- Conrad & Homosexuality
Richard Ruppel’s Homosexuality in the Life and Work of Joseph Conrad is an attempt to expose evidence of submerged homoerotic themes in Conrad’s fiction. The argument begins with the assertion that Conrad was a “man’s man,” who preferred the company of men to that of women. None of this is new or controversial to scholars of Conrad, but what Ruppel seeks to do is extend this perception of Conrad the man into his fiction, thereby revealing previously unnoticed evidence of homoerotic desire among his male characters. By placing Conrad within the context of the homosexual scandals of the fin de siècle, Ruppel stresses that homosexuality was a vexed issue in the closing years of the nineteenth century. It was a theme to be treated with extreme authorial caution, hence the argument that homosexuality was written between the lines of Conrad’s fiction.
Ruppel cites the usual literary examples—Whitman, Tennyson and Wilde—in describing the prevailing concerns about homosexuality towards the end of the century. He does not insist that Conrad himself was bisexual, but rather that one might “infer that Conrad had what we would now call a homosexual orientation.” At the root of this argument is the assertion that Conrad was “imaginatively bisexual” in that he included covert, even unconscious, themes of homoeroticism in his novels and stories. This is a daring undertaking that, as Ruppel rightly acknowledges, will not be universally welcomed within the Conrad reading community, but he cites the work of Jeremy Hawthorn and Geoffrey Gald Harpham as having prepared the ground for his thesis.
Ruppel’s argument is at its most persuasive when he is dealing with Conrad’s fiction. Chapter two, “Life, Letters and Neurasthenia,” strains to “read between the lines” of Conrad’s relationships with men and women, and of the Conrad marriage, in order to reveal evidence of actual homosexual sympathies in the author. He is on far firmer ground when [End Page 492] he turns his attention to the early fiction in chapter three, where he deals with The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and Heart of Darkness. When Ruppel avers that The Nigger of the “Narcissus” is “a eulogy to the age of sail, and one of the essential features of the old sailing ships was the frank, open camaraderie of the crew, celebrated so homoerotically in the opening of the novel,” he certainly has a point. He could have added greater force to his argument, however, if he had offered a fuller exploration of homoerotic activity aboard ship during the age of sail. That most enigmatic of Conrad’s works, Heart of Darkness, still offers fertile ground for any number of innovative readings, and Ruppel’s discussion of this novella, in particular his argument concerning the Russian Harlequin’s infatuation with Kurtz, is one of the most effective.
Similarly, Ruppel’s treatment of Romance, Victory, and Conrad’s “bachelor fiction” provides food for thought. Jones’s homosexuality in Victory is barely, if at all, disguised, and thus Ruppel’s assertions here have undoubted validity; but ironically, it is his discussion of the other characters that provides most insight and useful comment on the novel, even though this tends not to be focused around the theme of homosexuality. When it comes to Lord Jim he also has some convincing arguments regarding the homosocial world inhabited by both Jim and Marlow. There is a good account of the “feminine” language that Marlow uses to describe Jim, though perhaps to describe Marlow’s “final catalogue of Jim’s beauty” as the “last lament of a despairing lover” will provoke some readers. That being said, Ruppel is in safer territory when discussing homosexuality in “Il Conde” and The Shadow Line, and the evidence of lesbian tendencies in Chance. However, his inference of homosexuality in Under Western Eyes is much less convincing and would probably have been best not included.
Ruppel concludes his study by considering the effect of Yanko Goral on Dr. Kennedy in “Amy Foster” and makes a good...