Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030
In Almayer’s Folly, his first novel, Joseph Conrad blends together several of the characteristic themes that would pervade his later and more powerful works: the conflict between two mutually uncomprehending civilizations, Western and Eastern; the fearsome and nearly unconquerable power of human sexuality, especially as embodied in the female; and his harsh, dismal belief that all human beings are condemned to live out their lives in isolated worlds of individual illusion. In this early work, Conrad is also exploring and refining his distinctive methods of presenting these themes through setting, characterization, and style. Since Almayer’s Folly can be seen as a precursor to such later tales as Heart of Darkness (1899) and Lord Jim (1900), it has the double value of being an important work in itself and the first step in Conrad’s development as one of English literature’s most powerful writers.
The conflict between European and Eastern cultures underlies the novel. Sambir, the setting for the tale, is the prize in an interlocking series of conflicts for power between forces ranging from the imperial to the domestic. Nominal control of Sambir is disputed between the Dutch, who initially claim the territory as part of their possessions, and the British, who as the more dynamic and progressive imperial power seem poised to exert their influence over the deceptively sleepy tropical site. It is in response to what he perceives as an imminent change of rule that Almayer begins construction of the house that, never completed, becomes a “new ruin” and is dubbed “Almayer’s Folly.” Almayer’s house fits the traditional architectural sense of the word “folly,” in that it is an expensive but useless building that serves no practical purpose. More significant, however, is Almayer’s true folly: that he neglects the true politics of Sambir, which center not on distant empires but on local domestic concerns. The rajah of Sambir, Lakamba, is Almayer’s implacable enemy not least because he believes that the European knows of a rich source of gold. Lakamba commands Almayer’s native wife to leave him by playing on the disgust she feels at her white husband’s sloth and failure. Almayer, convinced of his innate superiority—after all, he is a European—hardly notices, much less combats, his decline. In this sense, he prefigures Kurtz of Heart of Darkness, who becomes more savage than the natives among whom he lives.
Almayer is betrayed twice by women close to him. His wife and his half-caste daughter, Nina, both abandon him and reject European ways for the native Malay culture. Through his dense, highly rhetorical prose, Conrad heavily implies that this rejection is more than cultural; it is in large part a condemnation of Almayer’s inadequate sexuality, bound by centuries of European repression and therefore incapable of the natural expression found among the Malay people, characters such as Nina’s lover, Dain Maroola.
The distinctive trait of all the major figures in Almayer’s Folly is self-delusion; no one, European or Malay, truly understands his or her situation or character. All of them are to some extent exiles. Lakamba, although he is a powerful figure on the local scene, is only a pawn in the larger game of the great powers. He has been marginalized and made, to a great degree, irrelevant—the politician’s final exile.
Almayer is cut off from his European heritage by distance and from his own dreams by his indolence and lack of ability; at the end of the novel, through the destructive powers of opium, he exists only in a dream world, truly isolated. His wife, on the other hand, has been exiled from her native culture through her marriage to Almayer; she can end her isolation only by betraying her husband and fleeing to his archenemy, Lakamba. Nina, Almayer’s daughter, is perhaps the most pitiful exile of all. A half-caste, she will never be accepted as European (although she is educated as one in Singapore), yet her return to her Malay roots is accomplished only by renouncing her father and all his dreams and escaping into the jungle with Dain Maroola.
These themes, which occur repeatedly in Conrad’s writings, are expressed in an early and sometimes fumbling form of the narrative style that became uniquely his. When the novel opens, the reader is forced to navigate through a series of flashbacks and interior monologues until the outlines of the situation and story begin to resolve themselves. In a sense, this pattern is a structural representation of the moral confusion in which the characters find themselves, but it is also a foreshadowing of Conrad’s technique in works such as Lord Jim, where the plot progresses in a psychological rather than chronological fashion.
The Eastern setting of Almayer’s Folly becomes—another typical Conrad trait—almost a character itself. The dangerously lush and exotic landscape is more than a backdrop to the actions of the human characters, and the setting becomes partly an expression, partly a cause, of the characters’ actions. In such a location, all emotions, especially the more primal ones, are intensified and natural inclinations are emphasized and exaggerated. Sambir is an early version of the nonhuman, even demonic landscape that Conrad creates in Heart of Darkness, and the river in Almayer’s Folly, the Pantai, is an early study of the Congo River that winds through the later story. In Conrad’s prose, tropical vegetation comes to represent both the primal force of life and life’s inevitable and implacable decay.
Stylistically, the novel is characteristic of Conrad in its heavy reliance on adjectives and a tendency toward rhetorical excess. The descriptions of the Malay landscape and the portraits of the novel’s characters are often lengthy and involved, most often with the purpose of establishing a psychological and artistic frame in which the story and its meaning can take shape. At times convoluted in its syntax, the language of Almayer’s Folly, like its setting, mirrors the complex, complicated, and often self-contradictory nature of its characters and their motivations and actions. It was with this novel that Conrad staked out territory that remained very much his own throughout his works.