Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River by Joseph Conrad (1895)

Reading Joseph Conrad after Edgar Rice Burroughs is like leaving a cheap disco and walking into a quiet church. Or maybe an ornate eastern temple… You can feel the civilisation, the depth and human dignity, pouring through every cell in your body…

Almayer’s Folly was Conrad’s first novel. Born in 1857 to Polish parents in a part of the Ukraine administered by the Russian Empire, Józef Teodor Conrad Korzeniowski left home to join the French merchant marine in 1874, aged 17. In 1886 he earned his Master’s certificate in the British Merchant Service, becoming a British Citizen, and anglicising his name to Joseph Conrad. His next few years of service took him to the Malay Archipelago, the Gulf of Siam and the Belgian Congo. It was for the Societe Anonyme pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo in 1890 that Conrad first visited the ‘dark continent’ and wrote the ‘Congo Diary’ that would later become The Heart of Darkness.

The harsh conditions of travelling to the Congo Free State and working on a paddle-steamer aggravated Conrad’s already fragile health. He suffered from gout and depression and returned to England weakened and suffering from fever and was hospitalised. In 1894, aged 37, he signed off from his last ship and devoted himself to completing the novel he’d been working at since 1889.

Plot The Dutchman Kaspar Almayer settles on the bank of the river Pantei on the Borneo coast. Trade fails. The pirate Lingard promises him money if he will marry a young girl, only survivor of a pirate massacre Lingard was involved in. Almayer marries her on the understanding that Lingard will share some of the gold and treasure he plans to accumulate. but Lingard’s plans come to nothing and Almayer sinks into a depression, continually outwitted at trade and strategy by the neighbouring Arab and Muslim traders. His wife gives him a daughter, Nina, then settles into sullen antagonism. Nina is sent to convent school in Singapore and returns a beautiful young woman, who is immediately wooed both by the nephew of the Rajah of the river, and by a dashing Brahmin, Dain Maroola, who arrives out of nowhere and, once again, promises the gullible Almayer riches and wealth.

This wooing is the climax of the novel, all the rest having been scene-setting, for it turns out Dain is smuggling gunpowder, but he is betrayed, attacked and pursued by a Dutch warship, back to Almayer’s compound, where all concerned must make some life-changing choices!

The story is slender but spooled out in a long lazy meandering fashion which moves backwards and forwards in time. Is this clumsy, or a crafty emulation of the forward and backward rhythm of the great river upon which the novel is set?

Characters Deceptively slight (167 pages) and simple, the story follows the same characters over quite a long period, well over 20 years, and Conrad depicts them at different moments of their lives, giving detailed descriptions of their characters and psychological motivations:

  • Kaspar Almeyer, the (Dutch) middle-aged white failed trader gone to seed and living off pathetic dreams
  • Lingard the English pirate who persuades him to marry the Malay girl survivor of a pirate battle in exchange for riches which never materialise
  • the Malay girl who bears him a daughter and then sinks into contemptuous sloth
  • Abdulla the pious and successful old Arab who dominates trade along the river
  • Lakamba, the Malay ‘rajah’ of the river, who conspires with Abdulla to monopolise the trade and keep Almayer down
  • Dain Maroola, the handsome young Malay prince who falls deeply in love with Nina
  • Nina, the young woman whose passionate love for Dain stands at the heart of the novel and who is forced to choose between “savage” love and “civilised” hypocrisy.

The river Almayer’s folly is built at the confluence of two branches of the mighty Pantei river, enormous muddy brown, swollen by monsoon floods, which dominates the imagery of the book and whose slow, impassive, endless rolling symbolises the heedless unfolding of Time, careless of all human activity. (The centrality of the river again anticipating ‘Heart of Darkness’).

Style Two points:

  • Conrad doesn’t quite write standard English. His sentences are long, lush with unnecessary adjectives and disconcerting with askew phraseology. The first publisher’s readers worried about his frequent infelicities and errors of grammar or phraseology; but Unwin decided, correctly, that they actively helped make Conrad a unique and poetic stylist.
  • Conrad brings to his writing an unashamedly European sensibility, especially when it comes to describing big negative emotions, despair, futility, collapse. Completely unlike the stiff upper lip style of, say, Haggard or Kipling, when a firm handshake says all that needs saying.

The following excerpt from chapter 5 shows Conrad’s long sentences, his lush description of tropical scenery, his un-English phraseology, and his un-English nihilism:

He stood up attentive, and the boat drifted slowly in shore, Nina guiding it by a gentle and skilful movement of her paddle.  When near enough Dain laid hold of the big branch, and leaning back shot the canoe under a low green archway of thickly matted creepers giving access to a miniature bay formed by the caving in of the bank during the last great flood.  His own boat was there anchored by a stone, and he stepped into it, keeping his hand on the gunwale of Nina’s canoe.  In a moment the two little nutshells with their occupants floated quietly side by side, reflected by the black water in the dim light struggling through a high canopy of dense foliage; while above, away up in the broad day, flamed immense red blossoms sending down on their heads a shower of great dew-sparkling petals that descended rotating slowly in a continuous and perfumed stream; and over them, under them, in the sleeping water; all around them in a ring of luxuriant vegetation bathed in the warm air charged with strong and harsh perfumes, the intense work of tropical nature went on: plants shooting upward, entwined, interlaced in inextricable confusion, climbing madly and brutally over each other in the terrible silence of a desperate struggle towards the life-giving sunshine above—as if struck with sudden horror at the seething mass of corruption below, at the death and decay from which they sprang.

Civilisation and savagery The word ‘savage’ is used 35 times in the text, harshly to describe Almayer’s Malay wife and half-caste daughter, Nina. It would be easy to object to the racism implicit in its use, except that the entire novel highlights the dichotomy between civilisation and barbarism – solely to question and undermine it.

Here, in his first novel, Conrad raises the issue he will pursue for years, and which is crystallised in his most famous work, Heart of Darkness (1899). The Western world of his day made a shibboleth of the distinction between the superior, white, advanced races, and the rest – the various forms of ‘savage’ or ‘semi-savage’ dark-skinned peoples; and yet Conrad thought he had seen through it; realised that beneath the veneer of ‘civilisation’ the white man was the same godless animal as the brown, driven by the same primal fears and greeds, and capable – as in Heart of Darkness – of far worse atrocities. It is the ‘savage’ Dain who behaves nobly, it is the ‘savage’ Nina whose love is depicted as pure and constant as Juliet or any Victorian heroine.

Conrad, unprotected by the insulating imbecilities of the English public school system, brings to the unsettling realities of the colonisation of the remote parts of the earth a palette of Slavic pessimism and European existentialist philosophy. Result: Conrad the man tried to commit suicide in his 20s, and then used his writing as therapy to exorcise his vision of decay and despair in book after book after book, bringing order to his chaotic feelings by rehearsing them again and again in long French sentences.

Compare and contrast with Kipling, thoroughly innoculated and imbued with the pukkah certainties of the English public school system (see Stalky and Co.), who sometimes writes about white men going bad, and the strange horrors encountered in colonial life – and with, admittedly, a genuinely eerie impact – but always, ultimately, from the outside, uncontaminated by Doubt, as the laureate of Empire and white racial superiority.

Steady on, old chap Conrad was careful not to write about the Empire of the British, his adopted nation, among whom he wanted to be accepted and a success; his first stories all concern Dutch colonisers and traders who experience alienation, failure and despair, thus neatly leaving us Brits off the hook. Good chap!


Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ by Joseph Conrad (1897)

In August 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, a few months after Captains Courageous was published in book form,  Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’‘ began to appear in The New Review. (This was a literary journal edited by WE Henley, major editor and minor poet, remembered for his poem Invictus, quoted by Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison and so used as the title of a recent movie about South Africa. Henley was an important player in 1890s literature. As editor of the Scots Observer he’d brought Robert Louis Stevenson to national attention. After Stevenson surprised the literary world by decamping to the South Seas, Henley was the first in London to recognise The Next Big Thing – Kipling – and helped him establish his reputation by publishing the Barrack Room Ballads in 1892.)

