Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Joseph Conrad: An Outcast of the Islands

Joseph Conrad's An Outcast of the Islands is an excellent example of why we shouldn't  decide  to read a book based on the information given on the back cover.  We are told that "The theme of  An Outcast of the Islands is the enslavement and eventual destruction of a white man marooned by his own people on the shore of an Malayan island."  This reads as though Willems is a victim, rather than the cause of his own destruction.

When the novel opens, Willems is the confidential clerk at Hudig and Co. which was in the business of buying and selling, sometimes legitimate merchandise, and sometimes smuggling firearms, opium, and gunpowder.  He brags openly and frequently of his position for he is "boastfully and inordinately proud" of the confidence the owner of Hudig and C. had in him.  When we are told this in the first chapter, we should expect to see Willems headed for a fall  (as in "Pride goeth .  .  .)  Sadly, he has no idea of how quickly it will come.

"Willems walked on homeward weaving the splendid web of his future.  The road to greatness lay plainly before his eyes, straight and shining, without any obstacle the he could see.  He had stopped off the path of honesty, as he understood it, but he would soon regain it, never to leave it any more!  It was a very small matter.  He would soon put it right again.  Meantime his duty was not to be found out, and he trusted in his skill, in his luck, in his well-established reputation that would disarm suspicion if anybody dare to suspect.  But nobody would dare! True, he was conscious of a slight deterioration.  He had appropriated temporarily some of Hudig's money.  A deplorable necessity.  But he judged himself with the indulgence that should be extended to the weaknesses of genius.   He would make reparation and all would be as before;  nobody would be the loser for it, and he would go on unchecked toward the brilliant goal of his ambition.
Hudig's partner!"

However, a resentful subordinate at Hudig discovers Willems' embezzlement and loses no time in informing on him   Willems is fired and his wife and children immediately desert him.  He now has nothing--no fine position, no family, no glowing future, and no reputation, for who will hire a man who stole from his employer.  But Willems does have a guardian angel, one who saved him once long before.

Captain Tom Lindgard owner of a small trading vessel, once again comes to Willems' rescue.  Many years ago, Captain Lindgard had given the 17 year old Willems a job on his ship, the Flash.  Once aboard the Flash, Willems learned his trade from Captain Lindgard and became his most trusted subordinate.  Eventually he left and joined Hudig and Co., thus leading to his present disastrous situation.

Captain Lindgard takes Willems aboard once again and offers to take him to his secret trading post and let him work there.  Years ago, Lindgard had discovered a way to navigate a river on one of the islands, and once inland he established a trading post in a small community.  Since no one else knew the secret of maneuvering an ocean going vessel on that river,  he alone was able to deal with the inhabitants. Lindgard frequently found himself followed by his competitors, but he always managed to lose them before entering the river mouth.     

Once there, Willems finds that he can't get along with  Almayer, the trading post master.  He also becomes obsessed with Aissa, a young woman in the community.  She seems interested in him, but her interest is that he is a white man and therefore powerful.  In his present position, though, he is not very important.  Desperate,  he succumbs to the promises of one of Capt. Lindgard's competitors and betrays the secret of maneuvering a large ship up the river.  When Lindgard returns, he finds that he has lost control of the trading post and is, in fact, shut out completely.  He is naturally upset, but he is also a practical man.  It's time to move on, for this island and this trading post are not the entire world.

Willems, expecting a considerable financial reward and a place at the side of the competitor, gains neither the financial reward nor the coveted position.  After all, a man who betrayed his employer and also his benefactor and friend is not someone who can be trusted.  So, Willems comes to his end.  If he is a victim, he is the cause of his destruction.

