Gender in the Jungle: The Voyage Out as a Response
to Heart of Darkness
Although Virginia Woolf never mentions Heart of Darkness
in her essays on Joseph Conrad (Neuman 57), we nevertheless find
echoes of the novella, as Shirley Neuman points out, in a number
of Woolf's works, including Mrs. Dalloway and Between
the Acts. But nowhere do we find stronger echoes than in
Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out, published in March
1915. As Neuman observes, "like Heart of Darkness,
it opens with an outgoing ship in the Thames estuary with London,
its lights emblematic of civilization, behind it; its protagonist
voyages against an ocean (seeing signs of the military might
of nations along the way) to a jungle town or station'
that is a microcosm of the society left behind, then proceeds
upriver, through silence, to encounter disease and death"
(62). Despite these many parallels, Woolf works to re-write Conrad
in a sense by bringing the women of The Voyage Out into
the jungle and thus into a traditionally masculine sphere. In
doing so, she draws women out of the "beautiful world of
their own" (64) to which Conrad's Marlow wishes to consign
them, enabling her to trace, in the character of Rachel Vinrace,
the struggle for female empowerment and self-determination.
Valerie Sedlak and Rita Bode offer intriguing feminist readings
of Heart of Darkness. While acknowledging that the "fictive
world of Heart of Darkness belongs to men, nineteenth-century,
imperialistic, European men," Sedlak, for example, says
that "Conrad's women do display a separate consciousness"
(443). Bode takes this contention a step further, postulating
that Heart of Darkness depicts a "powerful female
network, which frequently takes charge and assumes control of
the novella's events" (20). In both the narrator's and Marlow's
visions, of course, this would not seem to be the case. As the
novella opens, the narrator depicts the Thames as a masculine
sphere "crowded with memories of men and ships it has borne
to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea" (18).
It is a place recalling the "dreams of men, the seed of
commonwealths, the germ of empires" (19). Although these
ships of history plundered for the glory of the "Queen's
highness," when that female figure meets the ship as it
docks along the shore, it "thus pass[es] out of the gigantic
tale" (19) of masculine adventure and glory and into another
sphereone which presumably permits the presence of women.
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