The Beast in the Congo: How Victorian Homophobia Inflects Marlow's Heart of Darkness

Article excerpt

Writing in 1899 about the serial publication of Heart of Darkness in Blackwood's Magazine, Joseph Conrad claimed: "One was in decent company there... and had a good sort of public. There isn't a single club and messroom and man-of-war in the British Seas and Dominions which hasn't got its copy of Maga." (1) Evidently Conrad had written his novel exclusively for a male readership. (2) However, there were actually two male audiences present for Marlow's tale: Conrad's literal, predominantly male readership, and Marlow's "crowd of men" (3)--entirely male (from stem to stern, so to speak)--who bear silent witness to the narrator-within-a-narrator's discourse. These four men--a lawyer, an accountant, a Director, and the nameless and non-occupationally established narrator, are based on an actual group of cronies with whom Conrad regularly associated:

Conrad was a lively raconteur who used to swap yarns with G. F. W. Hope, W. B. Keen, and C. H. Mears on Hope's yawl, the Nellie, anchored in the Thames. Hence, the setting and manner of the tale's opening. Hope was a company director, like the host in the tale; Keen an accountant; Mears a solicitor. (4)

Thus, Conrad's literal contemporary audience is paradigmatic of Marlow's fictive counterparts. Marlow's first-person narrative is not recapitulated into a vacuum; rather, he addresses a clique of late-Victorian male Londoners. The intimacy and specific referentiality of this setting presupposes its own aggregation of circumscribed masculine codes, mores, and taboos. Himself a late-Victorian male Londoner, Marlow must account for the rudiments of this subtle yet complex cultural system as he attempts to illustrate for these men his journey into the heart of darkness. I will use, among other scholarship, Eve Sedgwick's theory of Victorian "male homosexual panic" to culturally and historically contextualize Marlow's discourse, elucidating how the "crowd of men" necessarily inflects and delimits his telling of the tale.

"Male Homosexual Panic"

Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) and Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle (1902) were published within the same three-year span, and both fall historically into the cultural context characterized by what Eve Sedgwick has termed "male homosexual panic." (5) Her essay, "The Beast in the Closet," posits The Beast in the Jungle as the prototype for late-Victorian homophobia-inflected literature. Although, as Alan Sinfield points out, the category "homosexual" (and indeed, its necessary, normative opposite "heterosexual") was by the late nineteenth century yet to be officially recognized, (6) the British gentry, as rulers of both private and public spheres, yet perceived and felt embattled by an increasingly crystallized--using the term anachronistically--"homosexual" social presence. As a result, Victorian men further circumscribed their already hermetically sealed nexus of male privilege and domination. Unlike females, however, the amorphous "homosexual" could not be as easily recognized and thus summarily exc luded from the male domain; indeed, that particular enemy seemingly came from within. Thus,

[b]ecause the paths of male entitlement, especially in the nineteenth century, required certain intense male bonds that were not readily distinguishable from the most reprobated bonds, an endemic and ineradicable state of what I am calling male homosexual panic became the normal condition of male heterosexual entitlement.... [This] secularized and psychological homophobia... has [at least since the eighteenth century in England and America] excluded... segments of the continuum from participating in the overarching male entitlement--in the complex web of male power over the production, reproduction, and exchange of goods, persons, and meanings (7)

This pervasive homophobia, however, was not without cost to its male practitioners. The constant fear of discovery and attendant castigation not only kept self-recognized sexual "deviants" in the closet, but emotionally anaesthetized ostensibly sexually "normal" males as well, effectively abrogating their freedom to question their own sexuality. …