Joseph Conrad 1857–-1924
(Born Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) Polish-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides criticism on Conrad's works from 1986 through 2002. See also The Secret Sharer Criticism.
Considered one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, Conrad is also esteemed as a preeminent writer of short fiction. Two works in particular, the novella Heart of Darkness (1902) and the short story “The Secret Sharer,” have been proclaimed as the works of a consummate literary artist and an entertaining storyteller. In these and other stories Conrad employed an introspective narrator to focus attention on the teller as well as the tale. Like many of his novels, Conrad's short fiction deals with several recurring themes: the ambiguity of good and evil, the corruption of moral ideals, and the human propensity of self-deception.
Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in Berdiczew, Russia, a city that is now located in Poland. He was exiled with his parents to northern Russia in 1863, following his parents' participation in the Polish independence movement. After the deaths of his parents in 1868, Conrad lived in the homes of relatives, where he was often ill and received sporadic schooling. At sixteen, Conrad pursued a career as a seaman, sailing to Martinique and the West Indies. Although he knew very little English at the time, he joined the British merchant marines in 1878. During his ten years of service, he became a naturalized British citizen, traveled to Africa, Australia, India, and the Orient, rose to the rank of captain, and mastered the English language. Poor health, however, forced Conrad to retire from the merchant marines. In 1894 he began a career as a writer, basing much of his work on his experience as a seaman. He wrote much of his first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895), while he was still in the service. Conrad struggled for the rest of his life to earn a living as a writer. In addition to his financial difficulties, he found writing in English to be a slow and agonizing ordeal, and many critics have noted the effects upon his work of such lifelong conditions as neurasthenia and fear of inadequacy. Conrad suffered a heart attack and died in his home in Kent, England, in 1924.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Critics generally divide Conrad's literary career into two periods: works written before or during 1912 and those written after 1912. Works of the first period include Conrad's widely acclaimed stories of the sea, most prominently “Youth,” “Typhoon,” “The End of the Tether,” “The Secret Sharer,” as well as the novella Heart of Darkness. Stories of the second period are less highly regarded and are typified by such romantic melodramas as “Because of the Dollars,” “The Planter of Malata,” “The Tale,” and “The Warrior's Soul.” Typical of the early works, Heart of Darkness is based in part on Conrad's personal experiences. The novella tells the story of Marlow—who also appears in Lord Jim (1900) and “Youth”—and his journey up the Congo River to relieve Kurtz, the most successful trader in ivory working for the Belgian government. Prior to meeting Kurtz, Marlow admires the trader and is excited at the prospect of their encounter. When Marlow finally meets him, he is repulsed by Kurtz's barbarism, subjugation of African peoples, and thirst for power. Upon Kurtz's death, Marlow realizes that the heart of darkness—the human potential for evil and savagery—lies within him as well.
Whereas in Heart of Darkness Conrad focused on Marlow's intensified awareness of evil in human nature through his identification with Kurtz, Conrad used the idea of a “double” in “The Secret Sharer” to portray the protagonist's growth toward self-knowledge. “The Secret Sharer” is the account of a young captain who harbors a criminal on his ship while at sea. The captain aids in the escape of Leggatt, a man wanted for murder, because he believes him to be his ideal self, his “secret sharer of life.” Some critics have contended, however, that Leggatt is far from any human ideal. Instead, they argue, he displays cowardice, murderous instincts, and irrationality and represents the evil in the captain and in humankind. Conrad's ambiguous portrayal of characters has inspired extensive critical debate and stems from his goal as a writer to present the complexities of events and individuals without pretense of explanation.
While popular with readers of the time, Conrad's works written after 1912—including the novels Chance (1913), Victory (1915), and The Shadow-Line (1917) and the short story collections Tales of Hearsay (1925) and The Sisters (1928)—are considered inferior to his earlier writings. In such stories as “Because of the Dollars,” “The Planter of Malata,” and “The Warrior's Soul,” Conrad abandoned complex narratives and characterizations and focused instead on romance, violence, and sentiment. “The Planter of Malata,” for example, tells the story of Geoffrey Renouard, a young man in love with Felicia Moorsam, who is engaged to another man. Wanting to keep Felicia close to him, Geoffrey deceives her into sailing away to the remote island of Malata. When Felicia learns of Geoffrey's duplicity, she scorns him, and a brokenhearted Geoffrey kills himself.
Most critics affirm that the superiority of Conrad's earlier stories can be attributed to their basis in his own life, particularly his experiences at sea and his private struggle with questions of morality, loyalty, and human fallibility. Some have commented that toward the end of his career, Conrad was more concerned with selling books than in creating works of literature. Moreover, critics contend that in his later works, Conrad's examination of the ambiguity of good and evil is generally considered too stylized and heavy-handed. His most highly regarded works, however, are acknowledged as masterpieces of English literature and continue to generate significant critical commentary. Critics regard him as a profound influence on several prominent twentieth-century writers, and many of his works have been adapted for the theater and film.
Tales of Unrest 1898
*Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories 1902
Typhoon, and Other Stories 1903
A Set of Six 1908
†‘Twixt Land and Sea 1912
Within the Tides 1915
Tales of Hearsay 1925
The Sisters 1928
The Complete Short Stories of Joseph Conrad 1933
Almayer's Folly (novel) 1895
An Outcast of the Islands (novel) 1896
The Children of the Sea (novel) 1897; also published as The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 1898
Lord Jim (novel) 1900
The Inheritors [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1901
Romance [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1903
Nostromo (novel) 1904
One Day More (drama) 1904
The Mirror of the Sea (autobiography) 1906
The Secret Agent (novel) 1907
Some Reminiscences (autobiography) 1908; also published as A Personal Record, 1912
Under Western Eyes (novel) 1911
Chance (novel) 1913
Victory (novel) 1915
The Arrow of Gold (novel)...
(The entire section is 226 words.)
SOURCE: McLauchlan, Juliet. “Conrad's Heart of Emptiness: ‘The Planter of Malata.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies XVIII, no. 3 (1986): 180-92.
[In the following essay, McLauchlan urges a reassessment of “The Planter of Malata,” perceiving the story to be more complex and successful than critics believe.]
Conrad himself called “The Planter of Malata” “a nearly successful attempt at doing a very difficult thing which I would have liked to have made as perfect as lay in my power.”1 I wish to urge a re-assessment of this story, starting with an attempt to see just what sort of “very difficult thing” is involved, then considering how “successful” the story may be.
It is at once evident that the story embodies several of the most characteristic and interesting of those Conradian preoccupations which are apparent throughout his major fiction: the central figure is a solitary, a man of action and of some achievement; his story ends with a suicide as inevitable (though for different reasons) as is Decoud's or Heyst's; the theme is the dangerous, ultimately destructive, power of illusion. Such analysis is basic, but tells us nothing of the value of the story, which may still be inferior, novelettish, even worthless. In fact, both thematically and artistically, “The Planter of Malata” is finer and more interesting than has so far been...
(The entire section is 5473 words.)
SOURCE: Facknitz, Mark A. R. “Cryptic Allusions and the Moral of the Story: The Case of Joseph Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer’.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 17, no. 1 (winter 1987): 115-30.
[In the following essay, Facknitz investigates references to the Old Testament in Conrad's “The Secret Sharer.”]
There is little theoretical work on allusion, and what there is tends to focus on obvious types—quotation, paraphrase, direct reference—none of which adequately describe Conrad's complex and generally cryptic use of Biblical allusions in “The Secret Sharer.” Indeed, so ‘missable’ are some of his allusions that in the huge commentary on the story only a few essays pay more than passing attention to allusions. Louis Leiter and Terry Otten explored references to the mark of Cain and the story of Jonah.1 Paul Bidwell, following Leiter, illustrated the parallels between the story and parts of Exodus, from the beginning, when the captain stares out at the rushes from which Leggatt emerges, to the end, when Leggatt strikes out for a “promised land” on the other side of the wilderness.2 There are many connections, subtle and widespread, between the story and a large and fundamentally Hebraic tradition as represented in particular by the five books of Moses, Jonah, and Isaiah. While critical discussion has centered on whether “The Secret Sharer” is a...
(The entire section is 8034 words.)
SOURCE: D'Elia, Gaetano. “Let Us Make Tales, Not Love: Conrad's ‘The Tale.’” The Conradian 12, no. 1 (1987): 50-8.
[In the following essay, D'Elia explores the relationship between love and war in “The Tale.”]
After Napoleon, a century later, England was threatened by another Great War. However, the two Great Wars, as Conrad defines them in “The Dover Patrol” (1921) were very different in their spiritual and moral consequences. Napoleon's threat “ran its course, as momentous, if less ruthless, than the deadly struggle in which the Dover Patrol has played its part. When it ended it left the world as weary, indeed, as it is today, but much less unsettled in its thoughts and emotions about the spiritual value of its monstrous experience. Men's ideas were simpler then, their sentiments less complex”.1
This is the reason why General D'Hubert does not draw any distinctions between the pleasure which can be got out of love or war. After Napoleon's and Feraud's ultimate defeats he runs to meet his fiancée Adèle “with as much pleasurable excitement as he would have found in walking up to a battery vomiting death, fire, and smoke”.2 A century afterwards this blend of love and war will be impossible: when in “The Tale” the Commanding Officer has finished narrating his dreadful war experience to his mistress (who then attempts to exonerate him with...
(The entire section is 4308 words.)
SOURCE: Kramer, Dale. “Conrad's Experiments with Language and Narrative in ‘The Return’.” Studies in Short Fiction 25, no. 1 (winter 1988): 1-11.
[In the following essay, Kramer discusses Conrad's story “The Return” as a work of social satire.]
In “The Return” Joseph Conrad attempted to portray a social context with which he was unfamiliar—that of the London middle-class professional—and to develop within that scene the universality of the themes he had handled, and was to handle in the future, with confidence and stylistic density in novels placed in the Malayan forests and on ships of the merchant marine. He develops these themes in a style of detachment and irony, giving sympathy to neither the man nor the wife of the story, who are alienated from each other but need each other not only as a public declaration of their conventionality but also as a possible source of the honest emotion they desperately need but are never ready at the same time to accept.
The forces impelling Conrad to the story may have stemmed from his recent marriage, about which he was of at least two (and probably uncountable) minds, and the inspiration of a recent meeting with Henry James, the only writer Conrad ever called “Master.” The result of these efforts, hopes, and influences is the most ignored—and when noticed the most sternly condemned—of Conrad's works (“one of the worst...
(The entire section is 5450 words.)
SOURCE: Epstein, Hugh. “‘Where He Is Not Wanted’: Impression and Articulation in ‘The Idiots’ and ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 23, no. 3 (1991): 217-32.
[In the following essay, Epstein considers the ways in which writing conveys sensory experience in “The Idiots” and “Amy Foster.”]
“A writing may be lost; a lie may be written; but what the eye has seen is truth and remains in the mind.”