An Outcast of the Islands  is Conrad's second novel and its success convinced him to go on writing.  His first novel, Almayer's Folly, actually takes place chronologically after Outcast, for Almayer is the major character in the first and an important though secondary character in Outcast. It is one of the novels in the "Lindgard trilogy" who, along with Marlow, is one of Conrad's significant recurring characters. Conrad describes Lindgard as follows:

Tom Lindgard was a master, a lover, a servant of the sea.  The sea took him young, fashioned him body and soul; gave him his fierce aspect, his loud voice, his fearless eyes, his stupidly guileless heart.  Generously it gave him his absurd faith in himself, his universal love of creation, his wide indulgence, his contemptuous severity, his straightforward simplicity of motive and honesty of aim.  .  .  .  Tom Lindgard grew rich on the sea and by the sea.  He loved it with the ardent affection of a lover, he made light of it with the assurance of perfect mastery, he feared it with the wise fear of a brave man, and he took liberties with it as a spoiled child might do with a paternal and good-natured ogre.  He was grateful to it,  with the gratitude of an honest heart.  His greatest pride lay in his profound conviction of its faithfulness--in the deep sense of his unerring knowledge of its treachery.

While The Rescue is Conrad's last novel, it is also the first in the Lingard series.  This is the story of Lingard's rescue of a yacht that is briefly mentioned in An Outcast of the Islands.  The chronological sequence of the three novels is, therefore,  The Rescue,  An Outcast of the Islands, and  Almayer's Folly.   An Outcast of the Islands is the only one of the three that I have read, so I've decided to read the series in the proper order.

I find Captain Lindgard an interesting character and also one who would be difficult to get along with daily, or at least I would, considering  his absurd faith in himself, his universal love of creation, his wide indulgence, his contemptuous severity, his straightforward simplicity of motive and honesty of aim.  He is a very paradoxical person. 

Along with the characters Willems and Lindgard and several others I haven't mentioned  (Aissa, who is Lindgard's obsession, and Babalatchi,  the obsequious and politically astute servant, counselor, and, above all, survivor) one of the strengths of the novel is Conrad's descriptions of the island itself--almost dreamlike in effect.  Conrad said in the introduction to one of his novels that  "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is above all, to make you see."  Conrad's skill in describing the island surely is an excellent example of  how successful he could be.

This is not one of his best novels, but it is an excellent read. There are several well-defined characters and a very strong sense of place.  It doesn't have to be read in conjunction with the other two novels, and  though there are hints of the events of the first chronological novel in the series, they do not play any role in the novel..

Recommended for those who enjoyed exotic settings and an interesting depiction of a man unknowingly on a self-destructive path.


  1. Thanks for the review. I've wanted to read more Conrad and still have many of his "major" novels on my TBR list, but...and here the completest in me comes through (that I try to suppress, in vain) some point I want to explore more of his works. It's nice to hear about the less advertised works!

  2. Dwight,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I read most of Conrad's major works many years ago, but recently I felt the urge to pick him up again. So, now I'm rereading the major novels and also whatever lesser known works and his short stories (which I really haven't looked into yet)I happen to have on hand.

    As I mentioned, reading _Outcast_ introduced me to _Almayer's Folly_ which I had heard of but hadn't read, and _The Rescue_, which I don't think I had heard of before. In addition, I knew, of course, that Marlow was a recurring character, but I didn't know about Capt. Lindgard.

    So, the TBR list gets longer, and more books pile up in the TBR bookcase.

  3. I recently downloaded Almayer and hope to read it soon. Fred, what are your favorite 3 Conrad's

  4. mel u,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I haven't read _Almayer's Folly_ yet, but I will get around to it shortly. I've decided to read the three Capt. Lingard novels in chronological order, so I will begin with _The Rescue_.

    My three favorite Conrad novels? I would have to say they are _Heart of Darkness_, _Nostromo_, and _Secret Agent_. I listed them in alphabetical order, so the sequence is not a ranking.

  5. I have read all but Nostromo. Both works I read are great classics. I read Lord Jim decades ago. I have Nostromo on my 2012 list.

  6. mel u,

    I read _Lord Jim_ years ago and thought it was an interesting read but not at the same level as the three I listed. But, it's been awhile, so I may pick it up again and see what I think this time around.