Gender, Race and Narrative Structure: A Reappraisal of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness".

By Carole Stone and Fawzia Afzal-Khan

Johanna Smith in her feminist reading of "Heart of Darkness", concludes, my intent has been to show that feminist criticism is a method of avoiding his detachment, of making ourselves aware of the patriarchal ideology in which he, and perhaps we too, unwittingly participate. ("Case Study in Contemporary Criticism, 195)". Our intent here, is in some senses the opposite; it seems to us that the inherent ambiguities and contradictions in Marlow's narrative, in fact, the circularity and open-endedness of the narrative itself, as well as the high degree of self-consciousness of the narrative form, make it possible to interpret Conrad more favorably.

Although the narrative appears to follow the masculine/patriarchal pattern of a hero who overcomes obstacles to rise to more important positions in the social, economic scheme of society, the plot vacillates in its presentation of the male journey motif. And not only does the plot vacillate, but the structure itself evades closure and judgement, as we follow Marlow, the narrator, up the serpentine river. We would like to suggest that Conrad exhibits some qualities in his writing style, in his multivocal/multi-layered depiction of the African woman, as well as in his approach to the moral dilemma of patriarchy that mark "Heart of Darkness", amongst other things, as L'écriture Feminine , as defined by Kristeva and other French feminists, exhibits the quality of displacement which they see as an inherently female one; one which they associate with an androgynous, pre-oedipal phase. What Kristeva terms the semiotic is, in her opinion, a specifically pre-gendered female order of language and thought, opposed to the 'symbolic' order of patriarchal thought. By the semiotic, she means a pattern or flow of forces that we can detect within fixed' language, and which represents a residue of the pre-oedipal phase. The semiotic is the other of language, which is nonetheless intimately entwined with it.

Because it stems from the pre-oedipal phase, it is bound up in the child's contact with the mother's body, whereas the symbolic is associated with the law of the father. The semiotic, though not exclusive to women, is nevertheless closely connected to them, for it arises from a pre-oedipal, maternal phase that does not recognize distinctions of gender (Revolution in Poetic Language, 89-136, and Eagleton on Kristeva, "Feminist Literary Theory", 214).

We, along with other French feminists such as Helene Cixous, believe that the semiotic is actually a bi-sexual form of writing, one which offers to deconstruct all the scrupulous binary by throwing into confusion the divisions between masculine and feminine and the oppositions --  proper/improper, norm/deviation, sane/ mad, mine/yours, authority/obedience --  by which societies survive. As Cixous puts it:

Most women are like this: they do someone else's-man's- writing, and in their innocence sustain it and give it voice, and end up producing writing that's in effect masculine. Great care must be taken in working on feminist writing not to get trapped by names: to be signed with a woman's name doesn't necessarily make a piece of writing feminine. It could quite well be masculine writing, and conversely, the fact that a piece of writing is signed with a man's name does not in itself exclude femininity. It's rare but you can sometimes find femininity in writings signed by men; it does happen. (qtd. in "Feminist Literary Theory", 232)

Furthermore, it seems apposite to us to think through and apply judiciously to Conrad's text the concepts elaborated in Luce Irigaray's work, "Le Sexe Qui N'est Pas Une or The Sex That Is Not One" -- in which the negative of the title as applied to the figure of woman signifies not only a lack, but more interestingly, an excess that rejects the other pole in the binary Man/Woman. Thus, woman is not just a lack, but more than one   -- hence, also, more than two, silent, yet also multivocal. Hers is the speech that cannot be contained -- hence, cannot BE.

Conrad's text, we maintain, inscribes just such an excess of signification in both its libidinal narrative economy, as well as in its depiction of the African woman. To quote Irigaray: The issue is not one of elaborating a new theory of which woman would be the subject or the object, but of jamming the theoretical machinery itself, of suspending its pretension to the production of a truth and of a meaning that are excessively univocal. Of course, Irigaray is here prescribing a feminine poetics, but as we have said, this is not (or doesn't have to be) a female prerogative.

