- Conrad's Erotic Women
It is time to correct Joseph Conrad's reputation as a writer who falls short when the subject is women or sex. Praised for his ethical, political, and psychological insight, he is pitied for his love scenes. Writing about The Rescue in 1945, Walter F. Wright generalized, "Conrad usually had trouble with his women characters when they came into the foreground of a story. The themes which he best understood could be illustrated very well through the lives of men" (1945, 216). In 1956 Thomas Moser reinforced Wright's judgment, arguing that the quality of Conrad's later work declined because he tried to write about women and sex (1956, 345). Discussing The Rescue, he claimed that the dialogue "between the lovers is wooden, and there is the same insistence upon emotions that Conrad seems unable to dramatize" (344).1 Thirty years later, Lloyd Fernando observed that "no major novel of his has received in recent years more adverse criticism than this one. Conrad has been accused of treating immaturely the portrayal of Lingard and Mrs. Travers, the two principal characters in the novel, and of evading the sexual consequences of their encounter" (1976, 86); Fernando agreed that "such strictures may be warranted" (86).2 In addition to disparaging The Rescue, this consensus diminishes Conrad's oeuvre because his stories about political intrigues and ethical dilemmas often hinge on erotic desire. In The Rescue, the political implications of Lingard's decisions depend on [End Page 424] Conrad's ability to make the erotic attraction between Lingard and Edith Travers convincing. Looking for descriptions of sexual acts, critics have ignored Conrad's representation of erotic feelings.
Despite contemporary limits on what could be said explicitly, Conrad wrote about erotic feelings throughout his career. Although he usually focused on the dire consequences of passion, he also probed the sources of desire and found ways to represent the experience itself. In "Conrad and the Erotic" Jeremy Hawthorn argues that this dimension of Conrad's work has not been recognized because the common critical view is that "moments of passion or sexual excitement are rare, and often presented in such a way as to minimize or remove any evocation of the erotic in the reader" (2003, 112). In contrast, Hawthorn calls attention to the "flashes of erotic excitement [that] are depicted and enacted in several works" (112). If we pay attention to these flashes, we can see how Conrad portrays the sources and sensations of desire. As my examples demonstrate, he regards imagination and individual agency as essential components of passion, and he creates female characters who possess both qualities.3
Since The Rescue is the standard example of Conrad's ineptitude, it must be the starting point for any critical reassessment. When he finished the novel in 1920, Conrad was at the height of his career.4 Nevertheless, The Rescue is so widely dismissed and so rarely read that a plot summary is in order. Captain Tom Lingard is a self-made man who takes risks more respectable men avoid. He has made his fortune in the Malay Archipelago selling arms to warring villages. After Hassim, one of the local princes, saves his life, Lingard puts aside his commercial interest in supplying all factions and pledges to protect Hassim and his sister, the princess Immada. This alliance is tested when a yacht runs aground in the vicinity of battle. The yacht carries three wealthy European tourists, Edith and Martin Travers and a Spanish acquaintance named d'Alcacer. They need Lingard's help to tow the yacht to safety, but Travers refuses to be obligated to an "adventurer." Lingard parries this insult defiantly: "'I am an adventurer,' he burst out, 'and if I hadn't been an adventurer, I would have had to starve or work at home for such people as you'" (Conrad 1925, 134). Mrs. Travers intercedes, and Lingard is smitten by her beauty and elegance. He agrees to aid the Europeans, but when Travers and d'Alcacer are captured by Hassim's enemy, Lingard is torn between his duty to rescue his fellow Europeans and his loyalty to his Malay friends. The personal dimension...