Max Havelaar is considered the greatest Dutch literary achievement of the latter half of the nineteenth century. This era was a time of literary awakening in many smaller Northern European countries. For example, Norway saw the drama of Henrik Ibsen and Sweden saw that of August Strindberg. These writers, although working in languages spoken by a small minority of the world’s population, created works that spoke to the world. The works of Eduard Douwes Dekker, known as Multatuli, are Dutch literature’s nearest equivalent to those of Strindberg and of Ibsen. As did the beliefs of Strindberg and Ibsen, Multatuli’s liberalism, skepticism, and feminism startled the reading public of his nation. Multatuli’s work, however, did not have the impact of the two Scandinavian dramatists. Multatuli wrote comparatively little, in contrast to the voluminous composition of Strindberg and Ibsen. Multatuli’s work is also very complex and multilayered, and it deals with specifically Dutch experiences; these factors may well make Max Havelaar opaque to the foreign reader.
Max Havelaar’s appeal to the reader is, most likely, not its representation of Dutch national literature, although this is still an important concern. Max Havelaar is engaging as literature. It is not simply a cultural artifact. Max Havelaar seems ahead of its time in terms of formal awareness and self-consciousness. The shifts in levels of reality that the reader encounters in the narrative unsettle conventional expectations. Another element that gives the book a contemporary feel is its portrayal of the colonial experience, specifically the Dutch colonial presence in Java. It is often forgotten that the Dutch maintained a considerable colonial empire of their own in the East Indies and in the West Indies, including Suriname. Also, until the British seized South Africa in the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch controlled that region.
Multatuli’s portrait of the Dutch East Indies in Max Havelaar can fruitfully be compared to the portrait of Borneo in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim (1900), but the books are also different because the Dutch and British colonial experiences were different. Whereas the British had always claimed to be acting in the...
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