Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness is a narrative of a European man’s journey up the Congo River from Europe to the African interior, with horrifying and revealing accounts of imperialism and the European conquest of the African continent. It is told from the perspective of the European man—Charles Marlow. Marlow is hired as a riverboat captain by a Belgian ivory-trading company to travel into the jungles of Africa in an attempt to locate and retrieve one of the company’s most brilliant agents, Mr. Kurtz, who has disappeared into the shadows of Africa. The search for and encounter with Kurtz prove to be a nightmare for Marlow, as they bring him face to face with the heart of darkness.
Within this extraordinary account of rather strange interactions between the European and the African men, a few women of minor roles are portrayed strictly from the male perspective. They are not given names and are simply distinguished by their relationships with the male characters: Marlow’s aunt and Kurtz’ Intended. Marlow exhibits a specific attitude toward these women that reflects the patriarchal and, therefore, sexist society of his time. Some of these sexist views and assumptions are manifested in and confirmed by the novel in the way Marlow describes the women as unsophisticated and idealistic, as well as subjects to the superior logic and power of men. Women are portrayed to have no involvement in the important matters of life and are accused of being extremely naïve to the realities of the world. According to Marlow, they do not understand the reality of imperialism, but instead reside in a world that is entirely too beautiful for men to even touch.
Even after more than three decades have passed, a lot still depends on who and what we are – certainly not excluding our gender status. Although we are incessantly striving towards a system of social gender equality, women are nevertheless considered the lesser sex in many contexts, as it is quite difficult to rid ourselves of the social institutions of gender rooted so deeply in our history.
Personally, I do not take much offense in being treated as a “woman”. Life is not always perfectly fair from the perspective of men or women really. To present a rudimentary example, South Korean men suffer through serving in the army during their most precious few years of youth while women suffer through the burden of pregnancy. I do not feel that being a woman in itself makes me unequal to men or subjected to subservience to men. I am not in any way overlooking the inequalities that women can face and do face, especially in terms of the workforce in the present day. However, as an individual yet shielded from the world and its darkness with a rather shallow analysis of society justified by youth and the status of a “student”, I do not feel directly affected by these inequalities and, therefore, do not let it bother me on a daily basis. Perhaps it is such youthful exuberance rather than femininity that allows one to reside in this beautiful world Marlow mentions.
We need to collectively come to the realization that there are always going to be stereotypes, in gender or in anything else such as race – as I, an Asian born and raised in America, know all too well. Even with my not so effeminate personality I feel like I can easily be pegged as being a stereotypical woman in some aspects, but in the end what really matters, what it really comes down to is that I am able to live comfortably amid surrounding societal forces trying to shove me into a rather inflexible frame of a conventional image falsely generalizing and epitomizing female Korean Americans. The immediate concerns or objectives surrounding sexism should not necessarily be to obliterate it from our society entirely, which I personally find to be no small feat as it has been observed throughout the course of our history, but rather to create a world in which we can live at ease, relaxed and secure, with full confidence and certainty in our individual identities with which we were born.