Arsat's passionate declaration in “The Lagoon” is compelling in its simple testimony to the enduring truthfulness of impressions. And we all know that Conrad conceived of his task in writing as “before all, to make you see.” But what happens when impressions are, in fact writing? This article will consider how writing conveys sensory experience in two of Conrad's stories of “the bewildered, the simple, and the voiceless”;1 and in the way in which his use of inarticulate protagonists is associated with a peculiarly intense apprehension of the indifference which greets human aspirations. The focus will be upon the status and achievement of language in a world which is known to our senses but conceived of in hope, dream, and illusion.
Conrad's early writing is often called impressionistic because it takes the “eloquence of...
(The entire section is 7655 words.)
SOURCE: Stape, J. H. “Conrad's ‘Unreal City’: Singapore in ‘The End of the Tether.’” In Conrad's Cities: Essays for Hans van Marle, edited by Gene M. Moore, pp. 85-96. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992.
[In the following essay, Stape identifies the unnamed city in “The End of the Tether” as Singapore and determines the influence of the city on Conrad's story.]
While unnamed in “The End of the Tether,” the Sofala's port of registry is undoubtedly late nineteenth-century Singapore, recreated with “remarkable fidelity,” as Norman Sherry rightly asserts in his study of the story's topography.1 But more than simply a feat of memory in an effort to support the realist programme of providing convincing local colour, the port city's re-creation functions structurally and thematically to generate the story's relentlessly ironic texture. John Masefield, who reviewed Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories, has not been alone in misconstruing the tale's backdrop as mere “picturesqueness.”2
Singapore's recent past, its development from jungle outpost to colonial metropolis, operates first as a symbolic contrast to Captain Whalley's own fortunes. On the most obvious level, the city has flourished and prospered while he has become impoverished, the loser in the harsh realities of economic competition and thus a victim of circumstance rather than...
(The entire section is 4730 words.)
SOURCE: Bonney, William. “Contextualizing and Comprehending Joseph Conrad's ‘The Return’.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 77-90.
[In the following essay, Bonney argues that Conrad's story “The Return” is “a quality work of art.”]
There is nothing behind the curtain other than that which is in front of it.
—G. W. F. Hegel
“It's death to come back. There's been overmuch of coming back of late. …”
—Abel Magwitch (Great Expectations)
There are few works by Joseph Conrad that have been so consistently neglected, if not hastily condemned, as the short story “The Return.”1 This is unfortunate, because if this tale is experienced within appropriate conceptual and technical contexts, it proves to be a quality work of art. Conrad's fiction consistently generates a context of anxious yearning for reassurance, if not certitudes, in a cosmos embodying primarily recalcitrant transformations—“the immensity of … vague and burning desire” (NN 134),2 “all mankind longing for what cannot be attained” (Tales of Unrest 179). Willems's thoughts are typical:
Round him ceaselessly there went on without a sound them ad turmoil. … He wanted to...
(The entire section is 5694 words.)
SOURCE: Johnson, A. James M. “Into Africa: ‘The Black Savages and the White Slaves’ in Joseph Conrad's ‘An Outpost of Progress’.” English Language Notes 33, no. 4 (June 1996): 62-71.
[In the following essay, Johnson examines the representation of race in “An Outpost of Progress.”]
Recent currents in critical inquiry have tended to liberate literary works from the limitations of canonical approaches. As a result it is now possible to read texts traditionally received as being subversive in a more complex manner. Joseph Conrad's “An Outpost of Progress” is a case in point. This short story, which V.S. Naipaul argues is “the finest thing Conrad wrote,”1 and which Conrad himself considered his “best story,”2 is widely known as a powerful critique of European culture, yet Conrad employs racially charged representations to dramatize his critique, and this latter fact has not received adequate attention. When the issue of racism is acknowledged as a legitimate critical concern, “An Outpost of Progress” loses its clearly interrogative status and appears to occupy a much more problematic position. Indeed, what emerges is a text that is situated at an ideological crossroads: firmly in the grasp of dominant configurations even while enacting a subversive assault.
“An Outpost of Progress” is set at a remote trading station in the Congo,...
(The entire section is 3238 words.)
SOURCE: Hooper, Myrtle. “‘Oh, I Hope He Won't Talk’1: Narrative and Silence in ‘Amy Foster.’” The Conradian 21, no. 2 (autumn 1996): 51-64.
[In the following essay, Hooper explores the function of the frame narrator and the role of silence in “Amy Foster.”]
On first reading “Amy Foster” I found it puzzling that Conrad had chosen to name his story after ‘the woman’ and not ‘the man’, since so much of his imaginative interest seemed to be vested in the history of Yanko Gooral, alien washed up on the shores of English civilisation. In this respect, the story offers an interesting counterpoint to the situation in Heart of Darkness, in which an English narrator recounts his story of alien experiences on an English ship riding at anchor on an English river. Of course, it is expressive of both Conrad's alienation and his irony that the experiences of English civilisation should be as damaging to the alien castaway as the experiences of Kurtz were to him who ventured into the ‘primitive interior’ of African ‘darkness’. In another respect, the narrative structure of both tales is quite similar, since in both we encounter named narrators whose narratives are in turn framed by the anonymous listeners who hear their stories. There has been a fair amount of speculation about the functions of the frame narrator in Heart of Darkness: in part it will be a...
(The entire section is 5392 words.)
SOURCE: Kerr, Douglas. “Conrad and the ‘Three Ages of Man’: ‘Youth,’ The Shadow-Line, ‘The End of the Tether’.” The Conradian 23, no. 2 (autumn 1998): 27-44.
[In the following essay, Kerr elucidates the themes of age and life transition in three of Conrad's stories.]
The topos of the three ages of mankind provides a recurring subject in classical painting, whether the three figures are represented together in a shared allegorical landscape, as perhaps most famously by Titian in The Three Ages of Man, or more realistically, as in another Titian masterpiece, the portrait of three musicians entitled The Concert.1 This essay will take three tales by Conrad and arrange them into an intertextual triptych so as to allow Conrad's treatment of this old theme to emerge. The tales in question are “Youth” (1898), The Shadow-Line (1917), and “The End of the Tether” (1902). Of course these are not Conrad's only studies of youth, maturity, and old age. They were not written as companion pieces (“Youth” and “The End of the Tether” were published together with Heart of Darkness in 1902 in Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories). What is more, in sequencing them as the three ages their order of composition is rearranged, since the middle term of the sequence, The Shadow-Line, was written some fourteen years later than...
(The entire section is 7451 words.)
SOURCE: Kingsbury, Celia M. “‘Infinities of Absolution’: Reason, Rumor, and Duty in Joseph Conrad's ‘The Tale’.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 3 (fall 1998): 715-29.
[In the following essay, Kingsbury asserts that Conrad's story “The Tale” explores the uncertainties and moral contradictions of war.]
In “Autocracy and War” Joseph Conrad writes: “It seems that in [opposing] armies many men are driven beyond the bounds of sanity by the stress of moral and physical misery. Great numbers of soldiers and regimental officers go mad as if by way of protest against the peculiar sanity of a state of war …” (87). Of course, the war Conrad speaks of in this 1905 essay is the Russo-Japanese War, the mad soldiers, mostly Russian. And yet even a cursory examination of such works as Paul Fussell's seminal The Great War and Modern Memory reveals among soldiers of that war a debilitating “moral and physical misery,” and a highly “peculiar sanity.” As we shall see, Fussell, Samuel Hynes, and others report curious behavior on the part of combatants and civilians alike. Growing out of moral misery which arises when the rules governing human behavior are suspended and replaced by nationalistic sentimentality, irrational behavior becomes the norm. War fervor, heightened exponentially, becomes not merely a peculiar sanity, but a lack of sanity. Normally critical judgment falls prey to...
(The entire section is 5823 words.)
SOURCE: Carabine, Keith. “‘Gestures’ and ‘The Moral Satirical Idea’ in Conrad's ‘The Informer.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 31, no. 1 (spring 1999): 26-41.
[In the following essay, Carabine examines the relationship between form and idea in “The Informer.”]
In January, 1908, in response to Algernon Methuen's request for “a general definition of the stories” that he could use to advertise the forthcoming A Set of Six Conrad wrote:1
All the stories are stories of incident—action—not of analysis. All are dramatic in a measure but by no means of the gloomy sort. All, but two, draw their significance from the love interest—though of course they are not love stories in the conventional meaning. They are not studies—they touch no problem. They are just stories in which I've tried my best to be simply entertaining.
Conrad's “general definition” is full of embarrassed negations and qualifications precisely because he knows that these stories, like almost all those written since “Karain” (1897) manifest “my unconventional grouping and perspective, which are purely temperamental and wherein almost all my ‘art’ consists.”2 Thus he knows that his indirect narrative strategies—in marked contrast to popular...
(The entire section is 7328 words.)
SOURCE: Billy, Ted. “The Short Fiction: Tales of Unrest (1898), A Set of Six (1908), 'Twixt Land and Sea (1912), Within the Tides (1915), and Tales of Hearsay (1925).” In A Joseph Conrad Companion, edited by Leonard Orr and Ted Billy, pp. 281-304. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Billy provides an overview of the major thematic concerns and critical reception of Conrad's short stories.]
Although Conrad's critical reputation rests primarily on his five major novels (Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, and Victory) and two long tales (Heart of Darkness and The Shadow-Line), he also distinguished himself as a short-story writer. Among his seven volumes of short fiction are such frequently anthologized tales as “Youth,” “The Secret Sharer,” and “The Lagoon.” The fact that Lord Jim and Nostromo, two of his greatest novels, began as short stories suggests that Conrad seriously applied himself to the art form, though, in the course of his artistic career, he increasingly gave in to the temptation to compose potboilers to satisfy his ever-accelerating financial needs. This was largely in keeping with the decline in his artistic creativity in his later years, for, as in the case of his novels, his early short-story collections exhibit his best work. He sometimes wrote...
(The entire section is 11779 words.)
SOURCE: Kingsbury, Celia M. “‘The Novelty of Real Feelings’: Restraint and Duty in Conrad's ‘The Return.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 1 (spring 2000): 31-40.
[In the following essay, Kingsbury investigates the role of self-restraint in “The Return.”]
Alvan Hervey, protagonist of Conrad's 1897 story “The Return,” tells his estranged wife that “Self-restraint is everything in life.”1 And in much of Conrad's work, restraint is the key to personal decency and social stability. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow reminds us that Kurtz's lack of restraint functions as a primary factor in his downfall. But restraint itself becomes the key to Hervey's downfall. Crushed when he discovers that his wife of five years has almost left him for a poet and editor with large teeth, a “rank outsider” of “no class at all” (147-48), Hervey thinks only of maintaining appearances, a criticism Marlow levels at the manager who accompanies him on his search for Kurtz. Preserving appearances, Marlow tells us, is “his restraint.”2 Hervey, like the manager and unlike Marlow, misapplies the concept of restraint3 (74). He chooses and marries his wife without emotion because he believes emotion is not appropriate to his status. His wife's pedigree and bearing determine his choice. We are told that he “thought of her as a well-bred...
(The entire section is 4942 words.)
SOURCE: Shaffer, Brian W. “Swept from the Sea: Trauma and Otherness in Conrad's ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 3 (fall 2000): 163-76.