The question that women should ask according to Irigaray, then, is one that male texts such as "Heart of Darkness" can also enact if they are on the side of the feminine economy --  They should not put it, then, in the way in which within discourse, the feminine finds itself as lack, deficiency, or as imitation or negative image of the subject; they should signify that with respect to this (masculinist/logocentric) logic, a disruptive excess is possible on the feminine side. (Irigaray 78)

All that Kristeva terms as the semiotic, and Cixous as the feminine, seems to us, then, to apply very well both to the narrative structure as well as to the moral universe of "Heart of Darkness". We will take up our second point first. While Marlow begins his journey as a conquistador out to fill in the blank spaces on the map of Africa, his journey quickly begins to exhibit qualities that we traditionally associate with the feminine: the reliance on others, a questioning of one's motives, and the making of moral judgements that do not rely on the symbolic order of the father.

The first way in which Conrad shows Marlow's journey as linked to femaledom is by making him turn to women to secure a job. Just as a woman needed to go to a man for power during the late 1890's, when this story takes place, so Marlow must go to women. It is clear that Marlow experiences this need to ask a woman for help in getting him a position as captain of a steamer as an indignity. Then- would you believe it? I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work- to get a job. Heavens! (HD, 23) His aunt secures a job for him as a skipper of a steamboat.

Before leaving for Africa, he says goodbye to his aunt over a cup of tea, the symbol of English domestic comfort which she represents. Like those mothers who will send their sons off to the Great War, with no knowledge of trench warfare, she gives him her blessing, expecting him to return the hero, which it is his duty as a man to become. In fact, Marlow returns more domesticated than heroic, more the `feminized male' than the `conquering hero'.

Marlow, right from the start, is not certain that he can become the `conquering hero', and exhibits the `feminine' quality of self-questioning when he says I don't know why a queer feeling came to me that I was an imposter. (HD, 27) Once at his station in Africa, Marlow again exhibits his feminized self when he overhears a conversation between the station master and his nephew, in which they seem to be plotting against Kurtz. Marlow, who is dozing on the deck of his boat, awakens in time to hear their disloyalty; yet, repulsed as he is by this, he does not protest. Powerless and marginal, he chooses to remain silent in the relative safety of his womb-like enclosure, once again exhibiting his feminine side. What we see then, in "Heart of Dark- ness" is a female subtext that threatens to pull apart the binary oppositions between male and female worlds.

With such doubts, why does Marlow undertake the journey? The ostensible answer lies in his boyhood (masculine) passion for maps where he saw the many blank spaces on earth, and one that looked particularly inviting was in the center of Africa. By the time he grew up, it was not a blank space any more; it had rivers and lakes with names, and it had become a place of darkness, no longer virginal. Others had gone before him, filling blank space with phallic power. Now, what is left to fascinate him is, a mighty big river... resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest, curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depth of the land. He concludes, the snake had charmed me. (HD, 23)

Marlow sees the image of the river as snake again on a map in a Brussels office, where two women function as female guardians to the gates of Hell, the darkness dead in the center of the map. Of this river, Marlow says, it was fascinating-deadly-like a snake-ugh! (HD, 23) When the office door opens to admit Marlow to the chief commissioner's office, symbolically he is being admitted to the dark underworld of the serpentine river. The river represents to Marlow, the sinister, unknowable female power which he seems to need to explore, in order perhaps to expurgate the `feminine' within himself. However, as the novel progresses, Marlow enacts, rather than expurgates, the feminine principle.

From the beginning, Conrad shows Marlow's feminine side. Firstly, he depicts Marlow as a passive man in the pose of a preaching Buddha (who is the image of peace through nirvana), which is in contrast with the role of the male conquering hero, whose tale he is ironically telling. Secondly, the ambiguities of the text -- who and what is Kurtz? How does Marlow actually feel about him? What is the exact nature of Kurtz' crime? Does Marlow hate or love Kurtz? -- reveal Marlow's uncertainty about himself, and the text's uncertainty about seeing everything in terms of these binary oppositions.

These binary oppositions break down even further, as Marlow's journey progresses, for his sympathies move back and forth between support for the white colonialist as the superior race, and sympathy for the blacks who have been dispossessed and robbed of their inheritance. For example, he is appalled by the dehumanization of the blacks whom he describes as moving around as ants. (29) These people were building a railway, thus, contributing to white expansionism, while being reduced to animals. Conrad's description of the chain gang can be read at least two ways, thus contributing to the possibility of multiple interpretations:

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound around their loins, and the short ends waggled to and from like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar around his neck, and all were connected together with a chain, whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. (HD, 30).

