A Political Genealogy of Joseph Conrad

By Thomas, Reena | Joseph Conrad Today, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

A Political Genealogy of Joseph Conrad


Thomas, Reena, Joseph Conrad Today


A Political Genealogy of Joseph Conrad Richard Ruppel Lanham: Lexington, 2015 vii+147 pp. $90 / $39.99

Working through Conrad's novels, essays, and short stories, Richard Ruppel responds to critical attempts to understand Conrad's politics within a consistent philosophy or development of ideas, calling such analysis "naive and unsatisfying" (3). Ruppel summarizes the positions of three prominent critics and bedrocks of Conradian political analysis-Irving Howe, Eloise Knapp Hay, and Avrom Fleishman- as well as several recent critics, to spotlight how their analyses rehearse a sense of stability in Conrad that Ruppel claims is nonexistent. Instead, Ruppel argues Conrad's texts assume political stances that are not only contradictory but also contingent on audience and genre, in addition to personal experiences and everyday politics. For instance, while The Nigger of the "Narcissus " may reflect a conservative bent in its negative portrayal of labor unions, Ruppel insists the text's conservatism results from the limits of its genre as a colonial adventure and claims the tale (as well as its famous "Preface") speaks to the sentiments of The New Review editor William Henley, who was anti-democratic and affirmed the art-forart's sake aesthetic movement. Relying on Lyotard's critique of the grand narrative, Ruppel avoids any interpretation of Conrad that supports a stable vision, locating irresolvable discontinuities and disruptions in Conrad's political meditations throughout his texts.

In addition to The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Ruppel analyzes Almayer's Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, "An Anarchist," "The Informer," The Secret Agent, A Personal Record, Under Western Eyes, and Chance. The Nigger of the "Narcissus " is paired with Conrad's first two Malay novels as models of the colonial adventure genre that heavily influenced the former seaman. Ruppel delineates the tropes Conrad freely uses in depicting non-white characters that were informed by non-fictional sources such as published travel journals, periodicals, and magazines. Ruppel focuses on Conrad's characterization of the Malay women, which fell into stereotypes of docile females, dangerous temptress, or asexual hags. Though Nina is acknowledged as an atypical non-white character in Almayer's Folly, Ruppel believes that her uniqueness is compromised by her biracial status; that is, her complexity can be attributed to her whiteness, challenging yet also appeasing Conrad's audience. At the same time, Conrad's imperial heroes, such as Lingard in An Outcast of the Islands, are flawed and deluded. Thus, Conrad's indulgence of racial stereotypes abides with his critique of cultural interference, an "uneasy amalgam between a humane tolerance and acceptance of [both] the other and the genre of colonial adventure fiction" (34-35).

Ruppel divides his analysis of Lord Jim into three distinct categories: Colonialist Roots, The Politics of Class, and The Critique of the Grand Narrative. He points to Lord Jim as the culmination of Conrad's Malay fiction, as the novel is replete with formulaic representations, such as Dain Waris as the noble savage and faithful helper. However, Ruppel notes that Lord Jim is subversive in two ways: it "casually" yet intentionally challenges class division fueled by mercantile capitalism; also, it denies the grand narrative, a point Ruppel admits is non-controversial (48). Brierly demonstrates the novel's "chiaroscuro" politics best as he is both an "unfeeling racist and a supremely effective [. . .] tool of capital-fueled imperialism" (50). Ruppel also compares the Patna episode with its source, the true account of the Jeddah, observing that the Jeddah's passengers actively tried to escape the drowning ship, while the Patna pilgrims remain immobile. In this way, the text denounces Brierly's racism yet denies non-whites agency. Ruppel continues his analysis with Heart of Darkness, beginning with a detailed comparison of Conrad's most famous tale with "The Transfer," written by contemporary C. …

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