[In the following essay, Shaffer views “Amy Foster” as a story about the trauma of emigration and culture shock.]
“[Conrad] thought of civilized … life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.”1
When not entirely overlooked by scholars, Joseph Conrad's story “Amy Foster” (1901, 1903)2 has been treated either as a gloss on the author's marriage and his literary reception by English readers, or, in Albert Guerard's words, as “a generalized comment on the lonely, uncomprehended, absurd human destiny,” in which the castaway protagonist plays the role of an “Everyman.”3 What has not been adequately appreciated is the degree to which the story stands as a meditation on trauma generally4 and on the traumatic nature of emigration in particular, an experience dear to Conrad's heart. Indeed, the central event of the narrative, which occurs “off-camera”—the wreck of a German ship carrying Central European immigrants to America—stands as a metaphor for geographical, cultural, and linguistic displacement, for “the supreme...
(The entire section is 5645 words.)
SOURCE: Lutz, John. “Centaurs and Other Savages: Patriarchy, Hunger, and Fetishism in ‘Falk.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 3 (fall 2000): 177-93.
[In the following essay, Lutz contends that “Falk” illustrates Conrad's belief that under the competitive, ruthless capitalistic system, bourgeois class conventions are illusions and will inevitably break down into anarchy and savagery.]
—He was a born monopolist.1
Taking note of the thematic connection that Conrad draws between a culture's habits of cooking and eating and their moral/psychological condition, Tony Tanner suggests that the basic symbolic opposition in “Falk” consists of a contrast between the civilization, order and sanity represented by the bourgeois existence aboard the Diana and the savagery, disorder and irrationality signified by Falk's cannibalism on the Borgmester Dahl. Viewing the confrontation between the stable Hermann and the nomadic Falk as “the core situation [and] central paradigm”2 of the tale, Tanner notes the extent to which Conrad deploys the thematic opposition between savagery and civilization in order to disrupt the apparently clear boundary between these two realms. For Tanner, despite the initial antagonism between these two spheres of human activity, “all the main characters are involved...
(The entire section is 7458 words.)
SOURCE: Watson, Wallace S. “Misogyny and Homerotic Hints Feminized and Romanticized: Conrad's ‘Amy Foster’ and Kidron's Swept from the Sea.” In Literature/Film Quarterly, 29, no. 3 (2001): 179-95.
[In the following essay, Watson contrasts Conrad's story “Amy Foster” with the 1997 film adaptation Swept from the Sea.]
Beeban Kidron's 1997 film, Swept from the Sea (released as Amy Foster in England) is the third adaptation since 1974 of Joseph Conrad's short story, “Amy Foster,” a bleak tale of alienation, marital misunderstanding, and death set in rural Kent in the late nineteenth century.1 Written in less than two weeks in June 1901, this is one of Conrad's most pessimistic and misogynistic short stories.2 Its tragic themes have attracted some generalized appreciative commentary, but little notice has been taken of its stylistic shortcomings, particularly rhetorical overreaching. Many critics have speculated about the autobiographical implications of the story, particularly the suggestions of strong authorial identification with the main character—a central European exile in England whose wife deserts him just before his death—and the antipathy for women and marriage which are demonstrated here. Surprisingly, “Amy Foster” has not yet been brought into the recent discussion of possibly repressed homoeroticism in Conrad's fiction, in spite of its misogyny and the extreme sympathy and the sensuality with which the male protagonist is presented.
Kidron's 115-minute film is a distinctly woman-centered and romanticized version of Conrad's story. It is generally well acted and visually appealing. One of its more interesting aspects for students of literature and film is its cinematizing of the dramatized narration of the short story. This constitutes a major stratagem in Kidron's transformation of the gender implications of the tale, for the film's story-within-a-story is told not by one man to another, as in Conrad, but to a woman. That female listener makes explicit what the literary source only seems to imply: homoerotic desire on the part of the narrator for the young male protagonist of his tale. Moreover, the female listener in the film eventually inspires the narrator to become reconciled with the protagonist's widow, whom he has earlier harshly blamed for her husband's death. As a result, in the final scene he accepts the widow's transcendent vision of the love she had shared with the protagonist. Thus Kidron's film turns Conrad's depressing and misogynistic tale of female inadequacy and betrayal into a celebration of the transformational power of one woman's empathy and persuasive powers, and another's passionate love.3
Unfortunately, the interesting possibilities of this contemporary cinematic adaptation are pursued in utterly predictable fashion and are spoiled by sentimentality and melodramatic excess. Swept from the Sea fails to develop its distinctive interpretation in convincing or consistent fashion, and it is overwhelmed by ultra-romantic effects. As Peter Matthews writes, with only slight exaggeration, Kidron and co-writer Tim Willocks seem to have “feminized a recalcitrant male author by tapping his heretofore unsuspected potential as a bodice ripper.”
SYMPATHY AND ANTIPATHY IN THE MALE-TO-MALE DISCOURSE
The main narrator of both versions of the tale is a physician named Kennedy. He has developed an intense fascination for a lively and attractive young man from the Carpathian mountains of central Europe, Yanko (Little John) Goorall, who came ashore in Kent after an emigrant ship on which he was sailing to America was sunk during a storm. Yanko was badly treated by most of the natives of this rural area, who took his strange language and gestures for lunacy. But he was befriended by a servant-girl, Amy Foster, and they eventually married. Shortly after the birth of their son, Yanko suffered convulsions during a spell of fever. He started to rave in his native tongue and to behave so threateningly that Amy fled with the baby, leaving her husband to die. As he tells this story, Dr. Kennedy bitterly blames Amy for deserting Yanko in his hour of greatest need, and thereby probably causing his death.
In Conrad's double-framed story, Dr. Kennedy's narrative is spoken to a visiting male friend, a seaman, whose voice we hear initially. This story-telling strategy well illustrates what Scott McCracken has described as the sort of man-to-man “speech-act” that often marginalizes the female in Conrad's fiction (19). The main functions of the unnamed opening narrator of “Amy Foster” seem to be to provide flattering characterizations of the doctor, along with symbolic descriptions of the setting which are apparently intended to add resonance to his tale. This first narrator speaks, thus, of brown fields glowing in the sunset as if they “had sweated out in minute pearls of blood the toil of uncounted plowmen” (108). He praises the “penetrating power” of the mind of Doctor Kennedy, whom he identifies as a widely traveled former naval surgeon and writer of scientific papers on animal and plant specimens (106). In the second half of the story, this initial narrator appears only once, but at a critical juncture, to interject a heavily laden simile about the sea as the doctor looks out of a window and ponders the possibility that Yanko's death might have been caused by Amy's neglect (138).
When Kennedy and his friend first encounter Amy early in the story as the doctor is making rounds in his “dogcart,” the friend asks if she is his patient. Flicking the reins “absently,” the doctor mutters, “Her husband used to be.” This is the deceptively casual beginning of Dr. Kennedy's long narrative, which he is apparently now telling in its entirety for the first time. After several pages devoted to Amy Foster's family background, her life as a servant, and her falling in love “silently, obstinately—perhaps helplessly” (110), Kennedy turns to the story of her former husband, introducing him portentously as “a being lithe, supple and long-limbed, straight like a pine, with something striving upwards in his appearance as though the heart within him had been buoyant.”4 The story of Yanko dominates the rest of Kennedy's narrative—belying the title of the story, which Conrad unaccountably changed to “Amy Foster” after having considered two titles referring to Yanko.5 The doctor put together that story over several years and from a variety of sources—including factual reports and rumors from the locals, his own observations, and many “friendly chat[s]” with the young man. Consistent with that opening description just noted, Kennedy speaks of Yanko with the utmost empathy—for example, as a “soft and passionate adventurer” with “a highly sensitive nature” (118), or as one who had suffered more than anyone else a “simply tragic” fate (113). The doctor's uncommon interest in the young exile is particularly evidenced in his recollection of their “friendly” conversations. Yanko spoke—
with many flashes of white teeth and lively glances of black eyes, at first in a sort of anxious baby-talk, then, as he acquired the language, with great fluency, but always with that singing, soft, and at the same time vibrating intonation that instilled a strangely penetrating power into the sound of the most familiar English words, as if they had been the words of an unearthly language.
As this lyrical passage implies, Kennedy has been especially moved by the younger man's efforts to express himself in his new language. He renders Yanko's impressions and thoughts with considerable subtlety, paying close attention to his point of view and his developing ability to speak English. Thus he speaks of the Berlin train station where Yanko stopped for a short while in his trek westward as “a house of bricks,” the emigrant ship in Hamburg harbor as “the side of a thing like a great house on the water,” and the ship's movement during the storm as “rocking all ways at once all the time.”6 The doctor describes vividly and empathetically Yanko's fear and confusion upon his arrival in a strange land whose name he does not even know, where no Catholic icons are to be seen, and where the baaing of sheep is the only language he recognizes. “Upon my word, I wonder he did not go mad. … Conceive you the kind of an existence overshadowed, oppressed, by the everyday material appearances … as if by the visions of a nightmare” (129).
The doctor who is so fascinated by what he has learned and imagined about Yanko Goorall can spare little sympathy for his young widow, however. His negativity toward Amy Foster is anticipated by the initial narrator, who—on the basis of only a momentary glance—compiles in one sentence a catalogue of complaints about her appearance and nature. Her “squat figure” and her “scanty, dusty brown hair” knotted in the back connote physical unattractiveness; her “dull” face projects mental inferiority and a kind of natural propensity for victimization: it is “red, not with a mantling blush” (several romantic stereotypes of women are compressed into that metaphor) but “as if her flat cheeks had been vigorously slapped.” Kennedy agrees with his guest's remark that she “seems a dull creature” and expands upon her passivity and “inertness of mind.” (107) While he does acknowledge Amy's difficult circumstances, the doctor almost never seems to empathize genuinely with her. He explains that Amy is the child of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy—because of which her father Isaac has been dispossessed by his father and still hates his daughter—and that she was sent at age fifteen to work as a servant on the farm of their neighbors, the Smiths. But Kennedy treats the pathetic young woman with almost obsessive coldness, speaking of her “want of charm,” her hesitancy in speaking, and—repeatedly—her mental dullness. The doctor admits, in clinical terms, that Amy must have had a “certain amount” of imagination, which would have been necessary for her to form that “notion of beauty” essential to love. Nevertheless, he says, it is “an inscrutable mystery” how she acquired “this aptitude.” At another point, he characterizes Amy's falling in love with Yanko as a kind of pagan “possession,” a fear like “the terror of a brute” (107-10). The well-traveled man of science, trained in the study of species, has observed Amy Foster and has found her wanting, on many counts.
