Summary

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1810

First published: 1892

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Adventure romance

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: An island in the South Seas

Principal Characters:

Wiltshire, a trader

Uma, his wife

Case, another trader

Tarleton, a missionary

Black Jack, Case’s confederate

Captain Randall ,...

(The entire section contains 1810 words.)

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First published: 1892

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Adventure romance

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: An island in the South Seas

Principal Characters:

Wiltshire, a trader

Uma, his wife

Case, another trader

Tarleton, a missionary

Black Jack, Case’s confederate

Captain Randall, Case’s friend

The Story:

Wiltshire welcomed his transfer to the trading station at Falesa after spending four years on a Pacific island where he had no white neighbors. Case and old Captain Randall lived in Falesa. Even though they operated a competing store, Wiltshire was grateful for their presence. At first, he was not disturbed by the fates of his two predecessors. One of them, John Adams, had become ill and died after a period of insanity. The other, Vigours, had left suddenly because of his intense fear of Case and Black Jack.

When Wiltshire first met Case and his black colleague, Black Jack, he was pleased with the clean appearance of both and with the educated speech of the white man. Case was very obliging. He had suggested that Wiltshire get a native wife and had pointed out Uma, a shy, slender girl whom Wiltshire agreed to take. Because Wiltshire did not know the native tongue, Case made all the arrangements with the girl and her mother.

The wedding took place in the store operated by Randall, Case, and Black Jack. This store, a small and filthy place with few supplies other than firearms and liquor, was nominally owned by Randall, a sottish old derelict; but Case was obviously in charge. The marriage service was conducted by Black Jack, who pretended to read the service from a novel and said a few obscene words in English, which Uma could not understand. Case prepared a document, which stated that they were illegally married. At first sight, Wiltshire had been favorably impressed by Uma, and this impression was deepened by her modest and serious demeanor during the ceremony. His long-standing resolve to avoid serious involvement with a native woman was weakening.

A series of mysterious happenings began on the next day. In the morning, Wiltshire discovered a group of natives who were sitting quietly and staring with sorrowful expressions at his house. The crowd increased during the day and did not disperse until evening. On his first day of business, he had no customers; more surprising, not one curious spectator entered his store. On Sunday, attracted by the singing, he stuck his head in the window of a church. The native pastor, staggering from amazement and fear, pointed his finger at the white man. After a second business day had passed without a single visitor to the store, Wiltshire concluded that he had been tabooed by the natives.

Ostensibly to help his fellow Englishman, Case accompanied Wiltshire to a meeting with five of the chiefs of Falesa. Because Wiltshire was ignorant of the language, Case acted as his spokesman. Afterward, Case alleged that he had not succeeded in getting the chiefs to change their attitude toward Wiltshire. He said that the natives feared Wiltshire because of some unknown superstition, much the same as they had feared Vigours, and would not go near him.

That same day, Wiltshire gained his first insight into the plot that Case was working against him. Uma disclosed that the taboo had been placed on her originally and that it was now put on him because of his marriage. Case had told her that Wiltshire had married with full knowledge of the situation.

Wiltshire also learned that Case, when Uma and her widowed mother had come to Falesa a year before, had shown interest in the two women and had given them assistance. A native chief had proposed marriage to Uma, but quite unaccountably, he had deserted her. Just as unaccountably, the two women found themselves ostracized. Case, who continued to see the women in the evening, had proposed to Uma, but she had rejected his offer.

More information on the situation in Falesa came from Tarleton, a missionary. The missionary, who was on his regular tour of the island, performed a proper marriage service for Uma and Wiltshire at the latter’s request. Then he acquainted the trader with some of Case’s activities. One of Tarleton’s native pastors had fallen under Case’s influence and had encouraged the natives to use the sign of the cross to avoid the supposed evil eye of Vigours. To end this practice, Tarleton had hurried to Falesa. He had discovered that many of the villagers were under the subjugation of Case; by working on their superstitions, he had led them to perform diabolic acts, including the burying alive of a white trader. Tarleton had failed in his effort to nullify the influence of Case. An expert at legerdemain, Case had by sleight of hand pretended to snatch a dollar bill from Tarleton’s head and had claimed that the missionary was interested only in increasing native contributions.

For about a month after the missionary left, all was quiet in Falesa. Unable to trade with the natives, Wiltshire worked on the copra that Uma’s mother owned. Often he went hunting, and he found that in the woods the natives were not reluctant to talk with him. He learned that the eastern end of the island, which was uninhabited and seldom entered, was believed to be occupied by devils. Among many superstitions connected with this area was the belief that Case could travel freely in it because he was under the protection of a powerful devil.

