Academic journal article Conradiana

The Ligeia Syndrome, or, Many "Happy Returns," in Conrad's Gothic

Academic journal article Conradiana

The Ligeia Syndrome, or, Many "Happy Returns," in Conrad's Gothic

Article excerpt

At the heart of Conrad's darkness and the heart of modernist Gothic is the urge to recapture the past so as to exorcise it once and for all. In so doing, Conrad relies on the trappings of the Gothic literary tradition as he revisits, revises, and at times parodies the Gothic mode of his nineteenth-century predecessors, trying to escape the anxiety of influence. Ultimately, the terror inspired by the literary Gothic forebears has more to do with the act of writing in a solipsistic universe and the author's ensuing Angst as an isolated voice than on any real belief in supernatural intervention, unless it is the ghostly intervention of the celebrated authorial Gothic voices of the past. Conrad's Gothic protagonists, as well as Conrad, are haunted by the possibility of having someone create the proper script for them. They are as much troubled by the auteur revenant as they are of the femme revenante.

Recent critics have started examining Conrad's Gothic, especially as it relates to constructions of masculinity--and concomitant fears of the feminine, such as Padmini Mongia's study of a feminized Jim (in the context of a Gothic heroine) in her "'Ghosts of the Gothic': Spectral Women and Colonized Spaces in Lord Jim. " (1) Some have looked to Poe's influence, but the latter have usually made comparisons between Poe's use of the double (as a Gothic device) and Conrad's use of the double in "The Secret Sharer" and Poe's use in "William Wilson" (2) or the racialized or feminized other as Gothic figure in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. (3) Perhaps Ted Billy has, in passing, most frequently alluded to the Poe/Conrad connections in his study of Conrad's short fiction, but his most sustained discussion comes in his chapter on Conrad's "The Inn of the Two Witches," which, Billy feels, owes its gothic framework, to, among other American Gothic masters, Poe, and most especially to Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." (4) Interestingly, those Conrad stories written in a Gothic vein, like "The Inn of the Two Witches" and "The Return," are considered second-rate by critics and often dismissed as potboilers, though sporadic attention has been given to "The Return" and "The Smile of Fortune," the two Conrad stories I consider here. (5) What interests me in recent criticism of these stories is the attention to irony, for I think it is through Conrad's ironic stance that he undoes the serious Gothic. (6) Unlike Billy, I feel that both Conrad and Poe have a certain gallows humor; Billy seems to dismiss Poe's humor in making a case for Conrad's. (7) However, it is through Conrad's humor, based on irony in "The Return" and "The Smile of Fortune," that Conrad is able to question and revise the Gothic script of his predecessors.

An understanding of Conrad as modernist is also significant in the Gothic context because irony is one of its underlying telltale modes. Kenneth Graham believes that "parody, comic or uncomic ... becomes one of Modernism's favoured genres." (8) And he feels that Conrad, above all the other Modernists, could feel the rift between a romanticized past and a realistic present, a chasm which led to the tensions of Modernism: "Only a writer, like Conrad, whose mind could still entertain nineteenth-century images of heroism and meaningful action ... could offer a fully dramatic and involved critique of those same images and values." (9) This ability to participate in and to distance himself simultaneously from the Gothic, as a literary mode, or from the Gothic conception of the idealistic individual (after all, Gothicism and Romanticism were akin in their origins and goals), accounts for Conrad's problematic (half serious, half comical) treatment of Gothic elements in his own work.

The purpose of my essay is twofold: to show how Conrad uses and subverts Gothic conventions and to analyze his Gothic in the context of Poe's and to a lesser extent Hawthorne's writing--i. …

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