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Women in Literature: How Women's Roles in Text Can Differ

Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and History.

Women in Igbo society were marginalised

Women in Igbo society were marginalised

Portrayal of Women by Conrad and Achebe

This article will discuss the role of women in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It will focus on why women are portrayed in a certain light, and the significance this has for both texts. The place and rights of women in society at the time of the two books’ publications are important as well, in a proper analysis of the role of women in the text. How the women affect the plot of both stories, how much dialogue is given to women and their overall representation within the texts are all crucial aspects of their role. The words employed to describe women, the tone that male characters use about women and the advent or lack thereof of any female agency are vital here for developing a keener understanding of the issue. The female characters contrast greatly both within and across the texts, revealing great insights into the role of women, the attitudes of the two authors and why women are portrayed in this manner.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, women were experiencing a transformation in their role in society. With the suffragette movement, and the advent of females in the workforce during the war, the role of women in society was expanding. In America, female suffrage was predicated on the passing of the nineteenth amendment for the female vote. The suffragettes believed that the passing of this amendment “would transform society”. Even as women began to vote and venture further into the workplace, they still faced many challenges, as Chafe states that many employers would not hire women for their “supposed pre-occupation with the home”. These barriers pervaded the literary world of the twentieth century as well. Epic literature was one of the key genres of the period, most notably with works like Heart of Darkness. The epic has primarily been dominated by a masculine narrative. Women were still not perceived as belonging in the workforce, as their primary role was seen as being a nurturer and caregiver, and not to be involved in the public world of business and politics. The real-world changes in the lives of women and the continued struggles they faced pervade the literature of the modern period, as the fictional women attempt to gain their own voice.

Heart of Darkness, although lacking in female characters, is certainly rich in an analysis of their role. Marlow’s description of the various women within the text is strikingly similar. They all remain ignorant of the brutality occurring in the Congo, which only Marlow can know about. Marlow’s aunt is “triumphant” about the work of the ivory trading company. This is done to shun the women of the text and to confine them to their place, ignorant of the outside world. When Marlow interacts with his aunt again at the end of the story, her role is limited to only being a comforter and caregiver and not providing any insight or discussion of the events in the Congo. Little to no information is given about these women, as the female characters serve only to help the men in menial tasks, and not to exert independence. Contrary to this, however, in Hinkle’s opinion, while the female characters exist in a world entirely detached from the male characters, this does not stop them from having a direct impact on the main story. This point is further emphasised by Saeedi, who claims that “despite their apparent silence, the female figures do manage to find other means of expression”. While this concept can be seen through Conrad’s aunt, who without her, Conrad would not have secured a job with the Company, the other female characters offer little significance, and the only other female character given a significant amount of text, is a powerless and sad figure, Kurtz’s fiancée.

The last chapter of Heart of Darkness is the most important when it comes to the role of women within the text. It details the conversation between Marlow and Kurtz’s former fiancée. She is only referred to as “My intended”, throughout the text. She is never given her own name or her own identity, which de-humanises her. This one female character given sufficient dialogue in the text lives entirely through a man. She is described as being completely dependent on Kurtz. The idea of confinement is seen here again as she is wholly ignorant of Kurtz’s actions. Even a year after Kurtz’s death, she is still mourning and not able to function. She is unable to think for herself outside of her feelings for the deceased Kurtz, “She seemed ready to listen without mental reservation, without suspicion, without a thought for herself”. Marlow then lies to her about the true actions of Kurtz and says that his last words were her name and not “The horror! The horror!”. Marlow does this because he thinks a woman would not be capable of understanding the true horror of the situation, and it is best that she remains ignorant. The role of women in Heart of Darkness is to be mindless caregivers, who when their husband or partner is lost, are then essentially useless, which was a prevailing idea in the world that Conrad was writing.

