An Outcast of the islands, by Joseph Conrad

Even as I struggle to read most other novels, Conrad and Faulkner manage to entertain me, though I find I’m content enough not to look too deeply into why – perhaps it’s just the simple mix of plot and human understanding.

An Outcast of the Islands is impressive as only Conrad’s second novel; I read his first, Almayer’s Folly, years ago and can’t remember the least thing about it. Outcast has a lot of similarities with Lord Jim: it’s about a man who commits a transgression and who, in need of being removed beyond the bounds of civil (i.e. western) society, ends up in a distant part of the Malayan jungle where he becomes embroiled in local politics. Where it differs from Lord Jim, is in his redemption; – for in this he doesn’t redeem himself at all: given the opportunity to act reasonably, he commits a further transgression against the one man who’s tried to help him. Perhaps this incorrigibility on the part of the main character is why it’s not as well-known as Lord Jim; people in general are no doubt less content with a man who merely fails and fails again, even if it is largely through no will of his own; but I on the whole preferred it to the other book. Both the outcast, who has no intention of acting badly but does nonetheless, and the man who helps him constantly through his life and is only rewarded with betrayal, are fascinating portraits of humanity. Much like Faulkner, nothing is clean or clear-cut in this world.

I notice a similarity too with the last Conrad I read, The Arrow of Gold, in that it is the love of a woman that drives our anti-hero to act as he does, at least on the second occasion; and to act essentially against what is good for him. I’ve a vague recollection this idea persists elsewhere in Conrad too, but I imagine it is nothing more than romanticism; the notion that people should in the end by overtaken by their passions, even if it is to their detriment.

Conrad’s attitude towards colonialism I find in this very similar to Kipling, and his ironic use of traditional imperial attitudes in order to debunk them. Here again it is the characters who are interested in this other world who are approved; and yet it is, on the other hand, never quite as clear-cut in Conrad; for none of his characters are wholly applaudable; they are all out for their own interests; and this includes the Malays. Indeed, quite a significant amount of the novel is taken up from the point of view of the Malays, their own interal politics, and the impact of the white man (or at least, the foreigner) upon them. For while the outsiders fight to control the trade with the Malays; so the Malays fight to control the trade with the outsiders – each succeeding only in swapping one trading partner for another.

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2 thoughts on “An Outcast of the islands, by Joseph Conrad

  1. It’s a very good novel. I remember thinking that the writing was a bit awkward here and there, and the two women were not persuasive characters, but otherwise excellent stuff.

  2. I didn’t find the writing awkward, thought it was good throughout. The women aren’t fully realised though, you’re right; they are just supporting plot devices. I see Conrad’s view of women as essentially romantic, while at the same time merely existing as objects affecting the lives of men. I need to think it through a bit more.

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