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

Suicide, Feminism, and "The Miserable Dependence of Girls" in "The Idiots," the Secret Agent, and Chance

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

Suicide, Feminism, and "The Miserable Dependence of Girls" in "The Idiots," the Secret Agent, and Chance

Article excerpt

Ihe HEM of her skirt seemed to float over that awful sheer drop, she was so close to the edge," recalls Marlow of Flora de Barrai (43), the heroine of Chance, who, ill-served by the nineteenth-century ideal of benevolent paternalism, contemplates suicide. The striking image of a skirt on the edge of the quarry, a representation of her fragile femininity with its floating hem, effectively dramatizes the brutal death that a mere step would confer. Having lost her scheming lover, her manipulative governess, and the prestige and wealth offered by her father's former position, Flora is on the edge, metaphorically as well as literally, struggling with her identity and future social role. As a pure young woman mired in her father's dishonour and her guardian's cruelty, Flora appears to be a variation on the figure of the disgraced suicidal woman, familiar from Victorian art and literature, since these betrayals make her hopeless and uncertain of her place.

"The Idiots," The Secret Agent, and Chance each develop a critique of patriarchy by sympathetically portraying the heroine's struggles against her proscribed role and its absurd limitations. The heroines of the first two named fictions drown themselves at the conclusion of their respective texts in a final hopeless gesture against society that also marks the limits of conventional narrative. In Chance, the heroine considers suicide repeatedly, yet she chooses to live and ultimately to remarry, fulfilling some version of the happy marriage plot, even as the novel invites criticism of such a resolution. The figure of the nineteenthcentury female suicide becomes an increasingly familiar trope from the 1840s onwards - typically a depiction of a young woman who drowns herself to escape disgrace - which served as a poignant moral reminder for women to value their purity (Nicoletti 2007: 9).1 This image figures prominently in "The Idiots" and in The Secret Agent., although Conrad's approach, tempered with irony, departs from the familiar, sentimentalized notion of the tragic woman. The suicides in these narratives are not unwed mothers but married women who have killed their husbands, and, despite the seriousness of the crimes, Conrad frames their drownings as the remedy to the impossible liberation provided by the crime, working against received expectations surrounding contemporary depictions of the drowned woman. Reflecting on the disgrace implicit in the original image, Conrad uses the figure of the female suicide to pose a social critique, inviting sympathy for these murderous heroines by acknowledging that their circumstances are not entirely of their own making.

In some ways, Chance might be said to begin where the other two narratives leave off, posing an alternative to suicide for Flora, who considers suicide at several significant junctures in the text. Her circumstances illuminate the way in which her infantilizing upbringing leaves her unprepared for the kind of worldly self-interest that her father, her governess, and her suitor represent. After Marlow's call, she draws back from the edge, yet that resonant image immediately comes to mind when he returns to visit the Fynes on the night she has disappeared. Invited to envision Flora's suicide as the completion of the earlier scene, the reader soon realizes with Marlow that Flora has actually run away to start a new life, rather than end her life.

The repeated possibility of her suicide forms the beginning of the heroine's story in Chance. Feeling worthless, betrayed, and unlovable, Flora accepts the Victorian ideology that suicide is a remedy for dishonour, self-destruction becoming a means for a generally passive woman to protest, or at least abandon, her subordinate position in the patriarchal system. Furthermore, in developing Marlow's perspective on Flora in Chance, Conrad draws attention to the process of storytelling, drawing from popular narratives and iconography in a tale told by a contradictory, often unfamiliar, version of Marlow, who veers from being sympathetic to being strident. …

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