An Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad

An Outcast of the Islands is in at least one way a very strange bird. According to Conrad’s own preface to his second novel, he began writing it after his literary friend Edward Garnett asked him “why not write another?” Another after Almayer’s Folly, that is. An Outcast of the Islands ended up also being another book about Almayer and his follies, another book about Sambir, another book about Captain Lingard and the rest of the cast we met the last time around.

There are a few additions, as well. In contemporary parlance you could call An Outcast of the Islands a “prequel,” I think, although parts of Almayer’s Folly take place before it, or at least before most of it. But the real “now” of Almayer’s Folly is the time of Almayer’s middle age, when he has lost the Sambir trade and his mentor Captain Lingard. Outcast tells the story of how much of that situation came to be: how Willems, the eponymous outcast, brought the Arabs to Sambir.

Willems is another Dutchman picked up by Lingard. This one came from Rotterdam, and Lingard deposits him at the Macassar firm where he will later pick up Almayer. Willems distinguishes himself here in business; he is very clever. Which means, of course, that he is too clever altogether, and gets himself into a mess of trouble. The novel’s first paragraph is a perfect picture of his hubris:

When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue as soon as his little excursion into the wayside quagmires had produced the desired effect. It was going to be a short episode—a sentence in brackets, so to speak—in the flowing tale of his life: a thing of no moment, to be done unwillingly, yet neatly, and to be quickly forgotten. He imagined that he could go on aftewards looking at the sunshine, enjoying the shade, breathing in the perfume of flowers in the small garden before his house. He fancied that nothing would be changed, that he would be able as heretofore to tyrannize good-humouredly over his half-caste wife, to notice with tender contempt his pale yellow child, to patronize loftily his dark-skinned brother-in-law, who loved pink neckties and wore patent-leather boots on his little feet, and was so humble before the white husband of the lucky sister. Those were the delights of his life, and he was unable to conceive that the moral significance of any act of his could interfere with the very nature of things, could dim the light of the sun, could destroy the perfume of the flowers, the submission of his wife, the smile of his child, the awe-struck respect of Leonard da Souza and of all the Da Souza family. That family’s admiration was the great luxury of his life. It rounded and completed his existence in a perpetual assurance of unquestionable superiority.

What a despicable man Willems is already, and he will only grow more so. Perhaps it will please you, schadenfreudishly, to know that Willems is so blind and conceited he does not even realize his half-caste wife is the daughter of his boss, and that he will soon be rather well repaid for how he has treated her and her family. But no more about Willems yet; I want to save him for tomorrow.

After inciting the wrath of his employer, Willems is rescued once again by Lingard, who deposits him, for safekeeping as it were, in Sambir. Willems is only supposed to wait things out there for a few months while Lingard finds him a new job where people don’t know him for what he is. But ever unable to leave well enough alone, Willems goes ahead and betrays his benefactor by revealing the secret of the Pantai. The events leading up to and following this betrayal bring an intimate picture of Sambir politicking, with all the figures who are prominent in Almayer’s Folly rising to their importance here.

This is what makes the novel a bit strange, as I said. An episode that, while clearly having a major effect on Almayer’s fortunes in the earlier novel, is treated as little more than a footnote, rises here to the status of major local event with serious political implications. We have numerous new perceptual lenses through which to view all the original characters, especially Almayer, and it can be disorienting. How was I supposed to write about Almayer’s Folly the past two days, knowing so much more about Almayer than I could know from that novel? It doesn’t seem right. It shouldn’t seem quite so weird, since the prequel/sequel concept is hardly new. But the combination of the timing of the two stories with Conrad’s whole emphasis on perception heightened the closeness of the relation between the two novels.

I should also say, again, that I think Conrad is already an excellent writer and especially stylist by this point. In his preface he talks about how, on account of not caring so much about the story, he ended up focusing a lot on the setting in An Outcast of the Islands, resulting in his being described as an “exotic” novelist. Sambir is unquestionably exotic, and Conrad’s descriptions of it here are lush and evocative.

Who was she? Where did she come from? Wonderingly he took his eyes off her face to look round at the serried trees of the forest that stood big and still and straight, as if watching him and her breathlessly. He had been baffled, repelled, almost frightened by the intensity of that tropical life which wants the sunshine but works in gloom; which seems to be all grace of colour and form, all brilliance, all smiles, but is only the blossoming of the dead; whose mystery holds the promise of joy and beauty, yet contains nothing but poison and decay. He had been frightened by the vague perception of danger before, but now, as he looked at that life again, his eyes seemed able to pierce the fantastic veil of creepers and leaves, to look past the solid trunks, to see through the forbidding gloom—and the mystery was disclosed—enchanting, subduing, beautiful. He looked at the woman. Through the checkered light between them she appeared to him with the impalpable distinctness of a dream. The very spirit of that land of mysterious forests, standing before him like an apparition behind a transparent veil—a veil woven of sunbeams and shadows.

How very enchanting Aissa is, isn’t she? Willems is done for.

2 comments to An Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad

  • Gregg Rickman

    I too have just read Outcast and Almayer’s Folly in close succession, and in the “wrong” order: the quasi-prequel Outcast first. If read as Conrad had written the books, the scenes in Outcast of Almayer playing with his daughter would have gained a great deal of poignancy.

    I’ve read five Conrads in quick succession: The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Chance and now these two. (Years ago I read “Heart of Darkness” and I’ve also, this year, read several of the short stories.) One thing I particularly like about Conrad’s books, present in these two early novels, is how he establishes several characters, each of them with their own agenda, and sets them busily on their way, sometimes as allies, sometimes at cross-purposes. As Almayer’s Folly nears its denouement we have as active agents Almayer, Babalatchi, his boss Lakamba, the swashbuckling prince, Almayer’s daughter, Almayer’s wife, the slave girl and of course the Dutch. Seven distinctly drawn individuals, with an eighth force also a player. Conrad hasn’t advanced to the level of the refracted narration we find in his later work (the narrator who’s also a minor character in the action, the heart of the “as told to” chain we find with Marlow, or the old teacher in Under Western Eyes) but we do have key information being delayed in its offering to the reader, or sometimes advanced to the reader ahead of the characters’ awareness.

  • You’re so right about those scenes with his daughter. How little meaning they have in Outcast alone, but with what had come before…a little tough to read, to be honest. I am probably overly sympathetic to Almayer!

    I like your analysis of these works in terms of the various agencies moving around doing their own thing, and how they interplay. I have not articulated those terms to myself up to now, but I think they will be very helpful in future. Thanks for commenting!