Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Strange Spaces of the Rescue

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Strange Spaces of the Rescue

Article excerpt

IN THE FRANKLIN'S TALE Chaucer's Franklin bases his story upon a deliberately problematic geography. His tale opens, "In Amourik, that called is Britaine."1 Here two lovers make a somewhat unusual marriage pact before the husband, Arveragus, "Shoop him to goon and dwelle a yeer or tweyne / In Engelond, that kleped was eek Briteyne" (11. 137-38). The confusion of names acts as a prolegomenon to the problematic geography of the "rokkes blake" around the coast of "Britaine." Dorigen, Arveragus' wife, is appalled, on account of her husband's endangered return, by:

this e grisly feendly rokkes blake

That semen rather a foul confusion

Of werk than any fair creacion

Of swich a parfit wys God and a stable (LL 196-99)

Her suitor Aurelius' fulfillment of her challenge to remove the rocks is complicated by the fact that the Magician (hired by Aurelius for this purpose) only makes it seem "that alle the rokkes were aweye" (1. 624). Dorigen's response to the apparent removal of the rocks gives Conrad his epigraph for The Rescue: "Alas! Quod she, that ever this sholde happe! / For wende I never, by possibilitee, / That swich a monstre or Merveille mighteber (ll. 670-72).2

In a brief article Joel Kehler (1975) usefully draws comparisons between Chaucer and Conrad's protagonists and makes a nod to the similarity of themes in The Franklin's Tale and The Rescue. This essay draws attention to Conrad's use of Chaucer not directly to contend with Kehler but to augment his observations by using Chaucer as a way into the novel's strange geography. We may start by noting two aspects that the geographies of The Rescue and The Franklin's Tale have in common. The first is the physical danger of the Brittany coast and of "the Shallows." Conrad began work on The Rescue while on his honeymoon on HeGrande in Brittany: "As rocky and barren an island as the heart of (right-thinking) men would wish to have" (to Edward Garnett, 9 April 1896; CL1 27). Rather than recreate this visibly treacherous landscape in The Rescue,3 Conrad, like the magician in The Franklin's Tale, creates a geography in which the dangerous rocks seem not to be there but are hidden just beneath the water. Conrad makes explicit what is metaphorically implicit in Chaucer: that just because the rocks don't seem to be there does not mean one might not become wrecked upon them.

Conrad's Shallows are dangerous because they are an invisible mingling of land and sea. This "foul confusion" is reflected in Lingard's own sense of identity when he claims of his brig, "If I lost her I would have no standing room on the earth for my feet" (229). For Lingard "standing room" on earth is, in fact, not on earth but on the sea. Indeed the culmination of Conrad's first description of Lingard claims that "To him [Lightning was ... a kingdom!" (11). When Lingard first meets Hassim he explains, "here, which is also my country - being an English craft and worthy of it, too - I am powerful enough. In fact, I am Rajah here. This bit of my country is all my own" (75).4 The Hminal geography of coastline then is not only crucial to plot for Chaucer and Conrad but also indicates underlying character traits and themes. "King" Tom aboard his floating dominion is "at home" in the Shallows because he shares its characteristics of hidden depths and shallows and its commingling of two theoretically opposed states: Lingard's Western difference is accepted and paraphrased (as King Tom and Rajah Laut) rather than abandoned in his interactions with the Malays. By contrast Travers's grounded yacht symbolizes his inability to negotiate areas of blurred definition: this is man for whom, we may suspect, land is land and sea is sea and ne'er the twain shall meet. Like Aurelius (and Dorigen), Travers does not realize that clearly defined boundaries can only ever seem so. There are hidden rocks and sandbanks enough to wreck oneself upon.

This brings us to the second similarity of the texts' geographies: the problem of appearance and reality. …

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