- Amy Foster and the Blindfolded Woman
"Can you understand their power?" whispered the hot breath of Mr. Jones into his ear.(Victory 313)
It is just over a hundred years since Joseph Conrad wrote "Amy Foster." Yet most readers still describe it as the story of Amy's husband, Yanko, a tragic victim. Moreover, the work is seen as autobiographical, telling the story not only of Yanko, but of Conrad himself, recording his supposed disappointment with his wife and his agonies as an immigrant. Even the most recent writers see the story as profoundly personal, and pessimistic—even cynical. (Epstein 229; Brzozowska-Krajka 175; Griem 130; Batchelor 123)1 Ian Watt set the pattern, defining the story as a reflection of its author's own misery:
Conrad's abiding sense of personal loneliness is suggested in his story "Amy Foster," which tells how an emigrant who seems to come from Poland is shipwrecked and cast up on the Kentish coast, marries a local girl, and is eventually driven to madness and death because the barriers of language and custom prove insurmountable.(24)
Jeffrey Meyers simply introduces the story as "the autobiographical 'Amy Foster'" (213). "Conrad portrayed his hostility to marriage and fear of abandonment in [ . . . ] 'Amy Foster'" (Meyers 145). He even seems to apply to Conrad Kennedy's elegy for Yanko: "cast out mysteriously by the sea to perish in the supreme disaster of loneliness and despair" (Meyers 147).
Most dismiss Amy Foster herself with insulting comments. Amy is dull-witted and callous, ugly and cruel. Borrowed from the two narrators, [End Page 249] these insults sometimes include Jessie Conrad. The story of Conrad, sick and raving in Polish, frightening Jessie on their wedding trip, is repeated in virtually every work: "'Amy Foster,' Conrad's most personal story, portrays Jessie's negative qualities, their intellectual estrangement and the fierce undercurrent of his isolation, loneliness, and despair" (Meyers 145). Yet a few commentators do remark that Amy is the heart of the mystery (Epstein 229). And the consecutive titles of the story—"A Castaway," then "A Husband," then "Amy Foster"—show Conrad bringing into focus his conception of who the central character of this story would be (CL 2: 330). This is the mystery I would like to examine. I think it is important to discuss "Amy Foster" in its context with Conrad's other works of the time in order to demonstrate briefly that this story deals with its author's ongoing concerns, and is not the result of a period of depression, much less of a disastrous married life. Far from being profoundly personal, it is an important glimpse into Conrad's worldview.
It is still usual to refer to Conrad's world as one organized, dominated, and given its significance by men. Conrad's narrators' patronizing comments about the irrelevance of women to the "real" world, about women's "nature," have been so often repeated that I will refer only to the most familiar one here: "They [women] live in a world of their own. [ . . . ] It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset" (Heart 504). Such remarks should alert the reader to treat a narrator's analyses cautiously, yet scholars seem to accept these pronouncements as for the most part Conrad's opinions. At one extreme, Peter Hayes says that Conrad "identifies unequivocally with Marlow's most 'misogynistic' statements" (100). As Valerie F. Sedlak comments: "many scholars see the female characters [in Heart of Darkness] as a barometer of Conrad's hatred of, fear of, and obsession with women; they simply prove that Conrad had psychological and sexual problems" (443). At best, we are told, women's humanitarianism and optimism can inspire the active race (men) to do great deeds, or perhaps just to refrain from doing horrible ones. (Hayes 107, 109). Yet Conrad at least proposed the idea, in "Amy Foster" and other stories, that it is women who determine everything. A crucial point here is that they are somehow entitled to do so. They are not scheming to snatch the power that rightly belongs to men.