Kennedy rarely speaks of Amy after her introduction near the beginning; when he does, it is mainly to criticize her. Thirteen continuous pages in the first half of the 36-page story are devoted exclusively to Yanko's frightening journey across Europe and his mistreatment upon his arrival in England. Amy reappears briefly for an important scene in which she brings bread to Yanko in the Smiths' woodshed. But Kennedy emphasizes that Yanko's resulting love for her was inspired by the unusual circumstances of this meeting, not by any attractive qualities in his future wife: “No wonder that Amy Foster appeared to his eyes with the aureole of an angel of light. … Through this act of impulsive pity he was brought back again within the pale of human relations with his new surroundings. He never forgot it—never.” Moreover, the doctor suggests that Amy's attraction to the young man on this occasion was merely physical: “Through his forlorn condition she had observed that he was good-looking” (124-25). A few pages later, he suggests that Yanko's memory of Amy's compassion might have prevented him from “cutting his throat.” But he immediately backs away from that possibility, concluding that it was surely Yanko's “instinctive love of life” which kept him from such an extreme action, and he chides himself for being such “an old sentimentalist” as to credit Amy for this (129-30).
Kennedy's narrative quickly turns away from these brief and demeaning references to Amy to follow with continuing heavy sympathy more recent events in Yanko's life. We are introduced to the Swaffers, who took Yanko in to work on their farm: old Swaffer, a kindly eccentric with a keen interest in the “outlandish,” and his “severe” and nearly deaf daughter.7 Kennedy admiringly recalls Yanko's rescue of Swaffer's granddaughter from a horsepond, dashing “in long leaps” across the field in which he is plowing—a deed for which he is allowed to eat in the Swaffers' kitchen and start receiving wages. This account makes extraordinary claims for the young man's eyes (the windows to his soul?). He spots the child “through the gap of a gate [seeing] what for anybody else would have been a mere flutter of something white,” with eyes “straight-glancing, quick, far-reaching … that only seemed to flinch and lose their amazing power before the immensity of the sea” (130).
MARRIAGE AS MAN-TRAP
Three-quarters of the way through his story, Kennedy abruptly brings Amy back into focus to speak briefly, and with obvious discomfort, of her engagement and marriage to Yanko. The immediate context for this is a leisurely and affectionate account of the kind of conversation between the two men that apparently took place more than once, as they sat together on the grass overlooking “the immense shimmering of the sea.” Yanko spoke there of having given up his dream of going to America, where he once thought “true gold can be found lying ready and to be got for the trouble of picking it up,” a belief from which the doctor had tried several times to dissuade him. On such occasions, “cocking his hat with a little conquering air, he would defy my wisdom,” says Kennedy: “He had found his bit of true gold. That was Amy Foster's heart” (133).
This fond recollection of intimate, playful male discourse contrasts sharply with the terse and unsympathetic account of the courtship of Yanko and Amy which follows. The doctor speaks primarily about the community's renewed objections to Yanko now that he is planning to marry one of their own. He mentions that Yanko gave Amy a green ribbon, but adds that she probably did not know how to use it. The only image he offers of the couple's “walking out” casts Amy as by far the less attractive of the two. The “finery” which she wears seems distinctly plain, even for this time and place: “gray dress, black feather, stout boots.” (The mention of her “prominent white cotton gloves that caught your eye a hundred yards away” may be an ironic put-down of her pretensions to stylishness.) If Amy has any charming qualities, they are only in the imagination of the attractive young man, “his coat slung picturesquely over one shoulder, pacing by her side, gallant of bearing and casting tender glances upon the girl with the golden heart. I wonder whether he saw how plain she was” (133-35).
Kennedy's account of how Yanko received the Swaffers' permission to marry emphasizes the young man's attractively quaint manners: he had requested the permission in a “curiously feudal” manner. But the marriage itself is presented as a fatal trap for him. The doctor's explanation that old Swaffer gave the couple a cottage in gratitude for Yanko's saving the life of his grandchild modulates into a chilling observation on the after-effect: “Of course, after that no power on earth could prevent them from getting married.” And Kennedy introduces his brief account of their life as husband and wife grimly, as merely a matter of Amy's determination: “Her infatuation endured” (136). Soon after the birth of the child, to which the narrative quickly moves, Kennedy noticed that Yanko had begun to be “less spring of step … less keen of eye … as if the net of fate had been drawn closer round him already.” The cause of this seems to have been Amy's growing sense of alienation from her husband—particularly because he speaks to the baby in his native language. The doctor has listened sympathetically to Yanko's revelations of troubles in their marriage, and the young man's suggestion as to the cause: “Women are funny.” In Kennedy's mind, Amy's incapacity is largely responsible for their troubles: “I wondered whether his difference, his strangeness, were not penetrating with repulsion that dull nature they had begun by irresistibly attracting” (137-38).
In a pivotal scene, the physician breaks off the story momentarily to ponder the possibility that his fascinating patient's death might have been caused literally by his wife's fear and hostility. He gazes out the window at what the unnamed narrator, in his last appearance in the story, describes ponderously as “the frigid splendor of the sea, immense in the haze, as if enclosing all the earth with all the hearts lost among the passions of love and fear.” Kennedy wonders aloud: “Physiologically now … it was possible. It was possible” (138). Then he moves quickly to tell of Yanko's illness and death, in the most sympathetic tones, unambiguously holding Amy accountable.
In recounting his visit to their home during the last night of Yanko's illness, the doctor emphasizes again her “shortsighted … dumb” eyes. He mentions how he “indignantly” accused her of thinking Yanko was shamming sickness and imagined at the time that she was already “meditating a flight up the miry road” (138-39). Early the next morning, Kennedy found the young man in a puddle outside the deserted cottage and brought him inside. Yanko explained bitterly that he had been only asking for water when his wife ran away in terror. Kennedy sums up melodramatically:
She had left him. She had left him—sick—helpless—thirsty. The spear of the hunter had entered his very soul. “Why?” he cried, in the penetrating and indignant voice of a man calling to a responsible Maker. A gust of wind and a swish of rain answered.
The physician makes clear that he lays the responsibility for Yanko's death on Amy, in reporting that he certified the cause of death as “heart failure”: “His heart must have indeed failed him, or else he might have stood this night of storm and exposure, too” (141).
Kennedy does blame himself for not having acted upon his suspicion the previous evening that Amy was on the verge of leaving her dying husband. Moreover, he seems to have felt a twinge of sympathy for her pitiable condition when, the morning after Yanko's death, he saw “stirring behind the dull, blurred glance of those eyes … the specter of the fear which had haunted her” the night before (190). But in concluding the story he returns the blame to Amy Foster, now for having already forgotten her dead husband: “Not a word of him. Never. Is his image as utterly gone from her mind as his lithe and striding figure, his caroling voice are gone from our fields?” (141-42).
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL IMPLICATIONS: IDENTIFICATION, MISOGYNY, HOMOEROTICISM
Conrad's short story has received little specific critical attention until fairly recently. Albert Guerard briefly pointed to its “moral and ‘cosmic’” symbolism, seeing here “a generalized comment on the lonely, uncomprehended, absurd human destiny” (50). For Jocelyn Baines, “Amy Foster” gives voice to a central theme in Conrad, “the essential isolation and loneliness of the individual” (267). Others have declared the short story “fundamental” to the author's literary corpus and “one of Conrad's finest short stories” (Andreach 262; Graver 105).8 These latter claims seem to be based more on Conrad's apparent intentions in the story than the artistry employed in realizing them. While “Amy Foster” does have its serious themes and powerful dramatic moments, as well as some interesting experimentation in dramatized narration, the story appears to this reader to be straining too hard and awkwardly for its effects. At times the double-narrator structure seems to be managed almost mechanically, in striking contrast to the rich complexities of the superficially similar narrative pattern in Heart of Darkness, written two years earlier. Both of these stylistic deficiencies are obvious in the passage set by the window, cited above. In comparison with other writing Conrad was producing in this extremely fertile period of his young career, the hurriedly written “Amy Foster” is “not a very good story,” as J. I. M. Stewart puts it (19).
Frederick Karl calls “Amy Foster” “essentially a simple story of the heart.”9 However, the story is a good bit more complex than this dismissal suggests. It also may be a “story of the heart” in a more personal sense than Karl apparently intends here. That is, the main significance of the story for students of Conrad may lie in what it reveals about the author at a critical juncture in his life. Most of the published commentary on the story (including Karl's) has in fact focused on its autobiographical significance: Conrad's identification with the protagonist, like himself an exile from central Europe; and the implications of the story for our understanding of the author's attitudes toward women and marriage.
Conrad drew upon his personal observations for both major settings of the story: Yanko's homeland in the Carpathian mountains, which the author visited in his youth, and the Kentish coastal area where he was living when he wrote the tale.10 Moreover, while the story does display some significant literary indebtedness—particularly to Gustave Flaubert's “Un Coeur simple” and Stephen Crane's “The Monster”11—its initial impulse and many of its details were provided by Conrad's close friend, neighbor, and collaborator Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford), who lived near him at the time the story was written.12
Considering his experience as a former Pole living in England, it is likely that Conrad took a personal interest in two German castaways in Kent that Hueffer told him about—especially their linguistic difficulties—and carried that interest into the writing of the story (even though the author never suffered anything like the deprivations experienced by those exiles, or by Yanko Goorall).13 Conrad had begun to acquire English only at age 21, in 1878, as a Polish- and French-speaking sailor on English ships, and had published his first novel, Almayer's Folly, in English, just six years before writing “Amy Foster” in 1901. Frederick Karl argues that this linguistic emphasis is the most significant autobiographical dimension in “Amy Foster.” Conrad made Yanko “his own,” writes Karl, “not because of the obvious references to foreignness or because of the hostile female character, but for the linguistic crisis [his story] confronts.”14
As Karl's reference to “the hostile female character” suggests, much autobiographical criticism of the short story has pointed to the possible connections between the misogyny exhibited there and Conrad's attitude toward his wife and toward marriage in general. His wife Jessie claimed that the character of Amy was inspired by a servant who worked for the Conrads and who impressed her husband by her “animal-like capacity for sheer uncomplaining endurance.” She also described how, during their honeymoon in Brittany in 1896, Conrad experienced a delirium brought on by high fever and startled her by talking wildly in Polish.15 But “Amy Foster” seems to be a more disturbing comment on Conrad's domestic life than these two anecdotes imply.
The Conrad biographies make clear that the writer had entered into his marriage five years earlier to the “meek and compliant” Jessie George, fifteen years his junior, abruptly and in utterly unromantic fashion.16 His primary motives seem to have been to meet social expectations and to find personal security in his new life as an English novelist. At the time he propsed to Jessie, he claimed he was not going to live long, insisted that they marry within six weeks, and then disappeared for three days. Immediately after their small civil wedding, the couple left England for an extended stay in a small cottage on the coast of Brittany, where they immediately set up the kind of domestic arrangements that would characterize the rest of their lives together: Joseph intently pursuing his profession as author and sharing his most significant thoughts and feelings almost exclusively with male friends, while Jessie, who was unable to provide intellectual companionship, tried to attend to his more practical needs. Within months Joseph was writing to friends of his extreme loneliness. He had made clear when he and Jessie became engaged that he did not want children, apparently because they would compete with him for the motherly attentions he expected from her. He was furious when Jessie became pregnant, kept coldly aloof during Borys's birth in 1899, and left the boy's childhood care entirely up to her.
