Savage and Superb:The Native Woman at Kurtz's Station
by Shasta Turner
A close reading is a paper (usually 4 to 5 pages long, but sometimes longer) on a short poem or an excerpt from a longer poem or prose work.
"... And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.
'She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witchmen, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was 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.'"1
Joseph Conrad, via his narrator Marlow, introduces the anonymous native woman at Kurtz's camp as a "wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman" (99). This woman distinguishes herself from the other "primitives" at Kurtz's camp by stepping out of a mass of "dark human shapes" that represent natives at the "gloomy border of the forest" (98).2Despite her spatial distance from the indistinct human mass with which Marlow contrasts her, she retains an abstruse and "apparitional" quality; she appears to Marlow as both feral and attractive, as bodily yet otherworldly.
This paper argues that the woman's ambiguous presentation in Conrad's text illuminates a complex intersection of "savage" and "civilized" spheres as Marlow portrays them. She is associated by virtue of her bronze ornamentation and by her birth with Marlow's description of the natives' skin color: to him, the "savages" resemble "dark and glittering bronze" (97). At the same time, the lavish richness of her dress and jewels bespeak an alliance (most likely as a mistress) with Kurtz, whose power to acquire and distribute goods in the station is absolute. In just as powerful a manner, however, Marlow associates the woman with the "sorrowful land," the "immense wilderness" of the earth itself. These various associations generate profound alienation and silence—"wild sorrow" and "dumb pain" (99)—that manifest themselves in the richly descriptive narrative style with which Conrad constructs Marlow's speech.
The passage begins by cataloguing the woman's clothing and bearing in language that indicates refinement and savagery, pride and defensiveness. Each clause builds with adverbs and adjectives that layer one image upon another. This grammatical layering enhances the narrative complexity of the woman's portrayal. She walks "with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments" (99). Her clothing is both fine and exotic with its stripes and fringe; indeed, the "fringe" that adorns the borders of her garments hints at her own association with a border state between the spheres of "primitivity" and "civilization." The "measured steps" of her gait indicate a "proudly" asserted sense of self-control. The "slight jingle" that results from the movement of her bangles accompanies a "flash of barbarous ornaments" and accouterments suggestive of a soldier or warrior's armor: "She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek."
The woman's "helmet" of hair, her brass leggings, and her "wire gauntlets" create an unmistakable air of challenge. Furthermore, the "crimson spot on her tawny cheek" implies arousal of spirit, determination, or passion. This aspect of her appearance stands out in this passage as one of only three references to characteristics of her body itself. Marlow relates a good deal of information about the woman's manner of dress and movement. However, beyond this we learn only that she has a flushed cheek, that she is "wild-eyed," and that her hair, as previously mentioned, resembles a helmet. Marlow's focus on the armor-like quality of the woman's clothing emphasizes the sense in which the style of her apparel may indicate an attempt to seize power through self-protection and resistance. The woman has accepted the material goods she has been allowed by Kurtz, but fortifies herself against the instability of her position on the "fringes" of both native society and of Kurtz's desmesne.
The narrator elucidates the connection between the woman's "wild" attractiveness and her material ornamentation by associating her with objects of trade and with Kurtz's exploits: "[she had] innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, gifts of witchmen, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her." On the one hand, the fact that she appropriates these commodities for decorative purposes suggests that she possesses a certain amount of influence over Kurtz's distribution of goods at the station. This places her in a position of contrast with the other natives and with Kurtz's Russian devotee, who secures "miserable rags" from the storeroom only to meet with the woman's vociferous complaint. On the other hand, her control is subject to the ebb and tide of Kurtz's whims, and thus enjoys a strictly limited scope. Kurtz has displayed a talent for procuring the "value of... elephant tusks" through his unscrupulous seizure of ivory; the likelihood that Kurtz has also managed to "procure" the native woman as a sexual partner is high. However, while she exhibits a degree of sway in the management of goods at the station, she must assume a commodified position in order to do so.
The woman's position is thus powerful in one sense and subordinate in another. Whether or not she shares a sexual relationship with Kurtz, she has obtained valuables by becoming an object of his attentions. Yet she will never achieve the "civilized" status of Kurtz's "Intended," nor does she have the power to impel Kurtz to remain at the station when company representatives arrive to remove him. The woman's impotence in the face of these circumstances helps further explain the armor-like quality of her hair, leggings, and gauntlets. The woman recognizes the instability of her position as a "savage" who is favored by a European imperialist; she moves through the spheres of both the subjugated "primitive" and the dominating "conqueror," but attempts to protect herself against the deleterious effects of both extremes.
The end of the passage adds an additional layer of complexity to the woman's description. Marlow acknowledges the ambiguity of the woman's state as both "savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent" by implying that the woman's failure to fit neatly into a "savage" or a "civilized" mold serves as one source of her attractiveness for him. Her savagery is "superb" precisely because she does not melt into the "mass of dark human shapes" that Marlow uses to characterize the presence of other natives. The force of will that she exhibits with her "crimson" flush and her proud bearing render her "magnificent." However, while Marlow admiringly differentiates the woman from her fellow "primitives," ultimately she symbolizes the land itself. Her plight parallels that of the dark woods surrounding Kurtz’s encampment:
...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.
In this narrative shift, the body of the woman, which has been described primarily in terms of its apparel, movement, and "apparition"-like quality up to this point, becomes a symbol of the "colossal body" of the land. While Marlow represents the woman as otherworldly, he describes the land as a "fecund and mysterious life" able to gaze upon her in "pensive" reflection. The anonymous woman thus embodies a nameless force that pervades Conrad's novel; she is a semblance of the "tenebrous and passionate soul" of a "mysterious life." Her alliance with this force exposes an intersection of boundaries between the natives, Kurtz's version of "civilization," and the "immense wilderness" of her home. Ultimately, however, her location in this intersection proves too tenuous: the woman, a symbol of the passion and alienation that characterize the "sorrowful land" of Africa, finally passes out of Marlow's vision and his narrative to fade into the "dusk of the thickets" (100).
From Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Robert Hampson, ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 99. All quotes are from this passage unless otherwise indicated. [back]
Of course, Marlow's description of the natives as a conglomeration of “dark human shapes” is problematic in that it serves a de-individualizing, de-humanizing function. While this is certainly worth pointing out in the text, a thorough explication of how Marlow's narrative subjectivity is constructed throughout the text is a complex project that lies beyond the scope of this paper. [back]