- Centennial Essays on Joseph Conrad’s Chance ed. by Allan H. Simmons and Susan Jones
Critical response to Chance: A Tale in Two Parts has been another tale in two parts: those who are for the novel, and those who are against.1 Can we move beyond the contradictory claims that have divided assessments of Conrad’s best seller? The most recent division began with Paul B. Armstrong’s “Misogyny and The Ethics of Reading: The Problem of Conrad’s Chance” (1993) and Susan Jones’s Conrad and Women (1999). Armstrong formidably prosecuted Conrad’s patriarchy-biased construction of his heroine Flora; Jones formidably defended Conrad’s sympathetic construction of his heroine in the context of feminism’s first wave. Those antithetical views impact the arguments of six of the eleven stimulating centennial essays that comprise Allan H. Simmons and Susan Jones’s 2016 volume. Their collection’s immediate virtue is that it presents the latest opportunity for sifting the controversy, maybe even for settling it. If we can move beyond claims and counterclaims of Chance’s misogyny, less worried readings of Chance might come into view. Insofar as one might characterize the other essays of the volume as new expansions of critical interest, alternative topics already are on the horizon.
As it is, a critical consensus seems to be establishing itself in favor of Conrad’s feminist leanings, disentangled from the anti-feminist snark of Marlow’s second-level narration. The editors haven’t grouped together the essays most relevant to the debate, but if I might be allowed to regroup them for the sake of focus, I’d say that those defending the novelist and his novel outnumber the opposing views: four to two. Jay Parker’s defense, “Rortyian Contingency and [End Page 87] Ethnocentrism in Chance,” makes one of its strongest points by elucidating the meaning of Flora’s governess for Conrad’s narrative structure. The governess’s rapacious actions, Parker proposes, “are directly related to her position in a patriarchal society” (33), the debased values of which are illustrated by the governess’s victimization of Flora and of the governess’s co-conspirator Charley (the first of Flora’s two loves named Charles).
That the governess victimizes others might seem to argue that patriarchy is all-pervading, constraining women to act like their oppressors, and leaving women no freedom to resist; but Parker reads Conrad’s Flora as “a woman similarly constrained who does not victimize others, and thus the governess’s behavior cannot be excused on the grounds that she is oppressed” (33). In other words, there is in the social world more freedom—and more liberating contingency—than inflexible visions of patriarchy would claim. Flora’s seizure of that freedom, Parker argues, shows Conrad’s imagination flexibly accommodating feminism as well as chance.
The case for Conrad’s accommodation depends in these essays on foregrounding Flora’s “agency.” Anne Enderwitz’s “Speech, Affect, and Intervention in Chance” celebrates Flora’s surmounting of the trauma inflicted by her governess—and by the public’s assault on her father. Flora does so by finding her voice: “speaking out to her husband [Captain Anthony],” for example, she casts aside a “disjunction of affect and speech” (48) and she becomes an “active agent” (49) who grasps her capacity for decisive articulations, free of ambiguity. For Enderwitz, Flora’s definiteness of linguistic usage and effect marks Chance’s difference from earlier Conrad, and earlier Marlow. No ultimate indeterminate darkness here—despite chance—no purblind suffering female.
Pei-Wen Clio Kao reiterates the contrast between Conrad’s treatments of the Intended and of Flora in “From Incapable ‘Angel in the House’ to Invincible New Woman in Marlovian Narratives.” The Intended in Heart of Darkness is to be protected from the truth and made thereby into an incapable agent, but Flora, “an individual subject rather than a victimized object” (124), displays “the active energy of an independent ‘New Woman’ of her day” (124). Kao concedes that Chance “goes beyond...