Three Englishmen, Harry Johnson, Gilbert Phillips, and Charles Wright, plan an expedition to explore virgin territory in Brazil. Johnson and Wright are experienced explorers; Phillips, a journalist, is not. The initial motivation came from Wright, who had earlier made it to the edge of the territory but fell ill; his incomplete exploration has haunted him ever since. The novel opens with Johnson and Phillips on a launch going up a Brazilian river to meet Wright at a town that was to be the jumping-off point for the expedition. (The river and town are nameless, as are most geographic details in the novel.) The town is also the site of the timber business with which Johnson is affiliated. Johnson falls ill on the voyage and is still ill when they arrive and join Wright.
Through flashbacks, the reader learns that before departing for Brazil, Johnson had an affair with Wright’s stepdaughter, Lucy Mommbrekke (at Lucy’s rather than Johnson’s initiative). Not having heard from her (he checks for letters at every opportunity), he has convinced himself that she is pregnant. Although a physically powerful man and very independent, he courts self-torture; added to his guilt toward Lucy is further guilt toward her stepfather, his fellow explorer. The burden of guilt, compounded by the fever of his illness, strengthens his obsession with surviving alone in the wilderness—he has always been a loner, making the entanglement with Lucy scarcely tolerable. Johnson seeks hardship and rushes toward the seemingly impossible; going without Wright would, moreover, remove one reminder of his guilt. As the launch moves up the river on the way to join Wright, John son repeatedly horrifies Phillips by saying that they should leave the boat and strike out overland without waiting to meet Wright. Adding to his growing obsession is apparently the urge (made explicit later) to find out what happened to his father, a missionary, who seventeen years earlier disappeared in the jungle not very far from the destination of the expedition—and he had traveled alone.
Days pass at the town that was to be the launching point for the expedition, while Johnson’s physical condition improves. To alleviate the boredom, Wright and Phillips go up the river to hunt turtle eggs. Calcott, an Englishman at whose house the explorers are staying, knew Johnson’s father and was perhaps the last white man to...
(The entire section is 975 words.)