JUSTDOLIT: a single tool to analyse all texts

Sexism and racism in a good classic: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

The following passage belongs to the well-known classic Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (the emphasis in blue highlights the passage which will be discussed in the analysis):

Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest [...] And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman. She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witchmen, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

During the last decade, the way the novella handles gender and ethnicity was widely questioned. The passage above is a description of the novella's main character's African lover, and shows why both issues received such attention. Personally, I find Conrad's novella a wonderful book. Still, to deal with the things it wants to talk about, it marginalises women and Africans in problematic ways. In the excerpt above, we find that marginalisation takes place in the following ways:

Kurtz's lover: Conrad's novella is about basic human issues such as evil and identity, and treats them in powerful, quasi-cinematic ways. However, Kurtz's lover, an African woman, seems to be denied human status:

The presence of Kurtz's lover silences nature, but not because she is different from nature, but because she represents "the image of [nature's] own tenebrous and passionate soul". She is the very essence of nature, which is itself tied to teh metaphysical, as the reference to nature's "soul" makes clear. Again we find suggestions of grandeur in the "immense wilderness" and "the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life".

Africans: Kurtz's lover emerges against the initial background of

"Dark human shapes [...] made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest".

These dark human shapes are actually human beings, but instead of dealing with them as human beings, the text refers to them as "shapes" existing "in the distance", "flitting indistinctly". Such a description dehumanises the Africans, especially since, towards the end of the passage, the background becomes nature, as we have seen. The doubling of backgrounds ensures that dehumanised Africans become nature. Since, as we have seen, Kurtz's beloved is also nature, Africa itself becomes nature associated to metaphsyics.

There is, by the way, more to say to this passage. For an additional analysis, click HERE.

works cited

Soper, Kate. “Naturalized Woman and Feminized Nature”. The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. Ed. Laurence Coupe. Routledge: London, 2000, pp. 139-43.

daniel.candel@uah.es ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann