- Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad
Setting himself the task of describing "how pervasive-how near-universal-the sexual and the erotic are in the pages of Conrad's fictions" (11) Jeremy Hawthorn explores Joseph Conrad's fascination with sexual passion, which, as he argues, often "interpenetrates" Conrad's public or political themes. But despite this promising opening claim, Hawthorn's analysis of Conrad's interest in sexuality and the erotic is anchored in a highly formalistic and often speculative manner. As a result the book's critical focus rests heavily on the interpretation of supposedly coded comments and ambivalent passages.
Hawthorn's interpretation relies too heavily on the discovery of a series of implied meanings that load Conrad's fiction with knowing, twenty-first century suggestiveness. For example, he draws attention to Conrad's "suggestive uses of the word 'nice'" to imply characters' campness and homosexuality, as when he suggests that in The Secret Agent the "nice young man" (34), Toodles, is probably Sir Ethelred's gay lover and he assumes that "the relationship between the older and the younger man is of a sexual nature" (38). Likewise, Privy Chancellor Wurmt might also be homosexual because he walks "with a rather mincing step" (50).
The book continues in this vein with Hawthorn's search for feminized males turning up a few examples from The Shadow-Line that provide some very thin evidence indeed. Likewise, a throwaway claim that heterosexual relationships seem to "conclude with the woman somehow ingesting the male"-Winnie Verloc's despatching of her husband with a knife that he has just used to eat some beef is presented as evidence of this-is not satisfactorily conveyed, because the argument depends heavily on suggestion or upon a very suggestive reception by the reader.
There is no doubt that Joseph Conrad was deeply concerned with sexuality and with the erotic, but, by offering an exclusively formalistic approach, Hawthorn's [End Page 130] argument is constructed upon a series of unconvincing suggestions and unlikely probabilities. Had the book paid closer attention to psychoanalytic readings instead of dismissing them (Bernard C. Meyers' Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography is rejected in the first chapter) some critical depth might have been added. As Hawthorn states, Conrad was a political novelist who was profoundly concerned with private themes, a man interested in relationships in their totality, which included their private and sexual spheres as well as their political character. Hawthorn's claim that he did write well about sexuality and the erotic cannot be disputed, but this book does not do justice to these particularly Conradian themes.
Hawthorn's formalistic approach leans heavily on textual discussion at the expense of critical and cultural analysis. Some discussion of the cultural background to the writing of these novels and short stories would have strengthened the forensic thrust of Hawthorn's argument and underlined some of the lengthy quotation that is presented in the book. Some of Hawthorn's unfocused writing also lends to the overall fuzziness of the book, with sentences such as the following stating the very obvious: "Hatred of women is not as it happens a characteristic of male homosexuality, although clearly a lack of sexual interest in women is" (56).
This book does have its moments, however, such as the discussion of the relationship between Conrad's colonial landscapes and the imperial imagination: as Hawthorn argues, the relationship between colonized terrain and the thinking that describes, maps, and controls it can be read as a barely coded sexual relationship hidden behind a veil of imperial meaning. In Conrad's colonies, however, the invaded landscape continues to resist imperial penetration: its "tangled," "contorted," and "twisted" (qtd. in Heart of Darkness, 188-89, 115) vegetation runs riot, obscuring imperial vision, blocking the passage of imperial vessels, and preventing the colonizer from exercising total control over these occupied territories. But this episode is too brief in an otherwise one-dimensional study, and ultimately it is not enough to shore the book up. A very brief citation of Edward...