Breathing spaces and afterlives: the colonial literary canon and Joseph Conrad’s female characters
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date09/07/2023
Kelly, Alice Margaret
In his introduction to the fourth Norton Critical Edition of Heart of Darkness, Paul Armstrong argues that the text has ‘become part of the cultural air we breathe’ (ix). If Heart of Darkness has been memorialised as a ubiquitous marker of late nineteenth century imperialist literature, so pervasively influential that its consumption has become inevitable and unquestioned, it is also specific bodies that have been marked as the expected inhabitants of cultural history. The Conrad that has been canonised is one whose work is exclusively populated by angst-ridden, ambivalent white male colonial agents wringing their hands about Empire and masculinity, so that it is the experiences of straight white men that are the ones given space and capital in the cultural archive. Yet Conrad’s work is not exclusively populated by white men at all, it has only been recorded as such by a body of scholarship that has invested in the perpetuation of Conrad as writer of and for white men. In this thesis, I consider the breathing spaces in Conrad’s writing in which women of colour become the speaking, thinking, mobile protagonists, who discuss the ways Empire and masculinity have affected their lives. I look at the desires of these female characters and the relationships between them to argue that sexually active and/or queer female bodies take up space in the oeuvre of a dead white man, because they took up space in the world in which he wrote. I argue that their disappearance from the Conrad canon is a symptom of ongoing discriminatory discourses that insist on the able body of the straight white man as the only legitimate subject for power. To counter this critical negligence, I use my thesis to stage the afterlives of Conrad’s female characters of colour, analysing the ways in which these characters have materialised in visual media alongside and after the publication of Conrad’s texts. I take Conrad’s Lingard Trilogy ̶ Almayer’s Folly (1895), An Outcast of the Islands (1896) and The Rescue (1920) ̶ as the central corpus around which I structure my work. Spanning the course of Conrad’s writing career, populated by vibrant, intelligent, complicated women, but memorialised in Conrad scholarship in relation to a male character (Tom Lingard), the trilogy emblematises the cultural codes that inform the way Conrad’s texts and characters have been remembered. Each section of my thesis probes first the breathing space offered by the female characters that I believe dominate these texts, then the afterlife they have been afforded (or denied) in illustrations, paratexts and adaptations. In Part 1, I argue that the sexually charged moments of intimacy between Edith and Immada in The Rescue, and Freya and Antonia in Conrad’s ‘Freya of the Seven Isles’ (1912), deserve to be recognised as textual spaces of lesbian desire. This reading is juxtaposed with an analysis of the illustrations that accompanied the periodical serialisations of the texts, that have taken on new life as digital objects in the periodical archive Conrad First. In Part 2, I contend that An Outcast of the Islands counters clichés of imperial sexuality with the eloquent expression of desire from Aïssa, a Malay-Arab woman who falls in love with a white man. Exploring Aïssa’s depiction on the covers of 1950s- 60s American mass market paperback editions, I propose that she materialised in pulp form in ways that trouble both Conrad’s highbrow status and the racial politics of the text. In Part 3, I posit Almayer’s Folly as a story that is centred around female characters of colour ̶ Nina Almayer, Mrs Almayer and Taminah ̶ who galvanize the plot, and articulate virulent anti-imperialist critiques. That these women are not as well-known as the white men of Heart of Darkness is a symptom of what Susan Jones has described as the ‘masculine tendency of Conrad criticism’ (2001, 37). I see Chantal Akerman’s film adaptation La Folie Almayer as a counterpoint to this critical neglect, as Akerman’s direction and Aurora Marion’s performance reposition Nina as the text’s central protagonist. Ultimately, I argue that the women of colour that populate Conrad’s works, as women with desires, voices, political beliefs, agency and power, matter to the formation of the colonial literary canon, because when prioritised properly they reflect a historical archive that is more representative of the varying bodies that populate our own world. By examining the material spaces these characters occupy, I offer this thesis as another afterlife, and a breathing space from the Conrad scholarship that has denied them.