(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Max Havelaar: Or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company is a contested narrative—a narrative within a narrative within yet another narrative in which the framing stories underscore the social and cultural problems revealed by the central imbedded story of the quixotic civil servant, Max Havelaar, who does not even enter the story for nearly sixty pages. Multatuli’s agenda is clear: alert the indifferent and complacent middle-class Dutch back home of the system they had imposed on the peoples of the East Indies. For more than two centuries, the Dutch had maintained a considerable empire in the East Indies. At the time Multatuli wrote this novel, the government, rather than private trading companies, controlled the colonies and had imposed harsh production quotas for the islands’ chief exports, primarily coffee and sugar. This policy, coupled with crippling taxation imposed on local farmers, created a system rife with corruption and brutality.

The narrative actually begins with a parcel of manuscripts. A successful middle-aged coffee broker, Batavus Droogstoppel, is accosted on the streets of Amsterdam by an impoverished figure he identifies only as Sjaalman, or the Scarfman, because of the ragged scarf he wears against the cold. The man, a struggling writer who is an old school chum of Droogstoppel and who once saved him from a beating by bullies, thrusts a parcel at the coffee broker, manuscripts he had written, in the hopes that his friend might help him get the works published. Droogstoppel, who has little regard for literature, reluctantly agrees. When he reviews the contents, he is interested only in one essay on Javanese coffee plantations. That, he decides, would be worth pursuing, as his entire life is about coffee.

He assigns a young German clerk named Stern (or “star”) to oversee the compilation of the manuscript into something publishable. Stern agrees on two conditions: that his boss agree not to alter anything he writes and that the struggling writer, Sjaalman, be given a ream of paper and ink and pens. It is only then that the story of Max Havelaar commences—we are to assume it is a text arranged by Stern to be written by Sjaalman, who is most likely Havelaar himself, returned from the disastrous appointment in Java. That narrative in turn will be interrupted midway, when Droogstoppel, who has apparently listened to Stern read the manuscript he has...

(The entire section is 989 words.)

Max Havelaar Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Batavus Drystubble, a self-satisfied coffee broker in Amsterdam, is accosted one day on the street by a former schoolmate who has obviously fallen on bad times. The Shawlman, as Drystubble calls him, pressed his prosperous former schoolfellow to look over a bundle of manuscripts, in the hope that Drystubble might be willing to help him have some of them published. Drystubble, thinking he might have a book written about the coffee trade, turns over the manuscripts to a clerk in his firm to edit. The clerk agrees to make a book of the materials, after securing a promise from his employer not to censor the results before publication. Out of the bundle of manuscripts comes the story of Max Havelaar, a Dutch administrator in Java, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

Havelaar is an idealist who believes in justice for everyone, even the poor Javanese who labor in the fields. When he arrives at Rangkas-Betoong to take over the post of assistant resident of Lebak, a section of the residency of Bantam, in Java, he finds the situation much worse than anticipated, for the Dutch administrators, despite their oath to protect the poor and lowly, have acquiesced in the robbery and mistreatment of the native Javanese by the Javanese nobility, through whom the Dutch ruled the island. The Adhipatti of Lebak is a relatively poor man because his region does not produce many of the exports wanted by the Dutch. To keep up appearances befitting his rank and to support a large and rapacious family, the Adhipatti extorts goods, materials, and services from the people, who feel helpless because of the treatment they will suffer from the native chief if they complain to Dutch officials.

Havelaar, a man who loves a good fight for justice’s sake, is glad he has been assigned to Lebak. In his opening speech to the Adhipatti and the lesser chiefs, he declares that justice must be done, and he begins trying to influence the Adhipatti by advancing him tax money in the hope that the chief will be less exacting on his people. Suggestions and help are of little use, however, for the same evil practices continue. The people, learning that Havelaar wishes to see justice done, steals to his home under cover of darkness to lodge their complaints and give the assistant resident information. Havelaar rides many miles to redress complaints. He also gives an example to the chiefs by refusing to use more native labor than the law allows, even to letting the grounds of the residency go largely untended and revert to jungle. He realizes what he is fighting against, for he is in his middle thirties and has spent seventeen years in the Dutch colonial service.

Havelaar’s faithful adherent in his battle against injustice is his wife, Tine, who is devoted to her husband and knows he is in the right. Of less help is Mr. Verbrugge, the controller serving under Havelaar. He knows the Javanese are being exploited, but he hates to risk his job and security by fighting...

(The entire section is 1208 words.)