Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The central theme of An Insular Possession is captured in the description of the southern China trading route, the Macao Roads, which begins the novel. Lifeline of the region, “the river succours and impedes native and foreigner alike; it limits and it enables, it isolates and it joins.” The paradoxes of the river reflect its unpredictability: Passages once unobstructed are, suddenly, impeded by boulders and sand bars; into the firm margin of the mainland, peninsulas are carved overnight and later break away to form islands; the navigable, single river becomes many rivers, unchartered. Like its waterway, Canton, too, passes swiftly through stages of transition: Once a home to Muslims, it was invaded by the current natives, only subsequently to be seized by the British and again reprised by the Chinese. Both trading route and trading town suggest that reality itself, far from a fixed, objective fact, is a mutable entity, a panorama in constant flux.

The novelist and his characters strive, therefore, to determine the most reliable, accurate means of interpreting their fickle world. Following a successfully vanquished insurrection in Canton, for example, the town’s natives surprise their captors by rising again, abducting hostages trapped in the trading houses. The conservative Canton Monitor interprets the attack as a clear sign that the Chinese are unruly, immoral, and willful, and must be taught, through utter destruction,...

(The entire section is 549 words.)