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(Post)colonial, Queer: Lord Jim

From: Conradiana
Volume 44, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 71-83 | 10.1353/cnd.2012.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

(Post)colonial, Queer:
Lord Jim

The Orient becomes a living tableau of queerness.

EDWARD SAID, Orientalism

A number of books and articles in recent years have attempted to examine the critical perspective provided by the intersection between postcolonial theory and queer theory.1 Each theory is critical of the other: postcolonial theory claims that queer theory is white and elitist while queer theory claims that postcolonial theory is homophobic (Hawley 1). These books and articles, such as Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections and Postcolonial and Queer Theories, both edited by John C. Hawley; Imperial Desire: Dissident Sexualities and Colonial Literature, edited by Philip Holden and Richard J. Ruppel; and an article by Terry Goldie entitled “Queerly Postcolonial” attempt to use the tools provided by each of these theories to better understand and critique texts. As the epigraph attests, one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies, Edward Said’s Orientalism, takes as part of its argument the way colonialism and sexuality intersect.

Postcolonial scholars and, to a lesser extent, queer theorists have critiqued Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900). My goal is to combine the tools of postcolonial and queer theory to better understand Conrad’s novel. A reading like this begins problematically because one seems to be forced to emphasize one perspective over the other. Each has particular critical tools that one could claim are the best place to begin constructing a reading of the text. I want to apply a number of critical formulations to the text: the construction of Occident/Orient, triangulations of desire, and the disavowal of intimacies. I will not attempt to favor one theory over the other and I will argue that, to the extent that colonial discourse informs a text, both queer theory and postcolonial theory will [End Page 71] be needed to construct an accurate reading of that text. For example, analyzing triangulations of desire in Lord Jim can only be done fully when one also takes into account the way the “Orient” is constructed through discourse.

Three main points structure my reading: triangulations of desire, the orientalization of certain characters in the text, and the romanticization of colonialism. I will argue that Marlow constructs Jim as the apex in a homosocial triangulation of desire between Marlow and his audience. Marlow narrates the Patusan characters Dain Waris, Tamb’ Itam, and Jewel in opposition to Jim. He constructs them in such a way as to provide for the possibility of homosexuality in his narrative while at the same time denying that possibility. He also provides characters like Cornelius and Rajah Allang who function to stabilize Jim’s place in the text as occidental and masculine even as he is feminized by Marlow. Marlow’s narrative is complicit with imperialism and colonialism, and in fact needs them in order to be effective.

Marlow’s narration of Jim and Jim’s story constructs a homosocial triangle in which Jim becomes the apex that unites Marlow with his audience. More specifically, at the end of the novel, Marlow unites himself with the single, privileged reader who is the only one who hears about Jim’s final acts and his death at the hands of Doramin. I will analyze the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized in the figures of Jim and several of the Patusan characters. Finally, I will examine Jim’s death and explain why Marlow refers to it as “an extraordinary success!”

1. Narrating Desire, Triangulating Desire

In “Narrative Strategy and Imperialism in Lord Jim,” Padmini Mongia argues that the narrative uses imperialism to explore Jim as a character and that Marlow’s narrative portrays Jim as a colonized figure rather than the agent of colonialism. For Mongia, Jim’s desire for romantic heroism is also a desire for imperialism; Marlow hides Jim’s colonial sympathy by portraying him as a colonized figure. But why? Mongia suggests that there is a “bond” between Marlow and Jim, but does not elaborate as to what this bond might be.

Mongia insists that Jim’s desire for romantic heroism is also an imperial desire, but might that also be homosocial desire? By “homosocial desire,” I mean desire that will always verge on the...