Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
Chance is Conrad's problem novel. Published in 1914, it occupies an ambiguous position between his most celebrated creative phase, which culminated with Under Western Eyes (1911), and the comparatively neglected work of his ‘decline’. It is the most ‘feminine’, or female-oriented, of Conrad's novels, but its engagement with issues of gender is tainted by the arch misogyny of Marlow, whose clumsy and unsympathetic line in anti-feminist repartee is never convincingly challenged or dialogized in the text. Also problematic is the novel's unwieldy narrative structure, which, with its convoluted time-scheme and strange ensemble of variously limited or unreliable narrating voices, presses the techniques of ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Lord Jim dangerously close to self-parody. Any serious reading of Chance must begin by confronting these problems, not in a bid to explain them away, but in order to move to a fuller understanding of the vexing relationship between the novel's curious structure and provocative substance.
The notion of Conrad as an irredeemably homocentric, even ‘macho’ writer has been challenged so forcibly in recent years that it is worth reminding ourselves of the kind of material that gave rise to it in the first place. The following remarks, by the narrator of ‘Because of the Dollars’, suggest that the view of Conrad's world as an exclusively masculine environment is not without foundation in the texts themselves: ‘Ours, as you remember, was a bachelor crowd; in spirit anyhow, if not absolutely in fact. There might have been a few wives in existence, but if so they were invisible, distant, never alluded to.’