Amy Foster is one of the most consistently negative representations of a woman anywhere in the Conrad canon, and it is easy to imagine that the conditions of the author's marriage and his feelings about the recent birth of a child had something important to do with this fact. Admittedly, women in most of Conrad's fiction are largely relegated to minor, stereotypical, or symbolic roles. Nevertheless these females are usually treated with sympathetic understanding—from Kurtz's silent and symbolically fecund native woman and his naïvely idealistic Intended in Heart of Darkness; through the ill-used Jewel, Emilia Gould, and Lena (Lord Jim, Nostromo, and Victory); to the assertive and complex Natalie Haldin in Under Western Eyes. But Dr. Kennedy's unrelentingly harsh treatment of the pathetic Amy Foster—as unattractive, stupid, and responsible for her husband's tragic end—is almost obsessive, and there is nothing in the story to suggest that the author intended to distance himself from his narrator's strong disapproval of Amy. As Richard Herndon wrote in concluding his thorough analysis of the many sources of the story, the challenge of interpreting “Amy Foster” autobiographically is not to look for evidence that the author felt isolated and mistreated upon his arrival in England, but instead to determine the “significance for his outlook on love and marriage [of its] tragic domestic plot.”17
Dr. Kennedy's antipathy for Amy Foster and his fascination with the young man who marries her may have even deeper roots in the author's psychology. The text imples that the narrator's interest in Yanko is substantially erotic, and it might be argued that this indicates such desire—strongly repressed—on the part of Conrad. Of course, Dr. Kennedy's misogynistic representation of Amy need not imply erotic desire for Yanko on his part: men who dislike women need not be gay, and gay men need not dislike women. But the doctor's insistent dislike for Amy seems to be based primarily on her inability to appreciate Yanko. Moreover, the language in which Dr. Kennedy speaks of the young man frequently suggests romantic and sexual attraction.
We have noted already the narrator's references to Yanko as attractively virile (“gallant of being” with a “little conquering air,” “lively glances of black eyes,” and “his lithe and striding figure, his caroling voice”) as well as seductively “sensitive” (“soft and passionate,” his voice “singing and soft” with “vibrating intonations”). Both of these aspects of the young man's personality are captured early on in a description of Yanko as “a being lithe, supple and long-limbed” whose “lustrous black eyes” resemble those of “a woodland creature” (111). At one point Kennedy fancies that he and Amy Foster, “alone in all the land” could see Yanko's “very real beauty. He was very good-looking, and most graceful in his bearing” (134). But although Amy was capable of appreciating Yanko's physical beauty, she was not, in the doctor's mind, capable of understanding him fully, and in fact is seen finally as the agent through which the phallic “spear of the hunter” death had destroyed the attractive young man.
What are we to make of the affectionate gaze that Dr. Kennedy casts upon Yanko? Might the author have intended the reader to guess at an erotic attraction that he was unwilling to represent more directly? Conrad certainly suggests such an attraction on the part of Mr. Denver in Lord Jim, the “more than middle-aged bachelor with a reputation for eccentricity” who is bitterly heart-broken when Jim, whom he has described to Marlow as girlish, leaves him abruptly (189). Might “Amy Foster” be added to the evidence which some critics have adduced recently in arguing for the presence of repressed authorial homoerotic desire in Conrad's many portrayals of male-to-male companionship, affection, and even conflict?
Such claims were first advanced in a 1979 essay by Robert Hodges in The Journal of Homosexuality. Hodges recalls Conrad's youthful attachment to “the handsome, virle” Corsican, Dominic Cervoni, and he finds suggestions of homoeroticism in Conrad's adult relationships with Hueffer, Cunninghame Graham, Stephen Crane, and Bertrand Russell (381-82). Hodges argues that Conrad was comfortable in representing homosexual desire in his earlier works, including Lord Jim and what seems to him an equally obvious “love story” in “The Secret Sharer” (383-86).18 And he suggests that Conrad's often noted expressions of homophobia—in the characterizations of Jones in Victory and Mrs. Fyne in The Rescue, along with his renunciation of his association with Roger Casement after the public revelation of Casement's homosexuality—are a function of an increasingly urgent repression of homoerotic sympathies and desire in his later years, the period of his “declining” artistic powers and his public success (382-83, 387-88). Hodges's argument is too brief and superficial to be persuasive. Still, it is surprising that there has not been more explicit and timely response to this provocative piece of critical revisionism.
Richard Ruppel, in 1998, acknowledged Hodges's argument in a thoughtful essay, “Joseph Conrad and the Ghost of Oscar Wilde.” Ruppel discusses hints of homoeroticism throughout the Conrad canon in the context of an argument that the homosexual as “an identifiable type” emerged only in the later nineteenth century, just as Conrad was beginning his career as a writer (19). He concludes that Conrad was undeniably “an early investigator of the homosocial continuum—from the most conventionally acceptable good fellowship to the most taboo homosexual orientation and behavior.”19 But this does not lead him to speculate about the author's own sexual propensities.
Two years earlier, Geoffrey Harpham, in a wide-ranging and theoretically sophisticated analysis of the concept of “mastery” as applied to Conrad's life and works, argued that Conrad's fiction unintentionally reveals homosexual urges as well as sympathies. Harpham complains that traditional humanistic interpretations of Conrad have been inclined to see in Conrad only narratives of heroism or exercises in “narratological craft,” ignoring “the possibility of a fugitive current of libidinal energy … [and] desire flowing between two men” (126). Challenging Tony Tanner's denial of homosexual implications in English and American sea stories, Harpham shows, for instance, how Conrad's memorable account of the initial gathering of the crew in The Nigger of the Narcissus, ostensibly an evocation of “the innocent fellowship of the deck,” can suggest “a floating bathhouse where ribald stories of closeted admirals and gentlemen with secrets circulate freely” (118). Harpham accounts for the hints of homosexuality he finds in Conrad's texts as the unintended effect of his writing in a language he never quite mastered (143 ff.). Had Conrad achieved more mastery of English, he would have been able to censor more effectively “the unmentioned subject, sexual desire, and especially homosexual desire” that escapes through the cracks in his intended meanings (176).
Such speculation invites the reader of “Amy Foster” to ask whether Dr. Kennedy's narrative of Yanko Goorall conceals or suppresses, underneath its complex and self-reflexive surface and its ponderous exclamations about the cosmic significance of the protagonist's sufferings, an attraction for the young man that goes beyond intense sympathy and homosocial bonding? If so, how much does his narrative inadvertently suggest about Conrad's sympathies and perhaps his sexual orientation? Although this is not an appropriate occasion for venturing further into the treacherous waters of such speculation about Conrad's psychosexual nature, this is clearly one aspect of the autobiographical implications of “Amy Foster” that calls for further consideration.
One does not suppose that Beeban Kidron and her co-screenwriter/executive producer Tom Willocks looked into the gender-based Conrad criticism cited above as inspiration for making their film adaptation of “Amy Foster.” Presumably the hints in that text, in addition to Kidron's previous film explorations of unconventional gender territory, were more than enough to motivate the director and writer to present Dr. Kennedy's fascination for Yanko Goorall as homoerotic longing—though that theme is treated with the utmost caution and made explicit only in the final moments of the film.
Starting in the late 1980s, Kidron made for British television over half a dozen dramas and a documentary, most of them focusing on women or on unconventional sexual situations. Antonia and Jane (1991) deals with a long friendship between two women. Used People (1992), Kidron's Hollywood debut, is a comedy about a middle-aged American Jewish woman courted by an Italian man; its impressive cast includes Shirley MacLaine, Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Marcello Mastroianni, and Sylvia Sydney. Kidron's 1993 documentary, Hookers Hustlers Pimps and Their Johns, is said to show “sympathy for outsiders and … fascination with sexual role-play” (James 53). Her best known work prior to the Conrad adaptation was To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), a Hollywood film with Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and Stockard Channing as three male homosexual cross-dressers who find themselves stranded in a dusty little town somewhere in the American Middle West. To most reviewers the film seemed an overly sanitized attempt to cash in on the success of Australian Stephan Elliot's camp drag queen comedy, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994).20
The casting of Used People and To Wong Foo suggests that Kidron has a knack for attracting excellent actors to her projects. This is the case with Swept from the Sea. Heading the cast as Dr. Kennedy—with a striking resemblance to the middle-aged Joseph Conrad—is the distinguished and openly gay character actor Ian McKellen. Best known for his recent Golden Globe-winning portrayal of the title character in the 1995 Richard III, McKellen has specialized in literary adaptations and in portrayals of writers and artists; in one of his most recent films, Gods and Monsters, he plays homosexual filmmaker James Whale, the maker of Frankenstein. McKellen's portrayal of Dr. Kennedy in Swept from the Sea is thoughtful but pallid; perhaps Kidron was counting too much on his being known as gay to carry his part. As Yanko, the handsome Swiss-born Vincent Pérez (La Reine Margot, Indochine, and Cyrano), demonstrates considerable energy and versatility, and his Russian accent is credible. The role of Amy Foster seems to have been a distinctly new venture for English actress Rachel Weisz, who had recently co-starred with Keanu Reeves in the action film Chain Reaction and played in Noel Coward's Design for Living on the London stage. Weisz plays the part of the love-consumed servant girl generally with impressive restraint, as Peter Matthews describes, “checking her bodily movements and acting with her eyes.” Kathy Bates (Fried Green Tomatoes, Diabolique) is fairly convincing—though at times smug—as Miss Swaffer, here in a much more sympathetic and significant role than in the short story. Zoë Wannamaker, a highly acclaimed stage actress, has some effective moments as Amy's abused and bitter mother.
Kidron's adaptation keeps the basic framework of Conrad's “Amy Foster,” but to vastly different ends. The location is moved from a dreary Kentish coastline to the lovely cliffs and seascapes of Cornwall. Amy is portrayed as a self-reliant and attractive, if somewhat mysterious, child of nature who returns to her dying husband to share with him a moment of transcendental love. Kennedy's misogynistic narration, delivered in the literary text to an entirely supportive male friend, is spoken in the film to a woman who brings the doctor around to her sympathetic view of Amy Foster, after pointing out that his apparently homoerotic love for Yanko has blinded him to Amy's true nature.
The film is at many points visually impressive. A helicopter shot under the opening titles, which sweeps across the bay up to Amy and her son, sets the stage for many appealing travelling and panoramic shots of the cliffs and sea vistas of Cornwall. By contrast, the bleak rural cottages and muddy barnyards are rendered with gritty realism. Furthermore, as Peter Matthews notes, Kidron's experience as a documentarist is evident in her close observations of the lovers' faces and in some impressive deep-focus staging in certain interior scenes.
