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  • Conrad’s “Woman as Truth” Topos: “Supposing Truth Is a Woman — What Then?”
  • William Freedman

The topos of the dangerous woman in many of Conrad’s narratives is more than an emblem of authorial gynophobia — it stands for the danger of truth or knowledge, typically for the protectively hidden truths of the instinctual, uncontrollable, or savage self whose trampling of self possession is tantamount to death. Is Conrad’s presentation of woman as the alluring and intimidating object of knowledge to be construed literally or metaphorically? I believe that the two options are compatible and belong to the tradition in which woman, like truth itself, holds special claim as the fascinating object of male desire, forbidden, and inscrutable — this last largely as a defense against the danger of what so irresistibly draws men. The ambivalent attitude toward hidden truth in Conrad’s fiction typically derives from its association with woman as both carnal reality and the symbolic incarnation of forbidden knowledge.


In Conrad’s “The Planter of Malata,” on four occasions the ironically named Felicia announces her identity as truth itself, e. g. “Here I stand for truth itself” (WT 78; cf. also 43, 47, 75). In numerous other cases the association is latent—for instance, in the feminization of the natural landscapes which, as in Heart of Darkness, speak the savage truth to those brave or foolhardy enough to pay attention. Woman merges with nature as the unfathomable other; Conrad’s male narrators and protagonists often identify her with the enigmatic, mysterious, and unfathomable—the sea, the wilderness, “truth” itself. In The Arrow of Gold, for example, Rita embodies “that something secret and obscure which is in all women” (146).1 [End Page 67]

In “The Return” woman is explicitly identified as a form of the world’s impenetrable and unutterable secret. Groping at the feet of the wife who has betrayed him (as the sea, the wilderness, and other objects of hungering curiosity tend to do), Alvan Hervey is “penetrated by an irresistible belief in an enigma, by the conviction that within his reach and passing away from him was the very secret of existence — its certitude, immaterial and precious” (TU 176). In Under Western Eyes Razumov regards Natalie Haldin “not as an individual, but as the symbol of transcendent value”; his desire for her “is transposed metonymically into desire for the truth, the removal of the last obstacle to full utterance” (Cave 1998: 5). In Chance “the ‘inwardness’ of events becomes symbolically female, so that knowledge and ignorance of women function as paradigms of all knowledge and ignorance” (Roberts 1993: 98). And in “Falk,” as in “The Planter of Malata,” the link is literal and explicit. The narrator of “Falk,” gazing at Hermann’s niece, gifted with a bewitching “profusion of sensuous charms,” identifies her as “the eternal truth of an unerring principle” (TLS 236).

It is tempting to dismiss this claim as ironic, the heated untruth man is heir to when dazed by desire.2 But the narrator’s perception is familiar. With magnificent hair — abundant, long, thick, and of the lion’s tawny color (TLS 151),3 Hermann’s niece, unnamed, is woman dangerously incarnate, the eternal and predatory principle of feminine sensuality. She is “an allegoric statue of the Earth” (152), a “siren” singing irresistibly the female sensuality that threatens to unravel man’s self-possession and overpower his hold on reason and self-control; she represents “the eternal truth of an unerring principle,” sufficiently threatening to demand the obfuscating reduction of her character to enigma. At the end, feebly and gratuitously, both Hermann and the narrator declare that it is “impossible to make women out” (236—37; cf. also 152, 160, 200, 201, 206, 208, 213, 216, 217, 236, and 239).4 The dark specter of the female endangers the vulnerable feminine element in man. The chilling suspicion that what she wants is man’s weakness, his capitulation, his enslavement, breeds the ostensibly irresolvable Freudian perplexity about the nature of female desire. [End Page 68]

Some recent criticism of Conrad has turned away from the earlier prevailing charge of misogynistic fear or loathing toward a more complex view of his representation of...


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