18 June 2015

Queering Heart of Darkness

Reading Heart of Darkness from a Queer Theory perspective, it is remarkably easy to see the homo-erotic undertones of the story. First, the intense relationship (the fantasy relationship?) between Marlow and Kurtz suggests a level of obsession more common in a sexual relationship than mere friendship. Marlow even refers to Kurtz as “an enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle” (Conrad 42). It is not only Marlow who is obsessed with Kurtz either.

The relationship between Kurtz and the Russian harlequin is described as: “They had come together unavoidably, like two ships becalmed near each other, and lay rubbing sides at last” (Conrad 55). This is not exactly suggestive of a male-male friendship. When this same harlequin tells Marlow that he and Kurtz had stayed up all night talking in part of love, Marlow replies: “’Ah, he talked to you of love!’ I said much amused. ‘It isn’t what you think,’ he cried almost passionately. ‘It was in general. He made me see things – things’” (Conrad 55). What is it Marlow is thinking? Why is he much amused? And what things did Kurtz make the harlequin see?

Second, the concept of boundary crossing, so important to Lesbian/gay criticism is a major theme of Heart of Darkness. As Andrew Michael Roberts claims in [Masculinity, Modernity, and Homosexual Desire], “Kurtz’s final words “The horror! The horror!” is the result of his having gone beyond various notional boundaries…of his having made that last stride…stepped over the edge” (456).

Finally, the vague descriptions of Kurtz’s actions are strongly sexual in nature and Marlow’s fascination, both with Kurtz and these actions, seems telling. The terms used to describe the unspecified darkness in the text are, as Sedgwick points out, associated with “a homophobic discourse which treats same-sex desire as something that cannot be spoken of”, also known as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ (Roberts 457).  Kurtz actions are never made clear, but assuming they are related to racism, oppression, etc. is not sufficient. After all, the horrific mistreatment of the native population, cannibalism, torture and murder, all of these are dealt with directly in the text; so what is Kurtz doing that is so unspeakable?

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.

Roberts, Andrew Michael. [Masculinity, Modernity, and Homosexual Desire]. Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 455-462. Print.


  1. I can't remember what you said when you first announced your themed reading and I'm too lazy to go back and look--are you teaching this with your students? Discussing this as an undergrad would have been SO MUCH more interesting through these lenses. You have me curious to re-read this one!

  2. oh. huh. I don't think I will post my review... I missed a lot, I think.


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