Places Discussed

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Pantai River

Pantai River (pan-TI). Fictional river in the Dutch East Indies to which the novel’s subtitle alludes (“A Story of an Eastern River”). Conrad modeled the Pantai on the real Berau River in Borneo. The subtitle accurately reflects the importance that the river plays in the narrative. All the major events take place either on or next to the Pantai, and its ceaseless motion and dangerous turbulence serve as both menacing background and active foreground to the development of the plot.

Conrad often uses the literary technique of personification, which attributes human qualities to inanimate objects, to portray the river as having strong emotional reactions to the uses to which people put it. As a result, the Pantai becomes a character in its own right, and there is a sense in which its actions are as significant as those of the novel’s human cast of performers.

The river also represents the flow of life passing by Almayer. The novel’s opening scene finds him envying the fate of a log tossed about in the stream’s violent currents, because its temporary suffering will be rewarded by a journey to freedom when the river eventually carries it to the sea. This moment foreshadows an episode at the conclusion of the novel when Almayer’s daughter, the only person he still loves, leaves him by sailing down the Pantai to the sea.

Conrad’s career as a merchant seaman included several visits to Borneo’s eastern coast during the late 1880’s, when he encountered a Dutch trader upon whom he based Almayer. The novel closely follows the actual topographical and sociological character of the region.

Almayer’s house

Almayer’s house. Combination residence and business premise located on the banks of the Pantai. The novel stresses the decrepit, rundown condition of what is both literally and figuratively Almayer’s “folly.” The living area of the house is a shambles uncared for by Almayer’s estranged wife and lax servants. On the rare occasions when visitors call, not even a full set of glasses can be assembled. The warehouse portion of the house is equally pathetic and contains only a few rotting specimens of unsalable merchandise. Particular stress is placed on the ramshackle condition of the jetty that runs down to the river from the house, which symbolizes the decayed relationship between Almayer’s commercial ambitions and his actual capacity to conduct business.

In architectural terminology, a “folly” is an excessively ornamental tower or mock ruin with only decorative value, which makes it an apt term for the literal ruin of Almayer’s home. His house is also a figurative representation of the folly that has accumulated as the result of his unsuccessful business, unhappy marriage and failed relationship with his daughter. The novel concludes with the final destruction of both follies: Almayer burns his home to the ground and then wills his own death as an escape from earthly failure.

Abdulla’s godown

Abdulla’s godown. Business premises, or “godown,” of Almayer’s main competitor, the Arab merchant Abdulla. The atmosphere of bustling activity at Abdulla’s place contrasts strongly with the desolate air of Almayer’s house and implies that the latter’s lack of success is due to personal inability rather than poor business conditions in the region.

Rajah of Sambir’s house

Rajah of Sambir’s house. Residence of the ruler of the fictional state of Sambir, a province of what was then the Dutch East Indies. Its prosperity and liveliness again suggest that Almayer’s misery is due to his individual failings rather than a daunting environment.


*Macassar (mah-kah-SIHR). City in Indonesia’s Celebes Islands (later renamed Ujung Pandang). Briefly portrayed as the location of Almayer’s first...

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employment as a businessman, its frenetic and profitable commercial life serves as an image of the paradise lost that he is unable to re-create on the Pantai.


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Gordon, John D. Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940. An early but still valuable study of Conrad’s artistic development as a novelist. Although the discussion is weighted toward the more well-known books, it sheds informative light on Almayer’s Folly.

Hampson, R. G. Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. In the chapter “Two Prototypes of Betrayal: Almayer’s Folly,” the author examines the psychologies of the major characters and the tension created within them by their ideal selves at war with their actual personalities.

Karl, Frederik R. A. Reader’s Guide to Joseph Conrad. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. An introduction that provides a clear review of the essential features of Almayer’s Folly and its place in the Conrad canon.

Schwarz, Daniel R. Conrad: “Almayer’s Folly” to “Under Western Eyes.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. An excellent discussion of Conrad’s psychology during the period he conceived and composed the novel. Schwarz also discusses the connections and relationships between Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands (1896).

Sherry, Norman. Conrad’s Eastern World. London: Cambridge University Press, 1966. Places the novel within the context of Conrad’s early and continuing interest in settings and plots involving the Far East. Helpful in understanding the nuances of Malayan politics and culture.


Critical Essays