Conrad's representation of women was very archaic

Conrad's representation of women was very archaic

Contrasting Representations

In Things Fall Apart, features women much more prominently than in Heart of Darkness. The Igbo society of Things Fall Apart is very different from the society in Heart of Darkness, and the book is the first exposure of Igbo society to the outside world. The representation of women and their role in Umoufia society is a crucial aspect of the story. The female characters are not just suffixes to men in this story. Although set in a patriarchal society, the female voice is still heard. Within the first passage of chapter two, there is uproar after another clan has “murder[ed] a daughter of Umoufia. The clan is outraged and demands retribution. The reaction to this event highlights the clan's respect for the life of women. The patriarchy pervades this entire society, as women are barred from the political sphere of the community, and domestically they are seen as the property of their husbands. Although female characters are treated poorly by the men in this novel, Achebe does afford some text to get a female perspective. This balance is in contrast with Conrad, who only allows the role and view of women to be described by men. Both authors want to portray the realities of the society at the time, but only Achebe achieves a more rounded approach from both genders.

Ekwefi is one of the most important characters in Things Fall Apart. Many of Okonkwo’s other wives are given little to no dialogue, and one wife is never given a name and is only referred to as “Nwoye’s mother”. Ekwefi is given a prominent role and provides the only insight into the female psyche. The passage describing her daughter Ezinma’s battle with illness frames the most dramatic aspect of the story and is the only occasion where the plot does not focus on Okonkwo, which marks a turning point in the story. When Okonkwo catches up with Ekwefi outside the cave, he orders her to leave, which she openly defies, “I shall wait too”. The incident marks a point of independence for Ekwefi, where she asserts her right to stay, and her wish is respected by Okonkwo. Despite the patriarchal society, Ekwefi is able to exert her own influence in the story and lives of the other characters, and unlike ‘The Intended’, is shown to have free will outside the needs of her husband.

The term Agbala is a crucial aspect of the text when it comes to the role and representation of women in Things Fall Apart. Agbala has various meanings within the text, and these meanings show the complex relationship the clan has with the female gender. Agbala is the name of the priestess of the clan, and their earth God is a female known as Ani. “The oracle was called Agbala, and people came from far and near to consult it”, clearly the term had great reverence among the clan. Women are a central part of the religion of the clan, and in Ayeleru’s opinion, the women are the spiritual protectors of the clan, and are there to “ameliorate people’s deplorable socio-economic situation”. The term Agbala is also used as both a blanket term for women and an insult for men without titles. Okonkwo detests his father for being an Agbala. However, Okonkwo is displaying toxic masculinity, and his actions hinge on his want to be manlier than his father, which is ultimately detrimental because he cannot deal with his emotions. Indeed, the speech that is given to Okonkwo by one of his mother’s clans, highlights the true representation and role of women in Things Fall Apart. Uchendu tells Okonkwo he must learn from his mother's clan and lose his sorrow, lest it exile him and his children. While the clans are patriarchal, ultimately, “mother is supreme”.

Ultimately, the role of women in Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart varies greatly, not just from book to book, but from character to character. The juxtaposition of women both as Gods to be revered, and as symbols of weakness in Things Fall Apart show that the role of women in this text was multi-faceted. The final chapter of Heart of Darkness shows how little both the characters and authors of the early twentieth century, thought of women’s role in society and their level of intellect. The female characters are very different in both texts, and are a representation of not just the individual attitudes of the authors but also the changing of society in the half-century between the two books’ publications. As women were finally being recognised as influential in the real world, so too are the female characters of Things Fall Apart, whose role is far more important than the women of Heart of Darkness. Although still hampered by the patriarchal society in which they live, women in Things Fall Apart can speak for themselves, whereas women in Heart of Darkness are voiceless. The place of female agency is indeed found in the “heart of an immense darkness”, but not through Joseph Conrad, but instead through Achebe and Things Fall Apart.

Women's Roles have traditionally been confined to uninfluential parts

Women's Roles have traditionally been confined to uninfluential parts

© 2018 Paul Barrett 96