A few pages later, he describes black shapes all the attitudes of pain, abandonment and despair and further describes standing one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all fours to the river to drink. (32) As Chinua Achebe has already pointed out in his article An Image Of Africa, Conrad in this pas sage is stereotyping the African as savage and primitive, deserving of our compassion but not our respect. However, we perceive this passage to be indicative of Marlow's identification with the subjugated `other' and of his horror and repulsion at the cruel treatment they have received at the hands of his white male compatriots. In thus identifying with the African `other' and against the white male, Marlow/Conrad expresses his sympathy with the unempowered female because he fears that he too will become powerless in the blank spaces of Africa, much like the natives he has seemingly come to conquer, and the disenfranchised women back home. As Brook Thomas points out, there is yet another way of looking at Conrad's presentation of the African chain-gang:

Even though Conrad had himself been there, he chose to tell his story indirectly through an idiosyncratic, first-person narrator, Marlow, whose narrative is in turn relayed by another narrator who presumably has not even been to Africa. This elaborate structure makes us aware of structure as structure; thus, the novel, doesn't pretend to offer us a perfectly clear, uncluttered, unbiased, perfectly natural view of the facts of the past. (HD, 236)

Thomas' point of view lends credibility to our assertion that Conrad's style and structure in this novel beg to be read from a variety of perspectives. And it must be pointed out that Conrad's background as a Polish exile in England, whose second language was English reinforces the notion of multiple perspectives. For as Edward Said observes:

Because Conrad also had an extraordinarily residual sense of his own exilic marginality, he quite carefully (some would say maddeningly) qualified Marlow's narrative with the provisionality that came from standing at the very juncture of this world with another, unspecified but different. ("Culture and Imperialism", 24)

Michael North goes further, describing how to Conrad's friends, his Polish nationality was seen as a racial difference. North points out that Conrad's Polish accent was associated by them with the Orient, and further that his appearance and mannerisms were considered by H.G. Wells and Ford Mad Ford to be Oriental. Several critics thought he was Jewish. Another found him positively simian. ("Dialect of Modernism", 50) This view of Conrad as racially different from his English colleagues and therefore inferior provides us with another explanation of Conrad's ambivalent attitudes in Heart of Darkness toward Africa and imperialism. For Conrad both wanted to belong to and escape from a culture that never quite accepted him.

Turning to our first point about narrative structure, then, Marlow's journey up the river is toward the realm of the semiotic, the realm of multiple perspectives suggested by the self-conscious circularity of the text. Said, in commenting upon the imperial context of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", inadvertently addresses some points about the semiotic and female form.

Like most of his other tales, Heart of Darkness is not just a recital of Marlow's adventures; it is also a dramatization of Marlow telling his story to a group of listeners at a particular place in a particular time... Neither Conrad nor Marlow offer us anything outside the world-conquering attitudes embodied by Kurtz and Marlow and Conrad...the circularity of the whole thing is unassailable. Except as I said a moment ago that Conrad is self-conscious about setting and situating the narrative in a narrative moment, thus allowing us to realize after all, that far from swallowing up its own history, imperialism has in fact been placed and located by history, one that lies outside the tightly inclusive ring on the deck of the yawl Nelly. (Said, 49)

In other words, what Said says about Conrad's self-consciousness, that implies or leads to a plurality of perspectives within the narrative construct, echoes in some ways, Kristeva's and other feminists' theories about the non-linearity, circularity, open- endedness, ambiguity and multiple perspectives inherent in a female narrative mode. 2

So Marlow, in his voyage up the river, travels toward the semiotic as seen through the disruptions and evasions of the text. Marlow evades, for example, his real feelings towards Kurtz, really fearing that if he admits how he feels to himself, he will have to recognize a part of him that is like Kurtz. Thus, he, Marlow, could end up like Kurtz. He says I think it had whispered to him [the wilderness] things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception, so he took counsel with the great solitude -- and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. (HD, 73)

Conrad exhibits a similar ambiguity in depicting Marlow's confrontation with the female principle embodied by Kurtz' mistress, who symbolizes both a matriarchal female goddess as well as a sensuous temptress associated in the English male mind with `savage' races. But Conrad goes beyond conventional colonial stereotypes of 'natives' and we would agree with Marianna Torgovnick who argues that the African woman is the crux of Heart of Darkness...the representative 'native' the only one fully individualized and described in detail, except for the Helmsman, who also dies in the story. She is, the text insists, the symbol of Africa. ("Gone Primitive", 154-55)

