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...
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