A Critical Study of Gender

A Critical Study of Gender


Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness1 attempts to make men appear compassionate to their surrounding situations, but often times this causes the women of the novel to appear ignorant, over-zealous and foolhardy. In reality a bit of each of these attributes exist in both the males and females of society. The same can be said for the situation presented in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace2”, which was published around the same time. Both of these works represent a perception held by the society and culture of the late 1800’s, that being; females were viewed as subordinate to men as intellectual, emotional and physical beings. Because of this females were not considered a pivotal force of the society during that era and therefore they were largely under the rule of men who would instruct and define their purposes. In doing so men often placed women in domestic roles within or relating to the home, while the males of society and both of these works were/are mostly portrayed as holding power over some superseding responsibility which provides for the home or the women themselves.

Jonathan Culler mentions that the reader’s “‘horizon of expectations’ (86)” is critical to understanding any novel. Today the expectations of the portrayal of women during any period before the Women’s Liberation and Rights Movements are that women were subservient beings mostly dominated by men who they themselves thought to be above women physically intellectually and emotionally. Western culture now accepts that women and men share emotions and as Virginia Woolf mentions in A Room of One’s Own it is not possible for an author to produce high quality work unless they are at least a bit of a manly woman or a womanly man. This acceptance of a more androgynous writer was beginning during Conrad’s time, as women were slowly beginning to gain more rights, privileges and powers. Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness represents the emerging of many cultures, but in each instance where a women is represented they are seen as being in opposition or against the founding grain of the culture and on their own path. Marlow’s aunt is very much a part of the culture she represents. Marlow states her room looks just as he would expect any females’ room to look, she partakes in the social customs of tea and socializing with friends (which is how she got the job for Marlow) and is pious. Conrad also keeps her as a backstage character that has no major influence over the course of events, but at the same time she is opposed to Marlow’s compassion for the continent of Africa. These conflicting beliefs are representative of the period. The use of these themes shows a world created by Conrad where women are subservient.

Conrad’s portrayal of how Marlow perceives his aunt best emphasizes the perceptions men hold over women throughout the novel and perhaps in the society of the time. Marlow does not think very highly of women. Before his aunt is introduced formerly, Marlow gives the audience his general impression of the capabilities of women. “I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work – to get a job. Heavens! (Murfin 23).” The tone of these sentences is sarcastic and bewildered. Marlow thought it amazing that a woman could do anything useful, which was not regarded as wholly domestic, such as getting a job. Conrad is however sure not to climb too far out on a limb; he quickly notes that it was through the means of his aunt talking to the wife of a person with a lot of influence in the Administration that he got his job thereby still keeping all of her efforts under the complete control of a man. Conrad’s portrayal of Marlow’s aunt shows her emerging as an influential force in society by acting through men, but because she cannot actually make any of these influences without men she is subordinate to men. Marlow’s idea of asking his aunt to find him a job is also one of compassion; he is giving his aunt a chance to participate in the on goings of African colonization, where she might have otherwise been excluded.

As Marlow continues his story, the reader learns that beyond his views on the status of women he also has definite opinions on the psychology of women. During his encounter with his aunt he mentions how he was a bit turned off by what his aunt had said about “’weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’ (Murfin 27).” This again shows Marlow’s compassion for his fellow man, but his compassion for women seems altogether lost both in what he says to continue his story and in his perception of a native of the continent who is later described. Even though Marlow is in actuality the person who is embarking on the voyage of colonization he attempts to separate himself from his aunt by saying that the company is run for profit and when she responds to that in another rationalization, Marlow dismisses her arguments by calling them lofty through stating that “[Women] live in a world of their own (Murfin 27).” By giving Marlow’s aunt such high goals and ideals for something, which Marlow ultimately considers violent and horrible, Conrad is portraying her as both foolhardy in the eyes of those who are witnesses to the chaos apparent on the continent and ignorant to the true purposes of the country and its representatives.

Furthermore Marlow’s aunt quotes Christian scripture as further justification for actions of those working to profit from the colonization of Africa “‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire’ (Murfin 27).” This suggestion is meant to express that not only is the endeavor of colonizing Africa important for the improvement of mankind as a whole, but also for the benefit of God. This expression and Marlow’s response to it of ‘women live in their own worlds,’ leaves the impression that Conrad’s females in The Heart of Darkness should also be perceived as over-zealous, but women are not included as major characters in Conrad’s novel and because of this their regard on religion is unimportant to the overall story of the novel. This is reflective as to how society treated women at the time, as being secondary and behind the scenes, but never a main figure. Despite their actions being behind the scenes, they do help shape the world Conrad creates by remaining controversial. Marlow’s aunt is controversial because she says what is typically rationalized and hidden.

The ‘horizon of expectations’ for “The Necklace” is slightly different from A Heart of Darkness because the protagonist of the novel is female and it is the males of the story who are mostly out of it and have smaller behind the scenes roles. In this story the women are very domestic and mostly reliant upon men for their needs, but in contrast to the typical nineteenth century perception that men controlled all the money, Maupassant allows one of his male characters, the protagonist’s husband, to be very nearly at the whim and will of his wife. Unlike Conrad’s novel this story does not give women a place or a voice, which rebels against society, but it still portrays them as foolhardy, over-zealous and ignorant. Society in “The Necklace” shows women to be extensions of men who are there to raise children, attend balls and keep the house clean while the males of the story are hardly mentioned, but what is known about them is they work hard and long and often enjoy hunting. Maupassant is careful to maintain that both women of the story do not excel passed their husbands, but while the lender of the jewels was presumably busy raising children the protagonist of the novel worked just as her husband did because of a mistake. This premise expresses the possibilities for women that existed during the period, those being they could work painfully hard or raise children.

Maupassant shows the reader an over-zealous and foolhardy woman at the beginning of his story using sarcasm. “She suffered incessantly, feeling herself born for all delicacies and luxuries. She suffered from the poverty of her apartment, the shabby walls, the worn chairs, and the faded stuffs. (Daley 31)” The protagonist is said to suffer, but is in no visible pain other than the fact that her setting is a bit shabby. Through this example the reader can see that the protagonist believes she was wronged by fate and because of that she both cannot be happy in her current environment and will strive to achieve a better life. Her opposition to her place in life is not, however a rebellion from it, but a characteristic women were believed to have; that being, that they are never satisfied. As the story continues the protagonist is also shown to be ignorant, while her husband is continually compassionate to her needs by giving her money, taking out loans to help save face for both of them and even in his wish to impress and entertain his wife with a ball he shows compassion. The protagonist though is seen as unaware of the importance of attending the ball for appearances alone (as her husband’s boss would be there), she becomes whimsical at the ball and in doing so loses the necklace and she even deceives herself into believing the necklace she wore had such an exorbitant value.

Both stories represent the views of women during the period of the late nineteenth century. Those views being that women were largely subservient and reliant upon men. This premise was because women were considered lacking intellectually, emotionally and physically when compared to men. Interesting the men in both these works are shown to be compassionate and caring, which are traits typically representative of the mother figure. The gender of these characters wholly decides the placement in society and home for both the males and females.

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory. New York, NY. Sterling Publishing. 1997. Print.

Daley, James. The World’s Greatest Short Stories. Mineola, NY. Dover Publications. 2006. Print.

Murfin, Ross, C. Joeseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. New York, NY. Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press. 1996. Print.

1 “Published serially in Blackwood’s Magazine 1899 (Murfin 99)”

2 Published in 1884