We would argue that Marlow's fears as represented in the text by the sensual power of Kurtz' mistress show also Conrad's fear of the female energy, the female muse within him. This female muse manifests herself in the ambiguities and omissions of the text, in the baroque, twisting style that resembles the serpentine twisting of the river. On the one hand, Conrad struggles through his narrator, Marlow, to break into a speech of triumph, of authority over the savage temptress, and yet is, finally unable to, or maybe even unwilling to block out the power of her inarticulate, gorgeous, presence. The passage that we are about to quote exhibits the text's divided attitudes toward female power: on the one hand, Conrad/Marlow fears the savage woman's sexual mystery, on the other hand he admires and is fascinated by it.

For closely linked to this issue of female power is the power of language versus the power of silence. In this passage we see that the power to describe is one exercised through language by Marlow, Yet, in the final analysis, the silent gaze of the `savage' woman is more articulate and powerful than Marlow's words.

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 light jingle and flash of was done in the shape of a helmet; she had bright 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 witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step...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...

Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and a dumb pain...Suddenly she opened her bare arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky...A formidable silence hung over the scene. (HD, 76)

Thus, the muteness, the formidable silence of Kurtz' savage/mistress, becomes emblematic of those blank spaces in the text which Conrad/Marlow wishes to inhabit and cannot. 0n the narrative level, he had wished to inhabit the `blank spaces' of Africa, only to discover that these blank spots are a mirage; just as, on the linguistic and textual level, he acknowledges the `muteness' of the `other' to be a delusion. For, in fact, as his own portrayal shows, the savage mistress speaks a language as powerful as that of patriarchy and colonialism. As Gilbert and Gubar point out, she is a silent hieroglyph in the language strange that articulates both her mysterious history and her threatening hystery ("No Man's Land", vol.2 45)

Her presence suggests another silence in the text, the taboo which Conrad never addresses openly, namely her sexual liaison with Kurtz. For as Kurtz' wife, though the text never states this directly, she stands in direct opposition to Kurtz's Intended. Ironically, the text reveals Conrad's African version of womanhood and sexuality as real and potent while the Intended is a pure Victorian fantasy, a tradition of the English novel which includes such stereotypes of the fair, insipid heroine, as Amelia in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, a tradition which Conrad inherited. In a recent study of Vanity Fair, Suvendrini Perera uses the term oriental misogyny to describe the representation of gender relations in the English novel.

In Vanity Fair the males takes on the pasha role while the female, identified with the seraglio, is victim ("Reaches of Empire", 94-102). In Heart of Darkness Conrad reproduces this cultural misogyny and racial stereotyping in Kurtz' possession of his mistress. However, like Becky Sharp, the dark figure whose racial otherness contrasts with Amelia's Englishness -- described by Perera as the marginal female who manages by sacrificing her sexual respectability, to turn her unattached status murderously upon the society that excludes her, (Perera, 90) -- Conrad's native woman also disrupts imperialist, racist, sexist attitudes toward women.

Torgovnick points out, Marlow clearly conceives of her as a substitute for, an inversion of Kurtz's high-minded, white 'intended.' Like the Belgian woman, she is an impressive figure, but unlike the Intended she is not 'high-minded': she is presented as all body and inchoate emotion. The novella cuts from the figure of the African woman with outstretched arms to the Intended: one woman an affianced bride, one woman all body, surely an actual bride. ("Gone Primitive", 146-147)

If Marlow could end up like Kurtz, then he could also end up succumbing to a love which violates British codes against miscegenation. And yet the attraction of the African woman is so manifestly powerful and seductive as revealed by the text's description of her, that we cannot help feeling that she represents Conrad's real feelings about what constitutes ideal femininity.

