Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975
Three Englishmen, Harry Johnson, Gilbert Phillips, and Charles Wright, plan an expedition to explore virgin territory in Brazil. Johnson and Wright are experienced explorers; Phillips, a journalist, is not. The initial motivation came from Wright, who had earlier made it to the edge of the territory but fell ill; his incomplete exploration has haunted him ever since. The novel opens with Johnson and Phillips on a launch going up a Brazilian river to meet Wright at a town that was to be the jumping-off point for the expedition. (The river and town are nameless, as are most geographic details in the novel.) The town is also the site of the timber business with which Johnson is affiliated. Johnson falls ill on the voyage and is still ill when they arrive and join Wright.
Through flashbacks, the reader learns that before departing for Brazil, Johnson had an affair with Wright’s stepdaughter, Lucy Mommbrekke (at Lucy’s rather than Johnson’s initiative). Not having heard from her (he checks for letters at every opportunity), he has convinced himself that she is pregnant. Although a physically powerful man and very independent, he courts self-torture; added to his guilt toward Lucy is further guilt toward her stepfather, his fellow explorer. The burden of guilt, compounded by the fever of his illness, strengthens his obsession with surviving alone in the wilderness—he has always been a loner, making the entanglement with Lucy scarcely tolerable. Johnson seeks hardship and rushes toward the seemingly impossible; going without Wright would, moreover, remove one reminder of his guilt. As the launch moves up the river on the way to join Wright, John son repeatedly horrifies Phillips by saying that they should leave the boat and strike out overland without waiting to meet Wright. Adding to his growing obsession is apparently the urge (made explicit later) to find out what happened to his father, a missionary, who seventeen years earlier disappeared in the jungle not very far from the destination of the expedition—and he had traveled alone.
Days pass at the town that was to be the launching point for the expedition, while Johnson’s physical condition improves. To alleviate the boredom, Wright and Phillips go up the river to hunt turtle eggs. Calcott, an Englishman at whose house the explorers are staying, knew Johnson’s father and was perhaps the last white man to see him alive before he plunged into the wilderness. He talks about him, fueling Johnson’s desire to find out what happened to the missionary. Calcott also introduces Johnson to Silva, an amiable but shrewd Portuguese; he and Calcott hold regular seances, at one of which communication seems to be established with the lost missionary. Although Johnson laughs at the whole thing, the seance probably adds to his growing passion to learn his father’s fate.
A storm delays Wright’s and Phillip’s return to town. With Silva offering to accompany him (partly out of boredom, but also thinking that gold might be Johnson’s objective), Johnson starts up the river, ostensibly to hunt but really to strike out on his own and search for clues to the disappearance of his father. In a day or so, Johnson falls ill again, and Phillips, Wright, and native boatmen overtake him. The embarrassment of the encounter (Johnson had deserted his companions) is superficially smoothed over; Johnson and Wright go out from camp to Johnson’s canoe to catch some small game. They come upon a jaguar (which their light guns would only enrage if they fired at it); in the ensuing excitement, Wright trips and shoots himself through the chest. After a titanic struggle, Johnson manages to get him back to the boat. Meanwhile, Phillips and Silva, hearing Johnson’s shots and seeing his fire, meet them on the river. By this time, Wright is dead; Silva assumes that Johnson has murdered him. (In a rare moment of self-revelation, Johnson had told Silva of his affair with Wright’s stepdaughter; the Portuguese misunderstood him, thinking it was Wright’s wife—hence the motive for the killing.) Nothing is said openly of this; the natives are uneasy because of the dead man and want to return; Johnson is determined to press on. At first strongly opposed to the idea, Phillips finally persuades himself that he should go with Johnson. Silva returns to town with the natives; the party is subsequently arrested in connection with the “murder”—one of the natives is wearing Wright’s boots.
Phillips and Johnson begin their journey, fighting mosquitoes, underbrush, fatigue; the trek soon becomes a test of survival as they abandon the boat and travel overland. Water is in short supply. Soon they are quarreling; laughter, delirious. The emotional relationships between the two men are further complicated by the fact that Phillips also had an affair with Lucy. When Johnson, during a lucid interval, leaves the exhausted, raving Phillips to find water for them, selflessly leaving him the gun, Phillips, thinking he is being deserted, fires at him and misses. Johnson continues in search of water, armed only with a knife. Soon there is a tropical storm, the beginning of the rainy season, which floods the countryside. After many fumbling moves, Phillips starts out in search of his companion but is soon exhausted and near collapse. He stumbles into a party of explorers, who, after a search for the missing man, carry him to safety. Harry Johnson is never seen again, presumably drowned.
Phillips returns to England and is visited by Lucy, who is now married and expecting a child. (“I must marry,” she had told herself as she waved goodbye to Johnson, “before I . . . catch the next boat and go after him.”) After some rather awkward conversation, they part to go their separate ways, each haunted by the memory of this heroic, troubled man.
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