"A World of Their Own": Subversion of Gender Expectations in Conrad's Plays

Article excerpt

Bessie Carvil [is] absolutely the first conscious woman-creation in the whole body of my work.

-Joseph Conrad, Letter to J. B. Pinker

Joseph Conrad does not have a reputation as either a playwright or a writer primarily concerned with women or female roles, but the three plays he wrote challenge those assumptions. Much of his fiction depicts men in psychological and heroic dilemmas, with women relegated primarily to supporting or pedestal positions. The sole exception is Kurtz's African woman in the 1899 Heart of Darkness, who, alone, as if on a stage with an all-male cast, silences them with her "magnificent" appearance and dramatic gesture (77). The other women in that novella have roles as job brokers, weird knitting witches, objects in idealized paintings, or patient fiancees, and they are described by narrator/character Marlow in this way: "It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own"(27). While Marlow is referring here to the ideological and material separation of women from men, suggesting that women are shut out from the truth-producing world of men, we may also perceive more positive, deliberate, and powerful use of women's isolation. Marlow's deprecating comments mask critical themes to which Conrad returns continuously throughout his career: to some extent, all his protagonists attempt to get in "touch" with a truth they can believe in, acutely aware of their isolation, the disconnection between their world and others'.[1] Daniel Schwarz has argued that Conrad's career has a discernible coherence, that all "his works are expressions of his quest for values and self-definition" (156), successfully debunking earlier evaluations, led by Thomas Moser,[2] that Conrad's so-called decline was due to his new "uncongenial subject" when he began to include women more prominently in his works and turned to themes of romantic love in his works after the 1911 Under Western Eyes. Even as they move to the concerns of "how and why people love one another," his later works continue to address "how historical and social forces limit and define the possibilities for love and action" (Schwarz 156).

As a man and a writer acutely aware of the role of an outsider, as self-exiled Pole and seaman turned English citizen and writer, Conrad undoubtedly identified with the isolation imposed on and felt by women. Ruth Nadelhaft claims in her perceptive work on the women in Conrad that "the world of women is . . . the world of cosmic indifference and solitude known to the author, and at flickering intervals, to the male protagonists in stories and novels" (Joseph Conrad 80).[3] Nadelhaft observes that rather than ignoring or dismissing women, Conrad more generally "uses the characters of women to question the prevailing value system and to suggest, in their lives and in their practices, an alternative set of values" (Joseph Conrad 68). Thus the isolation Marlow detects in women's lives may metaphorically depict the human condition Conrad seeks to describe throughout his career, while the women in his plays join his other female characters in struggling to establish and maintain their identities despite the imposition of male control.

Each of Conrad's plays, One Day More (1904), and Laughing Anne and The Secret Agent (both 1920, with revisions to the latter for its 1922 production),[4] tells the tale of a solitary female protagonist who more or less successfully resists or (re)appropriates the roles "scripted" for her by men. The women not only live more complex roles than the male characters perceive, but also shape their own lives without the men noticing, through a combination of the men's refusal to see and the women's refusal to disclose. While numerous Conradian characters make (often mistaken) assumptions about others' motives, it is rare that characters, especially women, reject and revise those assumptions with such self-assurance as do the female characters in Conrad's dramas. …