The African woman, who, it must be noted, has no name, embodies Conrad's inherited notions of the savage female other popularized most notably by Rider Haggard in She. While she may be seductive, she is also, like Africa, deadly. To take this one step further, if Conrad is struggling with his feminine self, than to succumb to the African woman is like Kurtz, to perish. Is this then a further horror in the text? For Kurtz (and this is also a potential horror for his alter ego, Marlow) has been destroyed by a destructive femininity which fascinates but kills because it is forbidden. Like the love that has no name the African woman has no name. She is the feminine principle that Marlow must repress in order to conquer and rule. Conrad's text endeavors on the one hand to preserve the masculine principle while Marlow's identification with the African woman struggles against that principle. It is interesting to note that standard critical interpretations of "Heart of Darkness" have focused on Marlow and Kurtz as two sides of the same self, while none suggest the African woman as an aspect of Marlow's divided psyche. In fact, except for Torgovnick's and Gilbert and Gubar's, no studies of Conrad pay any attention to her as an aspect of Conrad's doubts about imperialism or his identification with her.3

In our view, she is the real presence in the novella and it is she who makes Marlow confront his boyhood male passion for filling up the blank spaces he had seen on the African map. Now, instead of a blank space, he finds a human being inhabiting the African landscape. Indeed, her being betrays another multiple perspective in the novella, one suggested by the question: how can one fill up a blank space on a map in the name of culture when in actuality that space is already inhabited by a culture? This is one of the questions which though unarticulated is raised by Conrad concerning the nexus between masculinity and femininity, between colonialism's power and colonialism's weakness, between Conrad's racism and Conrad's sympathy for the subjugated Africans. He embodies this question in the body of the African woman who is fecund and mysterious. passionate, and who belongs to the African landscape that looks at her as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul. Is this not woman as dark continent in Kristeva's terms, which Marlow fears in himself but cannot re press? We see how the native woman embodies multiple perspectives in the text: woman as other, as African evil, and as the silent native who has no human identity. Yet, she is never reduced to either an essence of the same (re: the European male Self) or completely exoticized (re: dehistoricized as Other). For example, Barthes, in exposing the myth of exoticism operating in the so-called documentary film, The Lost Continent writes: Faced with anything foreign, the Established Order knows only two types of behavior, which are both mutilating: either to acknowledge it as a Punch and Judy show, or to defuse it as a pure reflection of the West. In any case, the main thing is to deprive it of its history (Barthes 96).

The figure of the African woman in Heart of Darkness, inasmuch as she functions as a silent hieroglyph, can be reduced neither to a one-dimensional other, nor understood and hence assimilated into Marlow's world-view in the way Barthes has outlined. Furthermore, by depicting the native woman as speechless, Conrad places her at the center of issues of colonialism. Frantz Fanon, in a somewhat different yet related context argued, I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of of the elements in the man of color's comprehension of the dimension of the other. For it is implicit that to speak is to exist absolutely for the other. ("Black Skins: White Masks", 17-18)

Fanon argues further that Existence is language, and language is always a matter of politics. ("Black Skins", 18) Thus, existence is a product of language and the colonized subject must learn the master's language in order to be human. By portraying the woman as mute, Conrad makes her less than human and powerless to engage in a dialogue with her master, Kurtz, except through her sexual power. So on the one hand, as representative of the native people, she possesses animal instincts and is incapable of being civilized.

But on the other hand, if she lacks speech, Kurtz loses speech. Throughout the novella he has been characterized as a voice whose eloquence has mesmerized his followers. Eric Cheyfitz points out that The conception of the orator as emperor, conquering men with the weapon of eloquence, is a classical and Renaissance commonplace, and argues that this imperial common place finds its place in the story of the orator as the first settler, that is as the first civilizer and colonizer of humans. ("The Poetics of Imperialism", 112-113) While this story seems to be played out during Marlow's search for Kurtz, as Marlow gathers stories about Kurtz's achievements, ultimately Kurtz's power of eloquence is reduced to uttering the horror, the horror.

When, as Fanon suggests, a colonized people finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is with the culture of the mother country, the colonized is elevated above the jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, the jungle ("Black Skins", 18).

With Kurtz, the reverse seems to be true; his embrace of the darkness of the jungle reveals the white lie upon which such a Manichean notion rests. For, in becoming blacker, he doesn't lose his western norms of behavior at all, rather his hair-raising postcript exterminate all the brutes (66), is a fitting complement to the white civilizing mission of the International Society For The Suppression Of Savage Customs that sent him there in the first place! As Marlow gloomily observes, All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz (65). His fall from eloquence contrasts, thus, with his mistress's mute eloquence, as Conrad complicates who is conquered and who is conqueror.

