We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a “dark continent” for psychology.
Sigmund Freud, The Question of Lay Analysis
They—the women, I mean—are out of it—should be out of it.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
When I first read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an undergrad, it hit me like a powerful virus, and left me with symptoms that lingered long after. During my doctoral defense two decades later, notably, one of my committee members observed how references to it served as a sort of leitmotif in the first chapter of my dissertation (a study of Romantic and Victorian novels set in ancient Rome). I’ve asked myself how to account for the novel’s lasting impact on me. Like a lot of struggling adolescents, I was initially drawn to the figure of Kurtz. That infatuation soon ended, but I’ve come to realize that something associated with it endured: the ways in which Conrad’s portrayal of Kurtz, and his racist, impressionistic use of Africa and its peoples as an analogue for Kurtz’s fall, resonated with my feelings about being trans.
There’s a memorable scene in the last section of Heart of Darkness when Kurtz’s Congolese Mistress appears on the bank of the river and mutely confronts the white men on the steamer who are spiriting her lover away from her. As he describes her approaching the boat, Marlow flings overheated prose at her to fend off the attraction she obviously has for him:
[She was] a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman…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.
The scene is a characteristic instance of imperialist othering: the conquered peoples are equated with the conquered land and its spoils—the Mistress, Marlow tells us, “must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her”—and the whole is feminized, transforming the business of imperial expansion and exploitation into a rape fantasy.
When I first read Heart of Darkness, Kurtz’s transgression of the norms of late-Victorian masculinity and subsequent fall cast an existential glamour on my youthful struggles with my gender identity. I’d learned by the age of three or four that being a gender variant kid was bad and wrong. I’d learned that the pushback to any visible effort I mounted to preserve a space for myself would be constant and ubiquitous. And over the next several years, the voices telling me who I should be sounded more and more like my own voice. Boys don’t move like that. Boys don’t stand like that. Boys don’t sit like that. Boys don’t talk like that. Boys don’t laugh like that. Boys don’t cry. The novella’s manly if grandiloquent portrayal of Kurtz and exoticizing of the “dark continent” lent those voices, and my own suffering, the cachet of high culture. Browbeaten and ashamed before, I was now mesmerized, seduced.
Throughout her brief moment on the novella’s stage, Kurtz’s Mistress remains an object of fantasy—a silent vessel for projected desires and fears, her movements rigid and stylized like those of a dancer impersonating a goddess:
She came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us…Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect…A whole minute passed, and then she made a step forward…She looked at us all as if her life had depended upon the unswerving steadiness of her glance. Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky.
Marlow isn’t the only one to feel, and fear, the pull of her performance. After she takes the step towards the steamer, we’re told, “the young fellow by my side growled”—a strikingly bestial response; after she exits the scene, Kurtz’s Russian acolyte confesses to Marlow, “If she had offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot her.” The boundary between boat and riverbank is not merely a tactical one, it’s a conceptual line demarcating colonizer from colonized, civilized from savage, order from chaos—and male from female. The prospect of the Mistress boarding the steamer is a sort of reverse rape fantasy: a dystopic image of contagion.
The character of Marlow, Kurtz’s foil in Heart of Darkness, helped me to articulate the coping mechanism I’d developed to deal with my gender struggles. Unable to block the changes that came with puberty, and assured on all sides that they were “normal,” I learned to hate the girl inside me, that is, myself. I couldn’t help being myself, though, and thus was confronted with a stark choice: I could either try to murder the girl or broker some sort of accommodation with her. I struggled through my teens, and off and on afterwards, with the question of whether the world would be a better place without something like me polluting it. But gradually, and for the most part unconsciously, accommodation won out, and my spurned female self morphed into a fantasy object, one that was tied to my emerging sexuality, and that I strove to keep buried as far down inside me as possible.
Two things distinguish Conrad’s handling of the scene with Kurtz’s Mistress, and the colonizer-colonized encounter in general, from so much other writing of the period. First, there’s the degree to which he was clear-eyed about what imperialism looked like on the ground. “The conquest of the earth,” Marlow famously observes near the book’s beginning, “which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” For a long time, the force of this critique was overstated. However disgusted Conrad was by the conquerors’ excesses, he accepted imperialism by and large as a fait accompli. As a way of accommodating himself to it, Conrad floated the hope that it might be informed by what Marlow refers to as some redeeming quasi-religious “idea”—like the Brits’ “devotion to efficiency”—and “an unselfish belief in [that] idea.”
