Review by: Rachel Levin
By: Patricia A. Crouch

January 2002

 

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 sphere–one which presumably permits the presence of women.

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