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

The Case of Mrs Schomberg in Victory

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

The Case of Mrs Schomberg in Victory

Article excerpt

"One was inclined to think of her as an It - an automaton, a very plain dummy, with an arrangement for bowing the head at times and smiling stupidly now and then."

Victory (1915)

CONRAD'S LATE FICTION repeatedly returns to versions of the female dummy, explicitly in the automaton-like Mrs Schomberg in Victory and Rita's mutilated mannequin in The Arrow of Gold and, implicitly, in the somnambulant Winnie of The Secret Agent and the distressed Arlette of The Rover. In Victory, perhaps the most alarming indicator of Lena's undesirable position as the object of Mr Schomberg's aggressive affections is the figure of his lamentable wife, that "very plain dummy" who ornaments his hotel's billiard-room like an "enthroned idol" (40, 39). Conrad makes it clear that Mrs Schomberg assists Lena in her escape with Heyst because she accurately sees Lena as a threat to her wifely position in the household, yet he leaves the possibility open that her assistance is also tinged with compassion, since she knows intimately the violence her husband can inflict. Although she is not central to the novel's action, Conrad presents Mrs Schomberg as a double for Lena, whose immediate desirability ironically portends the future possibility of her becoming an aged, spent woman like Mrs Schomberg or Laughing Anne in "Because of the Dollars," Conrad's contemporaneous short story set in the Malay Archipelago.

Conrad's explicit treatment of the commodification of European women on Java sympathetically renders their struggles against the dehumanizing effects of the dominating male desire exemplified by Mr Schomberg, and it clearly links such European women to colonized women and to subjects of imperial domination more broadly. In Victory and "Because of the Dollars," Conrad depicts the illegitimate basis for patriarchal power most directly in his portrayal of European women's subjugation to European men's desires, erotic or commercial. The metaphorical description of Mrs Schomberg as an "automaton" (40) predates Conrad's use of the damaged artist's dummy as a double for the heroine in The Arrow of Gold, yet the comparison is striking, since Mrs Schomberg resembles a living version of that spent, mutilated dummy from the studio; described as wooden, she is presumed to be thoughtless, if not exactly headless. At times, Davidson sees her as so dehumanized that she functions as a kind of relic of the woman that she once was, now isolated in the hotel under her husband's brutal stewardship and lacking the pleasant companionship of another human being. In Victory, Conrad uses the uncanny figure of the dummy, that site upon which European men can freely project erotic and frequently violent fantasies, in part as a way to consider the psychological results of the trauma vulnerable women experience and to demonstrate the effects of unchecked patriarchal authority upon such dependent women.

There appear to be few European women in the islands in Victory, and Conrad sketches particularly dismal circumstances for them. Davidson's first mention of Mrs Schomberg is preceded by his description of the lamentable "Ladies' Orchestra" in which Lena performs: "Davidson felt sorry for the eighteen lady-performers. He knew what that sort of life was like, the sordid conditions and brutal incidents of such tours led by such Zangiacomos who often were anything but musicians by profession" (38). If by implication the women are for the most part poor and poor-quality musicians, and perhaps matronly prostitutes when the situation demands it, then the man who took the stage-name Zangiacomo might well be "anything" "by profession," including their pimp. Davidson draws upon his general experience to sympathize with the performers, later asserting that the women in the orchestra are not "much better than slaves really" (40). "Beastly life for these women!" he sums up (40). In framing the description of Mrs Schomberg with the depiction of Zangiacomo's orchestra, Conrad invites a broader criticism of the similarly enslaving and exploitative conditions to which women like Mrs Schomberg are subject in unequal marriage, for certainly Mrs Schomberg's life is likewise characterized by the "sordid conditions and brutal incidents" that Davidson imagines for the female musicians. …

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