An Outcast of The Islands by Joseph Conrad (1896)

8 September 2012

Joseph Conrad followed his 1895 debut, Almayer’s Folly, with a prequel, An Outcast of the Islands. This longer, more substantial novel (295 pages to Almayer’s slender 167) is also set in an isolated backwater of the Malayan archipelago, and features largely the same characters, filling in a lot of Almayer’s backstory, but from a different perspective. What is odd about the novel is the extent to which it almost replays the narrative arc of the previous one, with the central character a feeble white man abandoned up a distant tropical river among, and outwitted by, crafty malays and Arabs, and slave to a mad passion for a native girl which brings him to ruin. It’s the first novel all over again but on twice the scale and much more obsessively despairing and nihilistic:

On Lingard’s departure solitude and silence closed round Willems; the cruel solitude of one abandoned by men; the reproachful silence which surrounds an outcast ejected by his kind, the silence unbroken by the slightest whisper of hope; an immense and impenetrable silence that swallows up without echo the murmur of regret and the cry of revolt.

Plot About 15 years before the climactic events of Almayer’s Folly, another Dutchman works in Hudig’s warehouse in Macassar, Peter Willems. He thinks he is a great successful man and has earned a big house and the hand of a beautiful Portuguese woman in marriage through his own abilities. But he steals and embezzles from his employer and his jealous rivals expose him. One fine morning he is sacked, ruined, thrown out of his house. He goes down to the jetty, distraught, contemplating suicide, but encounters the English buccaneer Tom Lingard who shatters his illusions by telling him old Hudig only set him up with the house because the Portuguese girl he’s married is in fact old Hudig’s illegitimate daughter. Far from being a demigod he is the patsy and tool of Hudig’s wishes. Lingard offers to take him on, to take him to the new trading post in a new river on the east coast of Borneo where a colleague of his from Hudig’s, Kaspar Almayer, is setting up a trading station and expecting great things…. Weakly, Willems accepts and finds himself in Sambir, the same raddled trading post on the Panteir river as the disillusioned Almayer. Almayer’s daughter, Nina, is still small which helps us date it to 15 or so years prior to the first novel.

And now Willems is once again out of his depth in the small communities dotted along the river and run by a local ‘rajah’ and his wily, one-eyed Malay ex-pirate and fixer, Babalatchi. These conspire to make Willems fall ‘helplessly’ in love with the fetching daughter – Aissa – of another local potentate who has been brought there dying after a bloody fight with the Dutch authorities. Willems is meant to fall so totally under her spell that he is persuaded to help a mighty muslim trader of the area, Syed Abdulla, navigate to Sambir, to land and establish his own trading post, in direct rivalry to Almayer and against the interests of his protector, Lingard. In his foolish exuberance Willems goes so far as to tie Almayer up and taunt him, waving a gun in his face.

Captain Lingard returns and there is a sequence of set piece scenes, as Almayer updates Lingard, Lingard canoes across the river to the native campong, Lingard is tempted by the wily Babalatchi who hands him a loaded rifle at dawn as Willems is set to appear at the door of his hut hoping the white men will kill each other, Lingard does confront Willems and punches him to the ground, but resists the temptation to do more, insisting he will remain here, effectively a prisoner, as his punishment. The Arabs and Malays have left the settlement, having gone to a new one upriver. Lingard also leaves. Willems is completely abandoned apart from the Malay girl, Aissa, who is genuinely but puzzledly in love with him.

But Almayer, goaded by Lingard’s failure to take revenge against Willems, takes his own: for unexplained reasons Lingard has brought and dumped at Almayer’s station the Portuguese wife Willems had abandoned in the opening chapters. Almayer now arranges for her to be paddled over to Willems’ isolated campong hoping that she will encourage Willems to get in the canoe and be paddled downstream to find ships at the sea some 15 miles away. However, things don’t go to plan as Aissa confronts the newly reunited husband and wife, becomes hysterical with jealousy and, after Willems has hussled his wife back to the canoe and is returning, Aissa shoots Willems through the lung and kills him.

In the final few pages Conrad does what will become a habit with him and abruptly switches the point of view to some years later as the complacent Almayer retells the last few actions of the plot (burying Willems body etc) to a passing explorer who has casually stopped at the station. Having the effect of distancing the action, and also making it seem trivial, just another yarn…

Good When he is good, Conrad is brilliant. I think he is best in

  • descriptions of the jungle, particularly the changing light of dawn or dusk

Instinctively he glanced upwards with a seaman’s impulse. Above him, under the grey motionless waste of a stormy sky, drifted low black vapours, in stretching bars, in shapeless patches, in sinuous wisps and tormented spirals. Over the courtyard and the house floated a round, sombre, and lingering cloud, dragging behind a tail of tangled and filmy streamers—like the dishevelled hair of a mourning woman.

