In today’s society, women are seen as productive members of society often possessing a steady job and income. However, at the time Joseph Conrad wrote and published Heart of Darkness in 1902, this was far from the case. There are minimal female characters in the first two parts of the novella, and references to females are condescending. Conrad even goes so far as to metaphorically create two separate worlds: one for men and one for women. Conrad portrays women as naïve creatures who belong in the home and are inferior to men.
In the novella, men seemed troubled and uncomfortable in the presence of women. Before Marlow can begin his journey, he visits the Company Office in Brussels where he encounters two women knitting at the door. Marlow observes their reactions to the men walking in the door, noticing how the older one “[throws] at them the same quick glance of unconcerned wisdom. She [seems] to know all about them, and about [Marlow] too. An eerie feeling came over [him]” (8). Since women were considered to be inferior to men at the time, men felt threatened whenever women demonstrated wisdom and knowledge. This reaction implies that women were perceived to be lacking intellectually. Marlow states that “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 scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes” (8). The younger woman, like the men entering the Company, seems optimistic and unaware of the horrors that await the men. The older woman, however, seems to completely comprehend the journey upon which these men will embark, yet she casts them “unconcerned” glances implying that she feels they must learn the ways of the world on their own.
Women are also viewed as naïve beings who should be confined in a world separate from the men. Before Marlow departs, he visits his aunt to say goodbye and thank her for helping him secure his job at the Company. Upon their farewell, he notes that “it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be” (10). Even though Marlow’s aunt is the main reason he is employed, Marlow still believes her (and all women) to be out of touch with the more realistic world of men. Later in the novella, other men agree that “they-the women I mean- are out of it- should be out of it. We must help them stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse” (44). Having separate worlds for men and women reinforces the idea that they are unequal. Women are thought to have an idealistic, naïve outlook on the world while the men are realistic and knowledgeable. The men believe that the intersection of these worlds would create chaos, however the men do not realize that women actually tend to be very realistic and practical.
The naïve portrayal to female characters in the novella creates a feeling of male superiority and inequality that was typical of the time. Conrad does not introduce many female characters, does not give his female characters names, and rarely does the reader see a quotation by a female. The reader’s view of women comes from the male commentary in the novella, emphasizing that male opinions were the only ones that mattered at the time. The women in the novella actually seem to have some wisdom and intelligence, such as when the aunt gets Marlow a job, however this trait makes the men feel threatened. Thus, women are perceived to be inferior, naïve beings in the novella.