As Benita Parry has also observed, Marlow hears the natives' speech as a black and incomprehensible frenzy, ("Conrad and Imperialism", 35) which echoes Fanon's sardonic observation that It is said that the Negro loves to jabber. (26) Parry notes that It is language that draws Marlow toward Kurtz because he can speak English and its is Kurtz's voice that entices him into his orbit. (35)

She sees Marlow's affirmation of faith over reason as connected to the natives' wild and passionate uproar. Yet, it seems to us that Conrad ultimately reverses the attitude of colonial superiority in terms of language as rationality, since the native woman's eloquent silence speaks loud and clear for the powerful other. Her merger with the jungle landscape makes clear how Africa overpowers the colonizer's language and customs.3 In a reversal of Fanon's view of the colonized adopting the colonizer's language and culture, the native woman retains her blackness, while Kurtz loses his whiteness, albeit only superficially. Furthermore, though, as previously suggested, Conrad partially dehumanizes her by making her mute, it is his text which also speaks for her; through whose gaps and ambiguities we see her silence as eloquent, and her taboo morality (outside of man's reach) as a preferable alternative against the male-signed hypocrisy of Kurtz' fiancée. In the latter's case, as the pain- fully hypocritical conversational exchange proceeds between her and Marlow, we see how Conrad's text, while on the one hand setting her up as an unbearably pathetic contrast to the vital Native Woman, on the other reveals the absurdity of its own masculine-centered discursive strand that seeks to contain her within such a Victorian construct. By refusing to even give her a name of her own, Conrad's text questions the discursive narrative strategy which renders her an object of exchange between men; an object the price of whose innocence has been paid for by a lie.

Just as Conrad's rendering of the native woman suggests a plurality of perspective rather than an either/or binary within the narrative construct, thus echoing feminist theories about the open-endedness, ambiguity and multiple perspectives inherent in a female narrative mode, so Marlow's return to England can be seen as echoing Carol Gilligan's psychological views about female moral development. Few critics have addressed Marlow's reasons for lying to the Intended, and those who do ignore the notion of female consciousness we have been elaborating. Michael Levenson, for example, argues that: Marlow never shrinks from judgement, but he judges without abstract ideals, without general principles, indeed without consistency.... He derides moral absolutes and willingly suspends universals in favor of concrete discriminations. We know that he abominates lies and that he recognizes justice as Kurtz's due, but when he meets the intended he complies with neither the maxim of honesty nor the claim of justice. Instead he acts as the practical moralist who overturns general conceptions without overturning ethics.

When Marlow describes his particular reason for lying to Kurtz's Intended, he makes no appeal to those tainted ideas: progress, pity, conduct of life. He says simply that the truth 'would have been too dark-too dark altogether.'

In Levenson's view, darkness becomes a moral sensation. ("Mode and Fate of Individual". 56-57) which furthers our view of multiple perspectives in Conrad's ethical responses to imperial ism, racism, and colonialist corruption. However, we would further argue that the derision toward moral absolutes which Levenson points out in Marlow's decision to lie, is closer to the female-centered approach that Gilligan outlines (a possibility Levenson does not consider). What she has to say about women's moral development and moral judgement, for instance, is connected to Marlow's response to Imperialism and to Kurtz. It makes his Lie to Kurtz' Intended appear not sexist, but empathic. Because of his experiences in Africa, Marlow's moral consciousness has taken on female qualities, as described by her in her influential book, "In A Different Voice". Gilligan theorizes that women's moral reasoning is not based on abstract notions of right and wrong, like men's, but is instead, contextual, and based on perceptions of suffering and caring. Instead of using abstract rules of justice to decide whether an action was right or wrong, girls, says Gilligan, wonder who would suffer by the action:

The reluctance to judge may itself be indicative care and concern for others that infuse the psychology of women's development and are responsible for what is generally seen as problematic in its nature. (Gilligan 172)

They will usually rate as best that choice which leads to the least harm. Gilligan asks: Why should we believe that the moral sequence through which boys pass constitutes moral development tout court ? Perhaps the girls' abiding concern for human relatedness and personal responsibility, is not a lower form of moral reasoning, but an equally sophisticated moral point of view, complementing the masculine code of absolute right and wrong and impartial justice. Judged in the light of Gilligan's theory, Marlow's decision to lie to the Intended is not, then, taken with the intent to humiliate her (and thus all women) as Johanna Smith suggests in her essay, but to protect her from the needless suffering and hurt she would surely feel if told the Truth .

