"It's queer how out of touch with truth women are"
The devoted wife - John Alexander, chief clerk to Bow Street Police Court, with his wife Mary Elizabeth (c. 1875)
Public DomainThe devoted Victorian wife - John Alexander, chief clerk to Bow Street Police Court, with his wife Mary Elizabeth (c. 1875) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Just as Heart of Darkness has been accused of racism, it has also been accused of sexism; criticised both for its demeaning, stereotypical representation of women and for its exclusion of the female reader. Once again, Marlow is reflecting the values of the era in which the novel was written.

The 19th century was the era of separate spheres for the genders: the public sphere for men and the private sphere of family and domesticity for women. As typified by Tennyson's poem 'The Princess' (1847), which described a woman's duty to stay by the hearth with their needles whilst men wielded their swords, and by Patmore's poem 'The Angel in the House' (1854), a wife's proper role was to love, honour and obey her husband. However, though her position in the family hierarchy was always secondary to her spouse, a woman’s role was far from unimportant: a wife's duty to support her husband and raise her children were considered crucial cornerstones of Victorian social stability. It was believed that participation in the male-dominated public sphere would contaminate the moral purity of women and the sanctuary of the home. As Marlow later claims: 'We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse'.

Feminist criticism of the novel which equates Marlow’s views with those of the author usually ignores the fact that Conrad was a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and in 1910 signed an open letter to the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, advocating votes for women. He would reverse the male/female dichotomy in his later novel Chance, when Marlow claims that women know the whole truth but mercifully conceal it from men, who live in a ‘fool’s paradise’.


Further reading:

Peter Hyland, ‘The Little Woman in the Heart of Darkness’ (1988)

Johanna M. Smith, ‘ “Too Beautiful Altogether”: Patriarchal Ideology in Heart of Darkness’ (1989)

Nina Pelikan Straus, ‘The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ (1987)