But the pace of the film is extremely slow, and the script turgid and predictable, as reviewers have pointed out. Stephen Holden complains of the film's “blunt, utterly humorless style with portentously lumpy language and broad acting,” and Matthews of the unsubtle treatment of the rustics as “an undifferentiated mass” of hostility. Edward Guthman finds here a “heavy-handed and portentous” version of a “19th century yarn” of the kind that John Schlesinger parodied with such fun in his Cold Comfort Farm (also with Ian McKellen). Adding an insistently melodramatic dimension throughout is a heavily orchestrated soundtrack by the prolific John Barry, “master of the majestically romantic film” (Holden).21
AMY AS SYMPATHETIC CHILD OF NATURE
From the opening shot of Amy and her son on a cliff overlooking the sea, the movie focuses much more consistently and sympathetically on Amy Foster than does Conrad's tale. To be sure, the film vividly dramatizes Yanko's frightening journey from his homeland—beginning with a sequence of folk dancing and loving family good-byes in his native land. However, once Yanko arrives in England (just a few minutes into the film), Amy is brought into and remains in the foreground of the narrative. Furthermore, Rachel Weisz's Amy comes across as a sensuous rustic beauty with none of the dullness of her literary model. Although both her father and Dr. Kennedy characterize her as stupid, she appears to the viewer merely shy and withdrawn. This seems normal enough, considering the hateful treatment she gets from her father and the hard conditions of her life as servant to a tyrannous farm woman with a crude and domineering husband.
Amy is presented as a child of nature, particularly drawn to the sea. One early sequence shows her wading in a lovely stream that opens into the bay, gathering treasure from the water: several old glass buoys hung about with seaweedy rope, through which she (along with the sympathetic camera) gazes at the sun. Her favorite haven from the depressing life into which she has been cast is a secret grotto hid among the seaside cliffs, filled with glass and other sea treasures—shells, stones, coral, driftwood, seaweed—along with odd pieces of furniture.
In this representation of Amy as a virtual sea-creature, Swept from the Sea seems to be associating itself with two recent highly successful women-centered films. One is John Sayles's The Secret of Roan Innish (1994), set on the coast of Donegal, Ireland and evocatively photographed by Haskell Wexler, in which a young girl explores the mysterious legend of a seal-woman who may be her mother. The other is Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), which, as Matthews points out, may have inspired the impressive camera work and water imagery of Swept from the Sea; both Campion's and Kidron's films have “tight-lipped quasi-pagan heroines in touch with primordial nature.” At one point Kidron's film also joins in the recent reassessment of witchcraft as an expression of natural femininity demonized by patriarchy. During the storm in which the emigrant ship is wrecked, Amy is seen dancing in the rain and then delightedly gazing out of the window of her room; Kennedy in voice-over speaks of (and discounts) rumors that Amy's witchcraft caused the storm. Needless to say, in the Conrad story there is no grotto, and no hint of these other interesting mysteries in the characterization of Amy Foster.
KENNEDY OUTED AND CONVERTED
One of the most challenging problems for cinematic adapters of Conrad's fiction has been the dramatized characters who are so often the instruments of narration. For example, Conrad's English teacher of languages disappears completely from Razumov, an excellent 1936 French adaptation of Under Western Eyes. Marlow carries virtually no narrative function in Richard Brooks's swashbuckling Lord Jim (1965). A Marlovian voice-over was added—confusingly—only late in post-production of the legendary Apocalypse Now (1979). These and other instances of absent or ineffectual dramatized narrators in the Conrad films underscore what is widely agreed to be the inherent difficulty of employing an in-frame narrator in film. The moment the narrator is no longer seen on the screen, the effect of his or her voice is lost to the more direct impact of the visual imagery. For this reason, it might seem surprising that Kidron's film retains Dr. Kennedy in the central role as narrator. However, this is one of the primary means by which the film seeks to accomplish its radical transformation of the Conrad text.
As we have seen, Kennedy in the short story talks to an unnamed male friend whose main function is to lend credibility and symbolic richness to the doctor's narration. In the film, the doctor tells his story to Miss Swaffer, as he cleans and bandages a nasty ulcerated wound on her leg. The stout, ailing woman is portrayed as kind-hearted and attentive—in contrast to her dour and largely deaf model who is only briefly mentioned in the short story. She is also assertive. Early in the film, she challenges her physician after he curtly dismisses Amy from the sickroom: “Really, doctor, that cruelty was unnecessary.” When she then asks why he hates Amy so much, Kennedy mumbles that the young woman is a “simpleton” and begins to cut away the dead flesh on the wound. Miss Swaffer encourages him to tell her more, remarking, “It would ease my fever … yours too.” This gentle invitation, with its unmistakable tones of late twentieth-century psychotherapeutic talk, is the motivation for Kennedy's narrative, which follows.22
The doctor seeks to answer his patient's criticism by presenting Yanko in the most sympathetic terms, while portraying Amy as unworthy of him and finally responsible for his death, as in Conrad's story. This narrative technique works well for Kennedy's portrayals of Yanko. His empathetic language corresponds to the visualizations—for example, in the brief but moving account of Yanko's difficult journey by train and boat from his homeland and his arrival in England, and in scenes representing the growing friendship between the doctor and the younger man. However, when Kennedy speaks of Amy and of her developing love relationship with Yanko, the cinematic representation works against the verbal narration which ostensibly generates it. Kennedy's cinematized flashbacks are sympathetic, romantic, and often melodramatic, while his words are unenthusiastic when not downright disparaging. The filmmakers seem to have made no effort to keep the visualization of Kennedy's story consistent with his verbalized point of view (as classically accomplished with the multiple narrators in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon ).
Thus the spectator can only be confused when, after an hour-long, romantic visualization of the Amy-Yanko story up to their marriage, the film returns to the sick room, and we hear again Kennedy's harsh disapproval of Amy. He responds to a sentimental comment by Miss Swaffer (“He found his home in the heart of Amy Foster, and she found hers in him”) with a scowl and a caustic remark: “She did not take care for him.” His patient's response to that—“You cannot imagine how much she took care for him”—sets up Kennedy's account of the final part of his story: Yanko's illness and delirium, Amy's flight into the night storm with the child, and Yanko's death. Again the cinematic flashback largely contradicts Kennedy's verbal condemnation of Amy's behavior. The spectator is invited by the flashback to feel strongly for the terrified young woman as her sick husband raves in a foreign tongue, breaks a bottle of medicine on the stone floor, and lurches toward the baby's crib. And her retreat into the stormy night, clutching the infant to her breast, is presented with all the pathos and terror of a D.W. Griffith melodrama.
In Conrad's version of the story, as we have seen, Amy is not present at Yanko's death. There are just the two men, in intimate communication, sharing in a mutual condemnation of the irresponsible women: “She had left him—sick—helpless—thirsty. The spear of the hunter had entered his very soul.” The film (not unexpectedly) has Amy return at this propitious moment, and Yanko dies in her arms, while Kennedy is outside getting his medical bag. With a pained smile, Yanko recognizes Amy, assures her he would change nothing that has happened between them, and reaffirms that she remains his “true gold.” Amy repeats an assurance he has earlier given her, “We are the lucky ones,” and he dies in apparent bliss. Kennedy returns and scolds Amy harshly—“Why did you leave him? … Why did you let him die? … All he wanted was a glass of water.” Her only response is to kiss her dead husband. Cinematically, the film is saying at this point that Kennedy's harsh questions are beside the point, for the love between Amy and Yanko has overcome misunderstanding and death. But such sentiments, proceeding from a visualized flashback ostensibly produced by Dr. Kennedy (even though he was not present to hear Amy and Yanko speak to each other), are inconsistent with his words, both in this scene and in the one that immediately follows, in Miss Swaffer's bedroom: “That brave adventurer who had crossed an impossible gulf in order to love her lay lifeless in her arms. Yet Amy Foster uttered not a word.” The doctor wonders aloud now, in those suggestive words of Conrad's text: “Is his image as utterly gone from her mind as his lithe and striding figure, his caroling voice, are gone from our fields?”
It is apparently this question that convinces Miss Swaffer of what she must have suspected earlier—shrewd therapist that she increasingly seems to be—that she has on her hands a case of repressed homoerotic desire. Her suspicions about this sensitive matter may be more significant than her desire to counter Kennedy's anger at Amy's forgetfulness, when she asks the doctor now whether he in fact remembers his long-dead wife and child. Kennedy's long silence and passive response, “That was many lifetimes ago,” paves the way for Miss Swaffer to ask discreetly her overwhelming question: “Did your own love blind you to hers?” Kennedy seems touched and turns away. Miss Swaffer then remarks sympathetically that the doctor carries “more burdens for all of us than any man should,” implying that one of those burdens must be kept secret. When she then asks him to “take care for” Amy and her child, Kennedy assures her that he will. With Miss Swaffer's newly bandaged leg in the foreground—presumably well on the way to being cured, like Kennedy's unjust attitude toward Amy Foster—the doctor leaves, thanking his patient for “our conversation.” Thus it is only at the end of this final scene with Miss Swaffer, after she has brought him around to her point of view on Amy, that Dr. Kennedy's words begin to catch up, as it were, with the sympathetic view of her that the cinematic version of his narrative has been creating for the previous hour in the film.
Dr. Kennedy's conversion to Miss Swaffer's attitude toward Amy is fully shown only in the next, and final, scene, in which he visits the young widow for a sudden, melodramatic reconciliation. Immediately upon entering the cliff-top cottage, he asks her pardon for having “grievously” wronged her. She responds by asking who will forgive her. He assures her that both he and Yanko have done so. They warmly embrace, and Amy weepily assures Kennedy that she will love her husband “until the end of the world.” The scene then shifts outside for a final panoramic view of the cliffs and the sea, while her child dances for them, Russian style. Dr. Kennedy intones in voice-over: “Looking at them now, I know that Yanko was cast out to sea to perish on this hostile shore. He came across the world to love and be loved by Amy Foster.” Like Amy, he seems now convinced that their enduring love transcends—perhaps even justifies—his death. Such a sentiment is incredible in a man who until moments before in the film has been harshly accusing the woman of fatal neglect of her husband.
This conclusion to the film seems to depend upon a highly questionable premise: that Dr. Kennedy's change of attitude toward Amy Foster is the sudden result of Miss Swaffer's warm-hearted recognition and acceptance of his homoerotic love for Yanko. This is a gross indulgence in sentimentality. To attribute such extremely transformational power to such barely-indicated sexual tolerance severely strains credibility, to say the least. (This glib attribution of healing power to acceptance of unconventional sexuality had been anticipated in Kidron's cross-dressing film To Wong Foo, which several reviewers found, in the words of Richard Corliss, “sappily didactic.”23)
For all of its importance as the apparently intended motivation of Kennedy's sudden change of heart, the homosexual motif in Swept from the Sea is given only the most tentative treatment earlier in the film. There are occasional hints and glances which we might interpret retrospectively as signs of Kennedy's homoerotic interest in Yanko—for example, his carefully controlled discomfort when Yanko talks of his love of Amy. But when the matter is finally brought out into the open at the end it is too little, too late. Roger Ebert speculates that the filmmakers held back on the homoerotic theme out of fear of upsetting viewers who came expecting “a conventional period romance,” and he asserts reasonably that the film would have been “more intriguing” if Kennedy's homosexual attraction for Yanko had been treated more directly.