One day, Wiltshire explored this wilderness. Fighting his way through the jungle growth and up a steep hill, he became aware of a weird, moaning sound. Fearfully he advanced and discovered the source of the noise, an aeolian harp suspended from a tree. Finding a well-beaten path, he followed it until he reached an old, tumbledown wall on the top of which was a line of queer, ugly figures, carved and painted, wearing hair and dressed in bright clothes. Noticing that they were newly made, he recalled that Case was a good forger of island curiosities. Nearby, he discovered a cellar. Entering it, he saw the face of a devil in luminous paint on the wall.

Returning from his expedition, he met Case, and unthinkingly mentioned the luminous paint. Case would now want to promptly dispose of Wiltshire, since his secret was now known. When Wiltshire arrived home, Maea, the richest and most powerful chief of Falesa, was there. He and Case were rivals for a girl, and he had decided to hurt Case by turning over his business to Wiltshire. Although he had not believed the stories about Uma that had led to her ostracism, he had, up to this time, played along with Case to further his own ends. Wiltshire explained to Maea the hoax that Case had perpetrated on the natives and told him that if he went into the wilderness the next morning, he would find the devils destroyed.

Wiltshire, equipped with dynamite fishing bombs, returned to the devils’ den after dark. He pulled down the idols, placed them on the cellar roof, and prepared his charge. As he was walking toward the harp, he was startled by Uma, who had come to warn him that Case was coming. Hurriedly, he lit the fuse. The explosion scattered the woods with red coals, and one burning image fell close to the place where he and Uma sought to hide themselves. As he rushed to extinguish this light, two shots were fired, the second hitting the mark. His leg smashed, and in severe pain, he yelled out. As Uma ran to help him, she too was hit.

Having lost his gun, Wiltshire grasped his knife and pretended to be dead. After an interval, Case moved toward him and fired another shot, which barely missed. When Case came within reach, Wiltshire grabbed his ankle, threw him down, and stabbed him. After fainting twice, Wiltshire managed to get to Uma, who was badly frightened but not seriously hurt. Shortly after sunrise, Tarleton and a group of natives led by Maea appeared on the scene; they first buried Case and then helped the wounded couple home.

Tarleton set matters straight between the natives and Wiltshire. With Case dead, Randall and Black Jack left Falesa, and Wiltshire settled down to a profitable business.

Critical Evaluation:

A suspenseful tale of intrigue in the South Seas, THE BEACH OF FALESA is distinguished, among Robert Louis Stevenson’s works of fiction, for its realism. It pictures unregenerate human nature—the natives with their superstition and gullibility; the traders with their crudeness, treachery, and degradation; the missionaries with their misguided zeal. A memorable feature of the story is the characterization of Wiltshire, a rough, uneducated man, something of a braggart, but withal a man of courage and rudimentary decency.

The apparently casual first-person narrative of THE BEACH OF FALESA is written in the flawless, graceful prose of which Stevenson was a master. The colloquialisms that Wiltshire uses are just enough to suggest his character and degree of education (or lack of education), but the descriptions and action are the artful work of one of the finest prose craftsmen in the English language.

The story presents the hypocrisy of Europeans opposed to the simplicity and honesty of the islanders. From the tale’s beginning with the fake “marriages,” Stevenson establishes this conflict. At the same time, the question of morality and religion (in the person of the missionaries) is raised. The story is compact but dense and rich, suggesting much more than appears on the surface.

Wiltshire’s reaction to Uma’s story dramatically illustrates the kind of man he is; perhaps even he does not realize how extraordinary a gesture he is making when he destroys the fake marriage certificate and has the traveling missionary perform a legitimate ceremony. Although uncertain about the significance of the situation and the eventual outcome, the reader understands now that Wiltshire is a man of genuine—if rough and ready—integrity.

One of Stevenson’s last completed long stories, THE BEACH OF FALESA suggests that he was moving into a new realm of serious and symbolic fiction before he died. Not much longer than THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, the tale penetrates more directly and perhaps more accurately the depths of the human personality. The scenes of the discovery and destruction of the fake devils are both terrifying and rich with meaning. As Wiltshire implies, all men internally nurse these irrational fears, a carryover possibly from childhood, and if men are to be free, they must destroy these devils. THE BEACH OF FALESA is far more than an adventure yarn of the South Seas; it suggests some of the same concerns that Joseph Conrad was to investigate in such stories as HEART OF DARKNESS.

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