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  • "Dead men have no children" in Conrad's "The Idiots" and "Amy Foster"
  • Ellen Burton Harrington (bio)

On the surface, Joseph Conrad's tales "The Idiots" and "Amy Foster" appear to have little in common: the former, an oft-denigrated (denigrated even by Conrad himself in his 1920 Author's Note) melodramatic story that is a distant rendering of a family tragedy culminating in murder; the latter, a much appreciated, biographically tinged tale of a castaway's ultimate rejection by his once-generous wife, which is seen through the eyes of a dominating narrator. Yet, each of the stories offers an ironic rejection of the Victorian happy marriage plot, training an almost anthropological eye on the consequences of both financial and genetic inheritance and highlighting the fearful regression of its female protagonist as she lashes out against her spouse. "The Idiots" and "Amy Foster" recast and critique the ideal of family life by exposing the shortcomings of conventional parental and spousal roles that subjugate wives, using the family circle to explore both the atavism resulting from the stresses of familial conflict and the inescapable influence of genetic inheritance in determining identity. Conrad here makes much of the way apparently civilized individuals have the potential to regress, relying on instinct and violence rather than consideration to determine their behavior, and, by emphasizing the resemblances between the generations, he shows inherited traits to be a significant influence on identity. Each story culminates in a dramatic overthrow of paternal authority in the household that leaves the reader with an ambivalent rendering of maternal authority. In "The Idiots" and "Amy Foster," Conrad depicts the irony in the failure of patriarchal culture to ensure the father's legacy, and he does so without glorying in the triumph of the mother; indeed, both stories end with a particularly bleak vision of the future.

Richard Herndon describes the correspondence between the seemingly [End Page 93] dissimilar husbands in the two stories: "Despite his marriage, he still feels isolated, discerns a hostility in his surroundings, has conflicts with his neighbors, and desires a child through whom he can escape his isolation" (555, 562). The desire to use fatherhood as a remedy for isolation, to give meaning to the father's existence, brings these men into direct—ultimately deadly—conflict with their spouses. The degeneracy that is ascribed to the mothers might be read as an embodiment of turn-of-the-century anxieties about women's liberation and their potential threat to the dominance of men, even as Conrad casts the men as brutish or childish in ways that undermine the idealization of that dominance. Indeed, the rural towns in which the stories are set embody the broader failings of a patriarchal society that recasts its prejudices as a natural hierarchy, failing to recognize that degeneracy cannot be ascribed simply to the disabled or the foreign. In Conrad's telling, degeneracy is endemic.

Initially, "The Idiots" chronicles the disruption of a bourgeois farmer's ambitious plans for his land and inheritance by the birth of four mentally disadvantaged children, but when Jean-Pierre Bacadou's otherwise conventional wife, Susan, murders him with her "long scissors" as he tries to rape her in the hope of conceiving an unafflicted fifth child, Conrad shows the way their contrasting parental assumptions lead to mortal conflict (126). To Jean-Pierre, another child is the hope of the future of his farm, but, to Susan Bacadou, a fifth child will only add to the unbearable household burden of four wholly dependent children who do not recognize her, another reminder of her failure as a mother. Ultimately, the whole family—not just the children—shows signs of degeneracy, particularly in what might be read as a darkly comic rendering of Lombrosian maternal passion, a perspective that "Amy Foster" also recalls. There, the intelligent and cosmopolitan Dr. Kennedy offers a withering description of the "dull," degenerate Amy Foster that shows her to be undeserving of Yanko Goorall, her attractive, yet markedly foreign, castaway husband (Conrad, "Amy" 107). Her abandonment of Yanko in what proves to be his final illness demonstrates her cruelty as she flees, elementally fearful of the influence Yanko desires over their infant son...


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pp. 93-103
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