Academic journal article Conradiana

Swept Form the Sea: Trauma and Otherness in Conrad's "Amy Foster"

Academic journal article Conradiana

Swept Form the Sea: Trauma and Otherness in Conrad's "Amy Foster"

Article excerpt

"[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."'

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 generally (4) 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 disaster of loneliness and despair" glossed in the story's closing words. While other of Conrad's fictions may come to mind before "Amy Foster" for treating traumatic experience--the in digenous Congolese in Heart of Darkness and Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent are perfect examples--this story, which had the working titles "A Husband" and "A Castaway," (5) is suffused with traumatic incidents of "culture shock" as few if any other of Conrad's fictions are.

The story's central character is Yanko Goorall, a "Sclavonian" peasant "mountaineer" from "the eastern range of the Carpathians" (147), who is washed ashore upon the Kentish coast of England, in an area not far from where Conrad himself, in 1898, took up residence. The tale's central traumatic episode is the violent shipwreck of which Yanko is the sole survivor, when another ship rams Yanko's vessel on a blind night. Yet this is only one of the tale's four separate yet related traumas, even as it stands as a metaphor for all of them. These others include the trauma of being separated from family and homeland by bogus "Emigration Agencies," by "scoundrels" in league with "local usurers" who take "poor ignorant people's homesteads" in exchange for passage (147); the trauma of a terrifying sea-voyage in the dark ship's interior followed by the shipwreck itself; the trauma of a hostile reception by the uncomprehending and incomprehensible English; and, finally, the trauma of abandonment by spouse (and offspring) when the protagonist is deathly ill. Moreover, the story stands as a meditation on Otherness--particularly, on the potentially traumatic experience of radical alterity and on the potentially violent results of simplistic, binary thinking. No other Conrad text links otherness and traumatic experience so completely or poignantly.

Before pursuing the story's treatment of trauma any further, it will first be useful to gloss a number of the theories and clinical studies of trauma now and then in circulation. Interestingly, "[a]lthough pathologies have been recognized for centuries, the concept began to find its modern form a century ago" (6)--at about the time Conrad wrote his earliest fictions, among them "Amy Foster." In his 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle, for example, Freud speaks of "[a] condition [that] has long been known and described which occurs after.:. railway disasters and other accidents involving a risk to life": "traumatic neurosis." (7)

In Post-traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the Nineties Kirby Farrell observes that, clinically speaking, "trauma is an acute injury," that "[t]he term comes from the Greek word for a wound, and [that] the analogy to a physical wound has influenced thinking about psychological trauma." (8) According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the core experience of trauma is one of "intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation." (9) In Trauma and Recovery Judith L. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.