Last Updated September 5, 2023.
This novel by Robert Louis Stevenson concerns a British colony in the South Pacific. Its primary theme is the relationship between race and gender. One sub-theme of this is the association of nationality and gender, which joins the Englishmen living in the colony. A second sub-theme is the subordinate status of Uma, an indigenous young woman whom John Wiltshire, the protagonist, marries. Stevenson also explores the consequences of immorality through the behavior of the trader Case.
John Wiltshire is a trader who has been living in a remote outpost of the British Empire. After he moves to Falesa, a more populated island, he is eager to resume his trading activities. Wiltshire tries to become acquainted quickly with the other British traders, who are all white men, on the island. The most prominent is named Case. Although they are rivals in their occupation, Wiltshire believes that their commonalities as Englishmen create a bond between them. As the novel progresses, he realizes that Case is completely unscrupulous. Not only does Case trick the island’s indigenous inhabitants by mocking their spiritual traditions, he also tricks Wiltshire into an unsuitable marriage and a situation that disables him from conducting trade. Devastated by this betrayal, Wiltshire destroys Case’s secret hideout and kills him with a knife.
Wiltshire, on Case’s advice, decides that he should take a wife and marries Uma, a shy, lovely young indigenous woman who is originally from another island. Although he barely knew her, he forms a positive opinion of her modest, serious demeanor. The marriage ceremony is farcical, which Wiltshire accepts, although he knows that Uma does not understand it because she does not speak English. Uma’s manipulation as a pawn by the Englishmen, and her apparent abandonment by her family, highlights the gender and racial disparities between the colonizers and the colonized. An additional incident involving an indigenous chief, who also manipulates control over women to gain power, bolsters Stevenson’s presentation of women as powerless.
Case, the reader learns, has long conducted unethical, illegal activities to maintain a trading monopoly and instill fear in the native people. He has created false “devils” to terrify them and has reneged on a commitment to marry Uma, which had put a “taboo” on her and her mother. Because the taboo has extended to Wiltshire, the native peoples do not associate with him, so as to avoid contamination. Wiltshire finally enlists the aid of one chief who was trying to undermine Case’s power. Knowing he will have some support, Wiltshire blows up Case’s secret lair and kills him; as Case had first fired at him, this is self-defense. Case’s immoral behavior ultimately leads to his destruction.