Marlow’s notion of a redeeming idea, vague as it was, provided me with a rationale for repressing my identity. The idea that I was unselfishly cleaving to was my family. Growing up in a loving household was one of the main reasons I never came close to succumbing to my struggles with suicide. By hiding my monstrosity from them, I would justify and preserve their love for me, and keep us intact as a unit. Wasn’t that what motivated Marlow to lie to Kurtz’s fiancée back in Europe at the end of the novella—to preserve her, and the domestic ideal she represented, from a revelation that would have been “too dark altogether”? My self-hatred drove me to embrace Marlow’s misogyny: “The women…are out of it—should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.” Wasn’t I similarly trying to keep the girl inside me “out of it”?
Conrad also stands out from his contemporaries by emphasizing the dangers inherent in the business of imperialism for the imperialists themselves. He acknowledged that the boots on the ground in the colonies were often ill-prepared and/or desperate men who, though wielding enormous power, risked falling prey to disease and to the toxic feelings provoked by the alien spaces they’d been thrust into. In his telling, the imperial encounter was an endurance test in which the discipline most needed was not valor or decisiveness, but restraint: the capacity to withstand “the fascination of the abomination…the powerless disgust…the hate.” To be able to restrain one’s self from surrendering to these feelings required one to be “man enough to face the darkness,” to be able to walk right up to “the edge” and then “draw back [one’s] hesitating foot.”
The ideal of restraint confirmed me in my decision not to give in to my suicidal ideations, no matter how hard things got. If I had to give the girl inside me occasional expression, I would be “man enough to face” the accompanying shame and self-loathing. I had nothing beyond a vague hope that I might at some point come to some sort of final resolution, whether finding a way to embrace her more affirmingly or (part of me fervently wished) murdering her once and for all. My decision was as much an act of will as of faith, a declaration that however often I might be drawn to this ultimate line, I would have the strength not to cross it.
Heart of Darkness has often been criticized for its prosodic excesses. One notable critique was leveled by Chinua Achebe in his 1975 essay, “An Image of Africa.” Achebe takes Conrad to task for what he calls the novella’s “steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic repetition.” This stylistic feature, he argues, enables Conrad to be a “purveyor of comforting myths” where Africa and its peoples are concerned by “inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers,” and thereby blunting the impact of what he’s describing. Put another way, Conrad is guilty of ideological mystification: the coddling he provides his readers is the assurance that the dehumanizing conditions in the Congo are ultimately not the effects of the Belgian King Leopold’s inhumane, exploitative economic and political system, but simply the way of things on the “dark continent.”
If Heart of Darkness’s fiercely normative treatment of gender answered a specific desire to keep a disavowed part of myself in check, the novella also entered my life at a time when my thinking about literature was undergoing a radical transformation. Before college, I felt a vague drive to be a writer, but struggled to find a reason to write and read outside the context of my schoolwork. My New-Critical oriented studies as an English major supplied that reason in the form of an almost religious belief in the power of literature, and art more generally, to effect change. As a writer, I would renew and even explicate others’ experiences of the things around them by flooding the world around me with light. This newfound zeal for art’s transformative powers, however, collided with my ongoing gender struggles, which disinclined me from probing into anything too much, since I feared that doing so would kickstart an analogous process inside myself, and let loose all the stuff I was working so hard to keep penned.
These conflicting desires generated another, more elaborate mechanism for coping with my repressed feelings. This mechanism was a variant of Conradian mystification, one that used literature’s transformative capacity in the more duplicitous form I recognized (if unconsciously) in his portrayal of Africa. I would snare my repressed feelings when they emerged and aestheticize them by detaching them from their source, contemplating them in isolation, agog, and clothing them in whatever images they suggested.
This seemed like a workable accommodation at the time. Art elevated my merely personal challenges into something more universal, but more to the point, it enabled me to get into the weeds of my life in a way that gave me some control over what I encountered. In particular, I could avoid the thing I feared most: a naked confrontation with myself. I had no doubts about the outcome of such a confrontation because I saw it mirrored in Kurtz’s fate. In the terms of Conradian restraint, I would find myself in a staredown with myself only if, like Kurtz, I first succumbed to the infernal temptations inside me—the temptations to be myself. The “appalling face” of the “truth” I would glimpse would in my case be no vague “image” or “vision,” but the face of the girl inside me. However, the effect of seeing it, her, as it was for Kurtz, would somehow be lethal, not liberating.
Though Kurtz’s Mistress remains silent throughout the balletic standoff that Marlow describes, she’s given a voice once she exits. Or rather, she’s afforded a muffled echo. After confessing his murderous fantasy to Marlow, Kurtz’s Russian acolyte provides a brief backstory for his response:
I have been risking my life every day for the last fortnight to keep her out of the house. She got in one day and kicked up a row about those miserable rags I picked up in the storeroom to mend my clothes with. I wasn’t decent. At least it must have been that, for she talked like a fury to Kurtz for an hour, pointing at me now and then. I don’t understand the dialect of this tribe.