Certainly, a more daring and less sentimentalized exploration of the homosexual theme might have enabled the film to provide a provocative contemporary “intersection” with the Conrad short story—the kind of a genuinely imaginative cinematic response to a literary text that Dudley Andrew has described in his helpful reconsideration of adaptation studies (422-23). Perhaps it is not quite fair to ask how this film, with its obvious intent to reinterpret Conrad's story for late twentieth-century audiences, might have turned out in the hands of, say, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, were he still alive. But the possibilities are interesting. Fassbinder was noted for his unassuming and candid approach to unconventional gender arrangements and his propensity for balancing irony and sympathy in treating melodramatic material. He probably could have seen a way not only to represent Kennedy's homoerotic longing for Yanko openly, without coyness, but also to ironize the conventionally romantic attitudes toward heterosexual love and marriage which pervade Swept from the Sea.24
The major problem with Kidron's film is that not only Kennedy's homoerotic attraction for Yanko Goorall, but also virtually all the other potentially interesting human relationships (Amy's love for Yanko, her difficult relationships with her parents, and the Swaffers' various interests in Amy and Yanko, for instance) are overwhelmed by a heavy-handedly and at points ludicrously romanticized screenplay as well as overdone visual and musical effects. Peter Matthews complains that “prodigious amounts of thought, care, and technical skill have succeeded in turning Conrad's hard nugget of a yarn into a piece of sumptuous mush.” One might ask where and what that supposed “hard nugget” in the story is. Still this characterization of Kidron's film is accurate, if by mush we mean unconvincing dialogue, unclear construction of characters and their motivations, and simplistic solutions to complex problems. Moreover, the stylistic mix into which these elements are blended—in Dick Pope's camera work and John Barry's music track—is nothing if not sumptuous.
The first encounter between Amy and Yanko is presented with considerable restraint: there are subtle implications in her curious gaze in response to his silent pleading through the kitchen window. There are many similarly understated exchanges between them throughout the film. But the effectiveness of such controlled acting is undercut by anachronistic imitations of 1990s romantic gestures (in a film that is apparently intended as a period piece) and broad-brushed melodramatic effects. For example, in her second encounter with Yanko (when she brings him bread the morning after they first meet) Amy soulfully washes his face, hands, and feet—actions scarcely believable for such a woman in such circumstances. The scene in which Amy and Yanko first go out walking combines improbable dialogue, anachronistic action, and overwhelmingly romantic imagery. As they stroll through lovely meadows, she asks “Is your country beautiful?” to which he responds, bathetically: “Yes, the hearts of the people are strong and good.” They climb to a cliff-top, bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun, and gaze at the sea below. The film would have us believe that this is Yanko's first daylight view of the sea, in spite of his having been seen travelling widely about the region earlier.25 Then this ostensibly uneducated peasant woman explains oracularly that Yanko has come from “the sea, the ancient sea, the dark sea, the cruel sea … where all the hearts of the earth that have been lost to love and to fear lie waiting to be reborn.” The viewer can almost see Rachel Weisz wincing at these lines, which are followed by voracious open-mouthed kisses (highly unlikely in a tale of two shy strangers on their first walk together circa 1890) and a cliché long shot of the couple silhouetted against the sunset over romantic theme music.
Amy's secret grotto by the sea is exploited to full melodramatic effect. Oddly, this cave is neither mentioned nor shown until half-way into the film, when Amy takes her lover there to comfort him after he learns from her for the first time—in a highly contrived scene set by a monument to the drowned passengers of the emigrant ship—that his shipmates had all perished. “Don't be sad, my beauty,” she murmurs, and then leads him by the hand through the rocks to her grotto. As they enter, she lights the candles set all about the place with the ballet-like flair of a late twentieth-century flower child preparing her love nest for a romantic tryst. In similar style, she provocatively hides her body behind a thin veil, to which he predictably reacts a moment later with another full-mouthed kiss, in luscious close-up, as the music rises.
The film inflates the melodramatic potential of the romance of Amy and Yanko by introducing several threats from outside (two of them from the thug-like villagers) which are scarcely anticipated in the short story. In the first instance, Amy's embittered father Isaac, along with several other men, attack Yanko when he walks into the village with Amy on his arm. They beat him brutally, and one man drags him into the water and almost drowns him. But Amy manages to break free from the man who has been holding her, fights her father off, and saves her husband defiantly—if somewhat incredibly, given the older men's determination just moments before and their greater strength and numbers.
Another outside threat to the couple's romance comes in the form of the sudden revelation from Amy's mother, Mary, that she is the child not of her supposed father, Isaac, but rather of Isaac's father. In earlier bitter remarks to her daughter on the “madness in the blood” that is “God's trick on women,” Mary had hinted at dark secrets in the family; less shocking than Conrad's representation of the scandal caused by Amy's conception out of wedlock. Kidron now adds a more sordid dimension, redolent of contemporary concerns about child abuse and perhaps even incest. Having heard of her daughter's engagement, Mary Foster rushes into the Smiths' kitchen and histrionically blurts out to Amy, in their hearing: “Isaac is your brother. … Bad you were conceived and bad you will remain!”26
This revelation and condemnation so disturb the young woman that she dashes out of the farmhouse to her grotto, only to discover there that the townsmen have attacked again. They have piled together her furniture and her treasures from the sea and set them ablaze. As she attempts to retrieve some items, the front of her dress catches fire. But Yanko arrives in the nick of time and extinguishes the flame by carrying her to a small pool hollowed out of rock near the entrance. He assures her, “I'm your home now.” The scene closes with a long shot of the couple, seen through the blazing fire—a heavy-handed bit of symbolism presumably meant to suggest the intensity of their passion. Later Amy and Yanko return to that pool in the grotto to consummate their marriage. Behaving for all the world like contemporary honeymooners in a hot tub, they sensuously undress in water mysteriously lit from below—a special effect that elicited guffaws from more than one reviewer.27
Another major romanticizing device in the film is its treatment of the cottage the Swaffers give to the young couple. Conrad's “low, black cottage” is transformed into a rustic but charming tan stone building set on the crest of a cliff with a spectacular view of the sea. When old Swaffer brings the couple there so that he and his daughter can surprise them with this gift, Yanko is almost overcome with gratitude and Amy's love for him. The camera moves in for close-ups of their kisses and caresses as they stand by the window looking out onto the picturesque seascape. Consistent with the positive feelings pervading this scene, the gift seems to be motivated by pure generosity on the part of old Swaffer and his daughter, whom he credits with originating the idea. (As already noted, in the short story the gift is prompted by Yanko's rescue of Swaffer's granddaughter, of which there has been no mention in the film.28) The feel-good tone of the scene is epitomized in the beaming face of the saintly Miss Swaffer, who deflects Amy's expression of gratitude by rolling her wheelchair through the front door asking, in a tone surely not heard until our own time, “Now can we all please go home?”
Such anachronistic dialogue might have worked well in a movie that played itself off Conrad's text more coherently. But Kidron's film does not seem to know whether it wants to be a contemporary re-conception of the short story or a historically credible period adaptation. Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) demonstrate, in altogether different ways, how Conrad texts (in these instances The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness) can be transformed radically for modern audiences into compelling cinematic treatments with consistent purposes and styles. Ridley Scott's The Duellists (1977) is a fine example of a film adaptation that scrupulously preserves the historical authenticity of a Conrad novella (“The Duel”), with memorable yet restrained visual effects, even while giving its own contemporary twist to the story's characterization and thematic emphasis.29Swept from the Sea does not come close to realizing either kind of success, although from time to time it reaches in both directions.
Beeban Kidron and her colleagues offer in their adaptation of Conrad's “Amy Foster” at times impressive acting and visualizations. But they handle the technical problems of Kennedy's in-frame narration without apparent awareness of the inconsistencies between its verbal and visual components. They present the potentially significant issue of the doctor's homoerotic interest in Yanko Goorall hesitantly and sentimentally. And they load the heterosexual love story of Yanko and Amy with predictable clichés of ultra-romantic content and style. In this attempt to update a flawed but thematically and autobiographically rich short story, they join the unfortunately large company of filmmakers who have wrestled with Conrad and lost.
The ＄15 million 1997 film project was directed by Kidron and produced by Kidron, Polly Tapson, and Charles Steel. Gene Moore's filmography lists a 50-minute 1976 Polish television adaptation as well as a 75-minute BBC-TV version of the story (apparently a reading), broadcast in 1974, Omnibus: Joseph Conrad (240-41).
The short story was published in December 1901 in three parts in the Illustrated London News, which Lawrence Graver has pointed out, typically “celebrated empire and royalty.” “Conrad's bitter story of a crazed foreigner destroyed by the cruelty of English townspeople could hardly have been more out of place” (108). In 1903 the story was published in Conrad's Typhoon; And Other Stories.
I am grateful to my student Kimberly Willman for her many insights into the film which she shared during our discussions of her term paper in a recent course on Conrad and film.
111. In contrast to Conrad's more convoluted narratives, such as Heart of Darkness, Kennedy's story of Yanko Goorall proceeds in mostly chronological order, with a few clearly marked flashbacks and occasional interpretive or philosophical comments as rhetorically weighty as those of his interlocutor.
The provisional titles were “A Castaway” and “The Husband” (Baines 265). Perhaps Conrad was led (consciously or not) to name the story after Amy Foster as compensation for the unusually negative characterization of her, as described below.
114-16. In this sensitive rendering of Yanko's experience, Dr. Kennedy engages in subtle use of free indirect discourse. However, this does not justify Hugh Epstein characterization of this narrative technique as “Conrad's purest piece of impressionism” (228).
136. Miss Swaffer, with “the unmoved countenance of the deaf, spoke very seldom, and her lips … astonished one sometimes by a mysteriously ironic curl”; she dresses in black to mourn the accidental death many years ago of her fiancé (128).
More recently, Richard Ruppel has interpreted “Amy Foster” as “a colonialist story in reverse … a parady of the imperialist adventure tale” (“Yanko” 126,131), and Myrtle Hooper, in a feminist reading, has argued that Kennedy projects onto Amy his own failure to fully understand Yanko. Brian Schaeffer and Sue Finkelstein have analyzed the story in light of trauma theory, from differing perspectives. Finkelstein's argument is weakened by her assertion that the story, published in 1901, was written “within a year before [Conrad's] severe psychotic breakdown of 1911” (20).
Reader's Guide 142-43. In Three Lives, Karl asserts that the story “works best at its simplest level” (514).
Richard Herndon, citing Gustav Morf's accounts of those visits (69-70), mentions that Carpathian mountain peasants are called goralians, from which Yanko's last name is presumably derived (156); see “Amy Foster” 133.
Herndon 559-61; Nettles.
Hueffer had described in his The Cinque Ports (1900) and spoken with Conrad about two Germans who had been abused by Kentish villagers because of their strange ways and foreign language; one of them had been shipwrecked near Hueffer's home (163-64). Herndon gives a detailed account of Conrad's indebtedness to Hueffer for “Amy Foster,” correcting Hueffer's claim that Conrad stole the story from him (550-54).
