Please wait while we process your payment
If you don't see it, please check your spam folder. Sometimes it can end up there.
Don’t have an account?
Create Your Account
Sign up for your FREE 7-day trial
Already have an account? Log in
Choose Your Plan
$4.99/month + tax
$24.99/year + tax
Save over 50% with a SparkNotes PLUS Annual Plan!
for a group?
Get Annual Plans at a discount when you buy 2 or more!
$18.74 /subscription + tax
Subtotal $37.48 + tax
on 2-49 accounts
on 50-99 accounts
Want 100 or more?
for a customized plan.
You'll be billed after your free trial ends.
7-Day Free Trial
Renews February 4, 2023
January 28, 2023
Discounts (applied to next billing)
This is not a valid promo code.
(one code per order)
SparkNotes Plus subscription is $4.99/month or $24.99/year as selected above. The free trial period is the first 7 days of your subscription. TO CANCEL YOUR SUBSCRIPTION AND AVOID BEING CHARGED, YOU MUST CANCEL BEFORE THE END OF THE FREE TRIAL PERIOD. You may cancel your subscription on your Subscription and Billing page or contact Customer Support at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your subscription will continue automatically once the free trial period is over. Free trial is available to new customers only.
For the next 7 days, you'll have access to awesome PLUS stuff like AP English test prep, No Fear Shakespeare translations and audio, a note-taking tool, personalized dashboard, & much more!
You’ve successfully purchased a group discount. Your group members can use the joining link below to redeem their group membership. You'll also receive an email with the link.
Members will be prompted to log in or create an account to redeem their group membership.
Thanks for creating a SparkNotes account! Continue to start your free trial.
Your PLUS subscription has expired
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.”
Ace your assignments with our guide to Heart of Darkness!