Moreover, the truth is the unsayable that Conrad has been un-saying throughout the novel. Indeed his lying to the Intended who, like the African woman, has no name, yet, unlike her, is a complete abstraction, raises further ambiguities over the Truth. Did Kurtz intend to return to his fiancée? Was his African nightmare more real than her abstract illusory drawing world? Or is Marlow's lying about Kurtz a defense against the horrific lifting of repression which rendered Kurtz impotent? It seems to us that Conrad uses the Intended to raise questions of what is real, and what is truth by suggesting that it is finally not locatable in a binary understanding of the world.

Marlow/Conrad bears witness to the horrors of imperialist oppression in Africa, as women writers have done throughout Herstory , yet does not return to report it overtly, nor does he make absolute judgements about culpability. Like Emily Dickinson, he tells the truth, but make[s] it slant . Thus, as Patricia Meyer Spacks says of women's novels, Conrad's "Heart of Dark ness" makes Marlow's journey one of subterranean challenges to absolute truths.

In this reading of "Heart of Darkness", we have argued for a perspective on Conrad's novel that allies it in many ways with an écriture feminine. Further, we have pointed out that Conrad's own position as racial outsider , a Polish émigré in England, contributed to his sensitivity to marginal and oppressed groups.4

It can also be argued that in his maternal attachment to a pre-oedipal phase of speech (his first language, Polish) --  rather than allying himself with the symbolic father (English Imperial ism), he allies himself with the mother of an écriture feminine.

We do not mean to imply by this that Conrad's view of Africa is non-racist or non-imperialistic. Nor are we suggesting that women as a whole are incapable of making absolute moral judgements. We have simply desired to problematize conventional readings of the text, and to suggest that Conrad may have seen into the horror of the `heart of darkness' in more complex and ambiguous ways than a closed or univocal interpretation allows.

* We would like to thank Henry Veggian for his help in editing this paper.


1 Johanna Smith, Too Beautiful Altogether. Patriarchal Ideology in "Heart of Darkness" in Ross C. Murfin, ed. "Heart of Darkness", Joseph Conrad, "A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism" (St. Mar tin's Press, New York, 1988), pg. 195. As far as the question of writing style goes, it seems to us that in a number of ways, Conrad's text writes the body that has been one of the defining features of L’écriture Feminine. For more on writing the body, see also Chantal Chawaf's novels and theoretical writings, a particularly cogent amalgamation of the two being her novel "Redemption" (Dalkey Archive Press, 1992). Here is a brief passage describing a female or feminine poetics of the body as practiced by the heroine-writer of "Redemption": From within her she releases the vitality of language and she subdues the rules of language which she uses only for sensitivity; she bends, folds, folds again, rolls up the linearity of the script which fits the curves of the flesh, the satiny smoothness of the skin, the loop of the innermost intestines, and her intimate writing resembles a fetus tucked away in the uterus, resembles the dilation of the cervix at the time of birth, and she writes the way a woman gives birth ("Redemption" 10). It is only fitting that writing the [feminine] body with life-giving, loving, properties, becomes the mode of literal and figurative salvation for the man, Charles, who is a murderer both of women and of a language of excess he identifies with the maternal body. Conrad's text, both in following a non-linear structure that continually folds in upon itself, as well as in employing an idiom that is in excess of what it needs to say, coupled with Marlow's redemptive Lie to the Intended, all points to the novel as a quasi- model of L’écriture feminine. According to Cixous, writing the body can be practiced by the type of man in whom femininity is not forbidden. Because he doesn't fantasize his sexuality around a faucet ( Coming To Writing and Other Essays, 1991). For further elaboration of this concept, see Luce Irigaray, especially The Power of Discourse, in "Le Sexe Qui N'est Pas Une" (1985); "Speculum of the Other Woman; Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference" (1993). See also Julia Kristeva's notion of jouissance as a quality of feminine texts (a quality "Heart of Darkness" exhibits in the excessive quality of its prose) -- as developed in her essay Revolution of Poetic Language, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. by Toril Moi (1986).