Bertrand Russell, whose friendship with Conrad began in 1913, thought that this “extraordinarily moving story” expressed the “loneliness Conrad had felt among the English” (89). Gail Fraser's 1988 study of Conrad's manuscript changes and later revisions to the story finds a consistent effort to vivify “the author's deepest feelings of loneliness and disorientation” (181).
Three Lives 515. Sanford Pinsker argues that language and silence constitute the central theme of “Amy Foster,” and that the author—“concerned, even obsessed, with the fragile medium of words”—here foreshadows Modernist distrust in the efficacy of language (179).
Herndon, drawing from several sources, including Jessie Conrad, notes these and many other parallels between the Conrads' married life and the short story (551, 563-66). He also notes a possible source for this incident in Conrad's severe illness during his trip to the Congo in 1890, when a native woman brought him water as he lay sick and abandoned (558).
Karl, Three Lives 369. The summary following in this paragraph is based on Baines 169-72; Meyer 117-19; Karl, Three Lives 117-19; and Najder 193-98, 223-24.
566. Notably problematic marriages are central also to Conrad's short stories “The Idiots” (1896) and “The Return” (1898), as well as the novel The Secret Agent (1907).
Bruce Harkness parodied a homosexual reading of “The Secret Sharer” in his 1965 essay. Lange's discussion of homoeroticism in Lord Jim is cursory.
36. On the “homosocial continuum,” see Sedgwick 1-5.
The absence of genuine sexuality in Kidron's ostensibly “liberated” To Wong Foo is consistent with the tentative treatment of Kennedy's homosexuality in Swept from the Sea.
Barry was music director for Out of Africa, Born Free, Midnight Cowboy, Shampoo, Body Heat, Dances with Wolves, and The Scarlet Letter, among many other films.
Roger Ebert argues that the film should have eliminated Kennedy as narrator and been told in straightforward fashion. He is particularly disturbed by the fact that Kennedy tells Miss Swaffer things she knows already. Another problem is that Kennedy's narrative often includes details he probably could not have known. But this is true in Conrad's “Amy Foster,” elsewhere in his fiction, and in many another first-person literary narrative.
To Wong Foo wants you to believe, writes Corlis, “that the drag queen, because he is at ease with his ersatz sexuality, is a true liberator: he can teach feminism to women and manners to men.”
In The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972) and Fox and His Friends (1974), Fassbinder shows lesbians and gays as both victims and perpetrators of psychological and sexual exploitation. In In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) a man undergoes a sex-change operation mistakenly thinking this is what the man he loves wants, and is then abused and abandoned by another man with whom s/he falls in love. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), perhaps Fassbinder's best known film, is among other things an ironic put-down of traditional romantic assumptions about heterosexual love and marriage.
In the short story, Kennedy sets Yanko's first such view of the sea, gazing “lost in an air of wild surprise,” at a presumably much earlier time (113).
There are veiled allusions to Amy's true parentage, readable only in retrospect, in that earlier scene. Mary tells Isaac, “I should have stayed with your father,” and Isaac remarks that he has “no right to tell [Amy] anything.”
Peter Matthews finds this pool scene “the only big laugh” of a film which he finds cannot compare in “goofball revisionism” with Roland Jaffe's Scarlet Letter.
The filmmakers had obviously planned originally to include the child-rescue scene, since there is a reference to it on the deed to the cottage which Yanko signs. But the viewer's glimpse of this is so brief that this reference is not likely to be noticed.
The novella is contained in A Set of Six. See Watson.
Andreach, Robert J. “The Two Narrators of ‘Amy Foster.’” Studies in Short Fiction 2, 3 (1965): 262-69.
Andrew, Dudley. “Adaptation.” Gerald Mast et al. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 4th Edition. New York: Oxford U P, 1992.
Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960.
Conrad, Joseph. “Amy Foster.” Typhoon and Other Stories. Kent Edition. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1925. Citation of other works by Conrad are to this edition.
Corliss, Richard. “Quel Drag!” Review of To Wong Foo. Time 146, 12 (Sept. 18, 1995).
Ebert, Roger. Review of Swept from the Sea. Chicago Sun-Times. Online.
Epstein, Hugh. ‘“Where He Is Not Wanted’: Impression and Articulation in ‘The Idiots’ and ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana 23, 3 (1991): 217-32.
Finkelstein, Sue. “Hope and Betrayal: A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana 32, 1 (2000: 20-30.
Fraser, Gail. “Conrad's Revisions to ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana 20, 3 (1988): 181-93.
Graver, Lawrence. Conrad's Short Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.
Guthmann, Edward. “‘Swept from the Sea’ is Lush and Moody.” San Francisco Chronicle 23 January 1998. Online.
Harkness, Bruce. “The secret of ‘The secret sharer’ bared.” College English 27, 5 (1965): 55-61.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. One of Us: The Mastery of Joseph Conrad. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.
Herndon, Richard. “The Genesis of Conrad's ‘Amy Foster.’” Studies in Philology 58, 3 (July 1960): 549-56.
Hodges, Robert R. “Deep Fellowship: Homosexuality and Male Bonding in the Life and Fiction of Joseph Conrad.” Journal of Homosexuality 4, 4 (1979): 379-93.
Holden, Stephen. “‘Swept From the Sea’: A Romance in the Rain.” New York Times 23 Jan. 1998. Online. ‹http://www.nytimes.com/library/film/012398swept-film-review.html›.
Hooper, Myrtle. “‘Oh, I Hope He Won't Talk’: Narrative and Silence in ‘Amy Foster.’” The Conradian 21 (1996), 51-64.
Hueffer, Ford Madox. The Cinque Ports: A Historical and Descriptive Record. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1900.
James, Nick. Review of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Sight and Sound 5, 12 (Dec. 1995): 52-53.
Karl, Frederick. Joseph Conrad, The Three Lives: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.
———. A Reader's Guide to Joseph Conrad. New York: Noonday, 1960.
Lange, Robert J. G. “The Eyes Have It: Homoeroticism in Lord Jim.” Philological Papers (West Virginia University) 38 (1992 ): 59-68.
Matthews, Peter. Review of Amy Foster [film]. Sight and Sound 8,5 (May 1998): 40.
McCracken, Scott. “‘A Hard and Absolute Condition of Existence’: Reading Masculinity in Lord Jim.” Michael Roberts, ed. Conrad and Gender (The Conradian Series, ed. Robert Hampson and Gene M. Moore). Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993. 17-37.
Meyer, Bernard C. Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1967.
Morf, Gustave. The Polish Heritage of Joseph Conrad. London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1930.
Moore, Gene M. Conrad on Film. New York: Cambridge U P, 1997.
Najder, Zdzislaw. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1983.
Nettels, Elsa. “‘Amy Foster’ and Stephen Crane's ‘The Monster.’” Conradiana 15, 3 (1983): 181-90.
Pinsker, Sanford. “‘Amy Foster’: A Reconsideration.” Conradiana 9 (1977), 179-86.
Ruppel, Richard. “Yanko Goorall in the Heart of Darkness: ‘Amy Foster’ as a Colonialist Text.” Conradiana 28, 2 (summer 1996): 126-32.
———. “Joseph Conrad and the Ghost of Oscar Wilde.” The Conradian 23, 1 (spring 1998): 19-36.
Russell, Bertrand. Portraits from Memory and other Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
Shaffer, Brian W. “Swept from the Sea: Trauma and Otherness in Conrad's ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana 32, 3 (fall 2000): 163-76.
Stewart, J. I. M. Joseph Conrad. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1968.
Tanner, Tony. The Oxford Book of Sea Stories. New York: Oxford U P, 1995.
Watson, Wallace. “Intersecting Texts: Conrad's “‘The Duel’ and Ridley Scott's The Duellists.” Conrad's Century: The Past and Future Splendour. Ed. Laura L. Davis. Vol. VII of Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives, ed. Wieslaw Krajka. Boulder: Social Science Monographs, and Lublin: Maria Curie-Sklodowski Univ. (distr. Columbia U P), 1998.
SOURCE: Martinière, Nathalie. “Symbolic Space and Narrative Focus: The Cabin in Conrad's Sea Stories.” The Conradian 27, no. 1 (spring 2002): 24-38.
[In the following essay, Martinière explores how the spatial organization of ships affects individuality and community in “The Secret Sharer,” The Shadow-Line, and The Nigger of the “Narcissus.”]
Many of Conrad's novels and short stories deal with the loss of reassuring landmarks that characterized the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. God's “death,” proclaimed by Nietzsche, and Freud's theories, together with political and social upheavals, left people isolated in a universe of instability and doubt. Conrad's sea fictions display a desperate yet lucid desire to preserve or recreate aboard ship a feeling of togetherness that no longer existed elsewhere. This longing is expressed in highly lyrical ways, and the sailors are repeatedly described as members of “the brotherhood of the sea” (The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 30). But even in ships, the risk of individualism and self-centredness cannot be ignored. Conrad's fiction shows a struggle between two simultaneous types of desire: a desire for supportive togetherness, and a desire to assert the pre-eminence of the self, regardless of the community's best interests.
The structure of his fictions reflects this struggle in...
(The entire section is 6069 words.)
SOURCE: Hampson, Robert. “‘Because of the Dollars’ and the Already Written.” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 34, nos. 1-2 (fall 2002): 95-106.
[In the following essay, Hampson finds parallels between “Because of the Dollars” and Victory.]
In May 1912 Conrad began work on what he intended to be a short story. It was called “Dollars,” and Augustus/Gustavus Berg was its central character. Conrad worked steadily on the story, and, in October, he announced to his agent, J. B. Pinker, that “Dollars” was not to be a short story after all but a full-length novel. He sent Pinker an outline of the plot for use in discussions with American publishers.
It has a typical Malay setting—an unconventional man and a girl on an island under peculiar circumstances to whom enters a gang of three ruffians also of a rather unconventional sort—this intrusion producing certain psychological developments and effects.1
By December 1913, Conrad had decided to change the name of the central character from Berg to Heyst, and he had added the subtitle “An Island Story.” In July 1914 copy of the completed novel was sent to New York for serialization in Munsey's Magazine. Victory appeared in book form in America in March 1915 and in Britain in September 1915.
Before the final “long haul”...
(The entire section is 5158 words.)
Batchelor, John. The Life of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1993, 368 p.
Biography of Conrad, examining the complex Conradian relationship of life and art through the study of archival materials, personal letters, and his published works.
Adams, David. “‘Remorse and Power’: Conrad's Karain and the Queen.” Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 721-52
Examines the role of remorse in “Karain: A Memory” and provides a specific historical model for the gilt coin in the story.
Finkelstein, Sue. “Hope and Betrayal: A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 1 (spring 2000): 20-30.
Delineates autobiographical aspects of “Amy Foster” and provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of Conrad's story.
Fraser, Gail. “Conrad's Revisions to ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 20, no. 3 (1988): 181-94.
Maintains that Conrad's revisions to “Amy Foster” function to universalize the feelings of loneliness and dislocation at the heart of the story.
Hamner, Robert. “The Enigma of Arrival in ‘An Outpost of Progress.’” Conradiana: A...
(The entire section is 588 words.)