Not exactly tales for boys: Gender and difference in the writings of Joseph Conrad

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

First Committee Member

Shari Benstock - Committee Chair


In Joseph Conrad's tales, representations of women and of "feminine" generic forms like the romance are often present in fugitive ways. Conrad's use of allegorical feminine imagery, fleet or deferred introductions of female characters, and "hybrid" generic structures that combine features of "masculine" tales of adventure and intrigue and "feminine" dramas of love or domesticity have all inspired extensive commentary. Many critics have argued that Conrad's fictions are aesthetically flawed by the inclusion of women and love plots; thus Thomas Moser has questioned why Conrad "did not cut them out altogether" (99). Yet a thematics of gender suffuses Conrad's narrative strategies. Even in tales that contain no significant female characters or obvious love plots, Conrad portrays men whose gender identifications are not always clearly discrete; in subtle acts of displacement, Conrad introduces elusive feminine presences into male/male relationships. One instance of Conrad's ambiguous deferrals at the generic level occurs in The Secret Agent; late in the novel, the Assistant Commissioner tells the Home Secretary, "From a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama" (204). That point of view, which the detective tacitly refrains from claiming as his own, recasts a political threat as a sexual or domestic crisis and situates Winnie Verloc, with all her marital secrets, at the center of the action. In my dissertation, I investigate this identifiably feminine "point of view," which is present in fugitive ways throughout Conrad's canon. Focusing on current feminist, historicist, and psychoanalytic debates about subjectivity, female iconography, fetishism, genre theory, narrative satire, audience address, and the gaze, I explore how issues of gender and difference inform Conrad's fictions at both structural and thematic levels. Conrad's narrative strategies are articulated through a language of sexual difference that provides the vocabulary and the grammar for tales examining European class and racial---as well as gender---paradigms and their effects both in Europe and in the colonies. Yet this language is more than merely descriptive, for it permits dialogic tensions and interpretive indeterminacies incompatible with the uncritical reproduction of Victorian ideologic (and generic) norms and goals.


Literature, Modern; Women's Studies; Literature, English

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