2 We do not mean to imply -- and neither does Said -- that the narrative circularity of "Heart of Darkness" is in and of itself liberatingly non-linear and open-ended. Rather, it is the very fact that such a circularity indicates Conrad's awareness of the partiality and contingency of his narrative which prompts us to draw the inference that we do.

3 Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, in "The Kristeva Reader", ed. Toril Moi(New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pg. 89-136 and Mary Eagleton, ed. "Feminist Literary Theory",(New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 214. 4 Mary Eagleton, "Feminist Literary Theory", 232.

5 Luce Irigaray, "This Sex Which Is Not One", trans. Catherine Porter, 1977(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pg. 78.

6 All quotations from "Heart of Darkness" are from Ross C. Murfin, ed. Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness: A Case Study of Contemporary Criticism"(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989).

7 Brook Thomas, Preserving and Keeping Order in "Heart of Dark ness", in "Heart of Darkness", Joseph Conrad, "A Case Study in Con temporary Criticism"(New York: St. Martin Press, 1988) pg. 236.

8 Edward Said, "Culture and Imperialism"(New York: Vintage Books Random House, 1993), pg. 24.

9 Michael North, "The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language and Twentieth Century Literature"(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pg. 50.

10 Edward Said, The Intellectual in the Post-Colonial World, "Salmagundi", Spring, 1986, pg. 49.

11 Marianna Torgovnick, "Gone Primitive Savage Intellects, Modern Lives"(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, Pg. 154-155.

12 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, "No Man's land: Sex Changes", vol.2 (New haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pg. 45. 13 Suvendrini Perera, "Reaches of Empire: The English Novel from Edgeworth to Dickens"(New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pg. 94.

14 Suvendrini Perera, "Reaches of Empire", pg. 90.

15 Marianna Torgovnick, "Gone Primitive", pg. 146-147.

16 For an introductory overview of emerging Feminist criticism of Conrad, see Ruth L. Nadelhaft, "Joseph Conrad" Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press Int. Inc., 1991

17 Roland Barthes, "Mythologies", trans. Anette Lavers, 1957,(New York: Noonday Press, 1972), pg. 96.

18 Frantz Fanon,"Black Skins, White Masks", trans. Charles Lamm Markmann, ed. Ross C. Murfin(New York: Grove Press, 1967), pgs. 17-18.

19 Frantz Fanon, "Black Skins, White Masks", pg. 18.

20 Eric Cheyfitz, "The Poetics of Imperialism Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan"(New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pgs. 112-113.

21 Frantz Fanon, "Black Skins, White Masks", pg. 18.

22 Benita Parry, "Conrad and Imperialism"(London: Macmillan Press, 1983), pg. 35.

23 Benita Parry, "Conrad and Imperialism", pg. 35.

24 Michael Levenson, "Modernism and the Fate of Individuality"(Cam bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pgs. 56-57.

25 Carol Gilligan, "In A Different Voice"(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pg. 172.

26 Johanna Smith, Too Beautiful Altogether : Patriarchal Ideology in "Heart of Darkness" in "Heart of Darkness" Joseph Conrad "A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism", ed. Ross C. Murfin(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989)Pgs. 179-195.

27 One explanation for Conrad's ambiguous feelings about language can be found in Conrad's foreign accent. Michael North argues that it was Conrad's heavily accented Polish that made him constantly aware of linguistic difference and to have this aware ness, to live and write in constant remembrance of linguistic difference, is, as Conrad's friends and associates always reminded him, to be a racial outcast. (Michael North, "Dialect of Modernism", pg. 52) This lends credibility to the notion of Conrad's feeling of kinship with the natives and we would even read Conrad's favoring African speech over European, as an ironic rebuttal to English attitudes toward his foreign birth. For if Conrad's friends saw him as a racial alien, a speaker of gibberish, (Michael North, "Dialect of Modernism", pg. 58) might not Conrad want to show strength and dignity in a linguistics that had its own essence?


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Said, Edward. "Culture and Imperialism". New York: Vintage Random Books, 1993. Said, Edward. The Intellectual in the Post-Colonial World. "Salmagundi". (Spring, 1986), pgs. 44-81.

Parry, Benita. "Conrad and Imperialism". London: The Macmillan Press, 1983.

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Torgovnick, Marianna. "Gone Primitive Savage Intellects, Modern Lives". Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. | | HTML'ed 2.2.00