, his paintings unwittingly unveil the deep-seated anxieties which mark the problematic power relations between the colonial white man and the Other.

Lee Wenting