The Nigger is a novella, only 140 pages in the Penguin edition, a study of men isolated on a merchant ship on a long sea voyage who live through a terrifying storm which pitches the ship right onto its side and nearly drowns them all. It is directly comparable in length, publication date and subject matter to Kipling’s Captains Courageous.

Both books are, frankly, hard to read, but for different reasons. Kipling is concerned to show you he has mastered the terminology of sea fishing, so his text is stuffed with technical terms. When he’s not showing off his expertise, his characters are talking in a phonetically rendered version of New England fisherman slang which is almost unreadable:

“‘Ver’ good. Ver’ good don,’ said Manuel ‘After supper I show you a little schooner I make, with all her ropes. So we shall learn.’ ‘Fust-class fer a passenger,’ said Dan, ‘Dad he’s jest allowed you be wuth your salt maybe fore you’re kaownded. Thet’s a heap fer Dad. I learn you more our next watch together.” (Chapter 3)

In terms of meaning or purpose, Kipling’s book is a ‘coming of age’ tale in which a spoilt American brat is transformed into a Man by learning discipline and duty and comradeship from the fishermen he’s fallen among. Though all the characters are American, the message is British public school: Become a Man through Responsibility, Hard Work, through doing your Duty.

Conrad’s vision and style are far removed from this. His vision is one of European existentialism, of despair at the meaninglessness of human existence. His pages are overwhelmed with mournful asides about the immensity of the sea and the pettiness of human concerns.

A heavy atmosphere of oppressive quietude pervaded the ship. In the afternoon men went about washing clothes and hanging them out to dry in the unprosperous breeze with the meditative language of disenchanted philosophers. Very little was said. The problem of life seemed too voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would in time infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all the errors, the certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the frontiers of sorrow and fear. (Chapter 5)

And as you can see, this vision is conveyed in a baroque style of exceeding wordiness – a seemingly limitless litany of boom words and big phrases, all circling hopelessly round his one big perception – the horror of existence. The word ‘horror’ is repeated a number of times.

Kipling’s bright, shallow British optimism. Or Conrad’s doom-laden European pessimism. Posterity – and literature courses everywhere – have favoured Conrad. But is that right?

As to the ‘nigger’ of the title, the novella centres on a black sailor – James Wait – who ships with the Narcissus knowing he is dying (presumably of TB, though this is never made explicit).

Various crew members – Old Singleton, the sneak Donkin, the youth Charley, sturdy Captain Allisoun, the first mate Baker – are described at length and become fairly ‘real’, but Wait is an allegorical figure, the man doomed to Death who melodramatises his plight, and becomes the psychological centre of the ship, mesmerising the crew.

I think the book is a failure. I didn’t understand from the text or from Conrad’s preface the point of Wait. Conrad keeps calling him a fake, an imposter, but Wait does, truly, die of illness, exactly as he’d been worrying.

I think Conrad is wrestling in a confused manner with the issues which obsess him: his sincere love of the sea and his sailor comrades is brought up against his just-as-powerful personal vision of the heartless universe, and the failure of the story is Conrad’s failure to make them coalesce in any coherent manner.

To my mind Conrad sorted these confused feelings out in his next book, also a novella, Heart of Darkness, published in 1899 – whose key quote, ‘The horror, the horror’, has become part of the culture thanks to the movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now’, and whose critique of the mindless brutality of western Imperialism has never been surpassed. Here the horror of Conrad’s vision finds its ‘objective correlative’ – the publicly understandable image or symbol of Conrad’s private feelings – in the story of Kurtz, the exemplary imperialist servant gone grotesquely rotten in the depths of the jungle.

In the same year as Heart of Darkness, Kipling published his volume of stories about jolly public schoolboys, Stalky and Co., learning through their wily japes the ways of Brotherhood and Service which will stand them in good stead when they go out to run the British Empire.

The contrast couldn’t be starker.

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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