She “kicked up a row…talked like a fury.” It’s not much. The fact that the Russian doesn’t “understand [her] dialect” (a “technically erroneous,” racist classification, Achebe notes) means that we have nothing more than his educated guess about what she said, and his characterization of her speaking “like a fury” thrusts her again into the mythological realm. We know what the Russian says, too, only through Marlow. Readers thus hear the Mistress’ voice at a few degrees of remove, ensuring that its menacing otherness is securely penned.
Given the bramble of accommodation and avoidance I inhabited, it’s little wonder that even with my new sense of mission, I continued to struggle to find my voice. My output in the years immediately following college was mostly limited to some desiccated verse. As a college relationship blossomed into my first marriage, my ambition grew with my confidence, and I tried my hand at a couple of novels. The first was a drab autobiographical slog, but the second was more lively and expressly fictional. Telling the story of Arthur, the love child of a Haight-Ashbury era fling who drives east to find their father, this second novel proved to be my most sustained attempt at employing my Conradian mystifying mechanism. The form this mechanism assumed was of a clumsy symbolic edifice that provided my repressed feelings cover to emerge and find (mostly unconscious) expression. Looking back at this youthful effort, I see these feelings being worked out primarily in three of my novel’s female characters, whose overlapping roles reflected the splintering of my repressed identity, and in the character of Arthur, in whom I recognize my younger self wrestling with my gender variance.
The foil to the character of the Mistress in Heart of Darkness is Kurtz’s fiancée, referred to as his “Intended.” Conrad’s capitalization of the word elevates her above her Congolese counterpart (who is never even called a “mistress”), but also points to her similar role in the novella as a symbol—specifically, an emblem for the “vast,” “immense” “plans” Kurtz is credited with having. If the two are differentiated along stereotypical racial lines, their symbolic roles in relation to Kurtz assume a deeper complementarity in the context of the novella’s fiercely gendered world.
The most striking iteration of this complementarity is that if the Intended is elevated above the Mistress because of her race, she is at the same time infantilized as “the girl.” It’s the Mistress who is a “woman.” This distinction points to the novella’s deeply sexist assumptions about female sexuality and female agency more generally, the upshot of which is that Europe, i.e., civilization itself, is incompatible with women. As such, the Black feminine arguably functions alongside and overlaid on race as a sort of uber-Other in Heart of Darkness. It is a broad category encompassing all the temptations and other infernal forces (viz. disease) that cause men to slough off the duties inherent in their maleness and slide into the sinkhole of sensuality, sloth, death. The serpentine, “infernal” Congo River serves as the primary symbolic boundary in the novella between the civilized male world and this female otherworld. Any man who crosses that boundary, as Kurtz does, risks a similarly catastrophic and inexorable descent into a Tartarus of infamy and disease, and in the end a “muddy hole” downstream.
The thing I was perhaps most struck by when I revisited my novel was how deeply in thrall I was to Conradian restraint, and the cisnormative views of gender that informed it. The pivotal scene in this regard occurs near the end of the novel when Arthur drives to their father’s house. As they watch their father through a window and compare his appearance with their reflection, I see my younger self grappling with my gender dysphoria. And in the profound flash of self-realization that Arthur experiences soon after—a sudden influx of the feminine that isn’t lethal, but rather a liberating glimpse of congruence—I see them, myself, toeing Marlow’s “edge,” poised to step over it and embrace who I was. But I couldn’t then summon the courage to take that step even in a fictional context. To do so, I remained convinced, would invite destitution, despair, and death. With that refusal, what choice did I have but to kill my protagonist, and push the menacing truth my artistic explorations had loosed back down deep inside me?
It would take the better part of two decades, a stalled academic career, and a failed second marriage before I resolved to be myself. This paralysis was the most damaging effect of Heart of Darkness’s viral grip on me, and it points to one of the great tragedies of the period in and for which the novella was written: the inability or unwillingness of men like Conrad to imagine the breach of gender, racial, and cultural lines in any more affirming light.
From Maine, Anastasia Walker is an essayist, poet, and scholar living in Pittsburgh. Her essays have appeared in Shenandoah and Fourth Genre. Her first book of poetry, The Girl Who Wasn’t and Is, was published in February 2022. She has blogged on politics, social media, and LGBTQ+ issues for both Huffington Post and Medium. She’s a passionate amateur photographer and musicologist, and loves going for long walks and swimming in the ocean. Her blog: https://anastasiaswalker.blogspot.com/.