Heart of Darkness

by: Joseph Conrad

A+ Student Essay

Compare Kurtz’s African mistress with his Intended. How does the pairing of these two women develop larger themes in the novel?

On the surface, Kurtz’s African mistress has nothing in common with his Intended. They dress and communicate differently, and they take on the opposing feminine roles of fiancée and “other woman.” However, despite coming from vastly different cultures, both women exhibit a fundamental similarity: They exist not so much as characters in their own right, but as reflections of the man they share. Conrad emphasizes this connection by referring to each woman according to her relationship with Kurtz, rather than granting her an individual name. On one level, Conrad may be suggesting that women inherently play subordinate roles in men’s lives. But on another level, Conrad uses Kurtz’s African mistress and his Intended to attack the very notion that Africa can be seen as Europe’s opposite.

Kurtz’s African mistress and his Intended differ in superficial ways. The African mistress wears bold colors, stripes and fringes, brass rings that climb up her ankles, and jewelry that Marlow can only describe as “barbarous” and “bizarre.” By contrast, the Intended presents herself in a way that suggests decorum and restraint. She appears in the black garb of mourning, with a face whose paleness contrasts starkly with the bright red paint on the mistress’s cheek. The mistress communicates by way of wordless gestures and screams, whereas the Intended speaks in calm, thoughtful, and eloquent sentences. The mistress strikes Marlow and the other men as scandalous and un-Christian, whereas the very phrase “the Intended” bears Victorian connotations of modesty, chivalry, and propriety.

Despite these striking differences, the African mistress and the Intended share a prominent function in the novel. Both exist primarily to symbolize Kurtz’s status and wealth. The mistress’s regal posture, beauty, and excessive jewelry declare to all her countrymen the fact of Kurtz’s brilliance and power. Likewise, the Intended can only state and repeat Kurtz’s vague claims to genius, to the extent that Marlow becomes irritated. Without Kurtz, the women are merely “apparitions”—a term that Marlow uses to describe the African mistress. Separated from Kurtz, the mistress surrenders herself to the gunfire of the Pilgrims, and the Intended becomes a chattering, deluded fool. The two women exist only to proclaim Kurtz’s greatness; when that role is removed, they lose their purpose and their usefulness.

By emphasizing the fundamental similarities between a white woman bound by a traditional engagement and an African woman living in supposed sin, Conrad builds on a series of false dichotomies, or opposing pairs. Throughout the novel, he presents us with alleged oppositions that turn out to be disconcertingly similar. Europe, for example, was once as “primitive” as the nineteenth-century Europeans’ image of Africa. As Marlow notes, the Pilgrims exhibit many of the savage tendencies of the cannibals. Again and again, the image of blinding sunlight becomes entangled with the image of darkness: Both conditions hamper our ability to see things clearly. Powerless, ignorant, and tragic, the African mistress and the Intended belong to this large set of false dichotomies.

Conrad’s two superficially different female characters illustrate his idea that Europe is not the moral and cultural opposite of Africa. With their varied styles of dress and communication, the women initially seem to come from different worlds. But Conrad shows that they are doubles, both confined to the role of displaying Kurtz’s power. By exposing the shared tragedy of the two women’s lives, Conrad builds on his theme of Victorian moral confusion. Just as Europe is not significantly more advanced than Africa, a refined white woman is not significantly more enlightened than an African “savage.”