  • in painting the characters of the non-white characters: the esteemed muslim trader Syed Abdulla, the local rajah Lakamba, his tricksy sidekick Babalatchi – they are painted with a foreignness or otherness which seems utterly plausible – the scenes in which they meet and conspire against the stupid white men are vivid and intricate
  • style – his not quite English style, his uneven way with English idioms regularly leads to odd but expressive forms, the askew angle of his prose adding to the exoticism of the subject matter
  • in unnervingly precise physical details, the way a man stumbles or hesitates or is distracted mid sentence by a cloud or a fly, the way raindrops fall from wet hair or puddles form in mud, or cutlery clatters in a bowl:

The nose bled too. The blood ran down, made one moustache look like a dark rag stuck over the lip, and went on in a wet streak down the clipped beard on one side of the chin. A drop of blood hung on the end of some hairs that were glued together; it hung for a while and took a leap down on the ground. Many more followed, leaping one after another in close file. One alighted on the breast and glided down instantly with devious vivacity, like a small insect running away; it left a narrow dark track on the white skin.

Bad But – twice the length of the first novel turns out to be just long enough for Conrad to reveal his weaknesses and for them to begin to really grate. These are:

  • obscure plotting. It is sometimes hard to understand what’s going on since the events are often told from different people’s perspectives and new chapters leap back and forward in time. And when you do finally understand, it’s often disappointing. Weak white man is duped into falling for exotic siren who leads him to ruin. Hmmm.
  • style – Conrad’s rhetorical habits begin to grate. There’s a lot of repetition, a lot of drama and melodrama, a lot of passages which tip over from lush into overripe, into the frankly hysterical
  • Psychology – 300 pages is long enough to become a bit sick with Conrad’s worldview which is one of overwhelming negativity, depression and despair. It would be one thing is one of the characters was rather depressive, but ALL the characters experience the same overwrought levels of fear, dread, despair, terror and existentialist angst, and all the time. And the narrating voice, Conrad, is as depressed, disillusioned and defeated as the characters he describes:

They moved, patient, upright, slow and dark, in the gleam clear or fiery of the falling drops, under the roll of unceasing thunder, like two wandering ghosts of the drowned that, condemned to haunt the water for ever, had come up from the river to look at the world under a deluge.

How dark it was! It seemed to him that the light was dying prematurely out of the world and that the air was already dead.

He laughed. His laugh seemed to be torn out from him against his will, seemed to be brought violently on the surface from under his bitterness, his self-contempt, from under his despairing wonder at his own nature.

He felt a great emptiness in his heart. It seemed to him that there was within his breast a great space without any light, where his thoughts wandered forlornly, unable to escape, unable to rest, unable to die, to vanish—and to relieve him from the fearful oppression of their existence. Speech, action, anger, forgiveness, all appeared to him alike useless and vain, appeared to him unsatisfactory, not worth the effort of hand or brain that was needed to give them effect.

The anger of his outraged pride, the anger of his outraged heart, had gone out in the blow; and there remained nothing but the sense of some immense infamy—of something vague, disgusting and terrible, which seemed to surround him on all sides, hover about him with shadowy and stealthy movements, like a band of assassins in the darkness of vast and unsafe places.

It’s too much. Eventually a healthy reader reacts badly to being so continuously hectored by what are clearly Conrad’s own personal demons. He doesn’t intrude his angsty worldview into the story, he soaks every sentence in negativity and slaps you in the face with it.

Is Conrad the most miserable novelist in English? As he wrote in a letter to R. B. Cunninghame Graham in January 1898:

There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror is always but a vain and floating appearance.

The epigraph of the book is a cheery quote from the Spanish playwright Calderon: Pues el delito mayor Del hombre es haber nacito, meaning “man’s greatest crime is to have been born”. Google tells me this quote is also referenced by Samuel Beckett, patron saint of depressives. Maybe when I read this when I was 18 or 21 it had a powerful impact on me. Now it sounds silly and immature. Well, now you are born, chum, maybe you better get on with living with as much dignity and self respect as you can. In fact, you could try enjoying yourself. Do some exercise. Go for a swim!

The relentlessness of Conrad’s despair overloads The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus‘. That short novel is meant to be the story into which Conrad pours all his knowledge of the sea. If so, it is deeply disappointing since the barely detectable plot is overwhelmed by thousands of passages of Conradian despair and misery at the wretched fate of forlorn men abandoned in a heartless universe etc etc…

On the other hand, all the above helps explains the enduring appeal of Heart of Darkness.

  1. It is short, so you don’t have a chance to get sick of his style and relentless negativity.
  2. Conrad has found a subject, the Belgians’ evil management of their Congo colony, which actually justifies the most extreme and witheringly misanthropist sentiments anybody could express. The subject, for once, matches the constant near-hysteria of his style
  3. Conrad shapes a narrative arc, helped by the frame narrative of Marlow on the director’s yacht moored in the Thames, which gives an element of detachment and control to the horror. It makes it all the more aesthetically impactful, unlike the raw, unmediated emotions of the overwrought protagonists of Almayer and Outcast.

Movie The book was made into a movie in 1952, directed by Carol Reed, starring Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson and Robert Morley. Sadly, the reviews on Amazon say it’s rubbish. The posters are great, though. They appear to have dropped the interminable moralising and gone for ‘the soft beautiful body of a woman’.  Rather like all movie adaptations of Dracula. If there’s one thing that’s dominated culture since the war surely it’s Sex, sex drenching every aspect of our culture, on a scale and of an explicitness which would have made the Victorians’s heads explode.

Poster for the 1951 film version of An Outcast of the Islands

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  1. The short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle | Books & Boots

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