Max Havelaar is considered the greatest Dutch literary achievement of the latter half of the nineteenth century. This era was a time of literary awakening in many smaller Northern European countries. For example, Norway saw the drama of Henrik Ibsen and Sweden saw that of August Strindberg. These writers, although working in languages spoken by a small minority of the world’s population, created works that spoke to the world. The works of Eduard Douwes Dekker, known as Multatuli, are Dutch literature’s nearest equivalent to those of Strindberg and of Ibsen. As did the beliefs of Strindberg and Ibsen, Multatuli’s liberalism, skepticism, and feminism startled the reading public of his nation. Multatuli’s work, however, did not have the impact of the two Scandinavian dramatists. Multatuli wrote comparatively little, in contrast to the voluminous composition of Strindberg and Ibsen. Multatuli’s work is also very complex and multilayered, and it deals with specifically Dutch experiences; these factors may well make Max Havelaar opaque to the foreign reader.
Max Havelaar’s appeal to the reader is, most likely, not its representation of Dutch national literature, although this is still an important concern. Max Havelaar is engaging as literature. It is not simply a cultural artifact. Max Havelaar seems ahead of its time in terms of formal awareness and self-consciousness. The shifts in levels of reality that the reader encounters in the narrative unsettle conventional expectations. Another element that gives the book a contemporary feel is its portrayal of the colonial experience, specifically the Dutch colonial presence in Java. It is often forgotten that the Dutch maintained a considerable colonial empire of their own in the East Indies and in the West Indies, including Suriname. Also, until the British seized South Africa in the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch controlled that region.
Multatuli’s portrait of the Dutch East Indies in Max Havelaar can fruitfully be compared to the portrait of Borneo in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim (1900), but the books are also different because the Dutch and British colonial experiences were different. Whereas the British had always claimed to be acting in the name of progress and good government, the motives of the Dutch were frankly economic. The portrait of the Lebak coffee plantation in Max Havelaar shows the greed and brutality associated with the Dutch colonization of Indonesia. The title character, Max Havelaar, struggles to define himself and to adhere to ideals of honor and right conduct amid the squalor he encounters in Java. When Havelaar arrives, virtually the only person of good will he meets is Mr. Verbrugge. Verbrugge is clearly a well-intentioned man who is nonetheless ineffectual and powerless in the face of the cold indifference of the governor-general and the scheming malevolence of Slimering. It is the native Javanese (exemplified in the story of Saidyah) who suffer above all, and this is the lesson the book brings home to its reader.
Multatuli’s account of Java is searing. The novel is filled with bitterness and pain on personal and political levels, making the author’s pseudonym (which means “I have suffered much” in Latin) no accident. Most of the material is based on Dekker’s own experiences in Java, and the polemical nature of the Javanese passages has led critics to compare the novel to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852). Max Havelaar ’s polemicism is modified by its ironic narrative structure. The novel is narrated (in a way also reminiscent of the works of Conrad) not by the protagonist, Havelaar, but by Drystubble, who frames Havelaar’s story in a web of garrulous deception and self-promotion. A further level of intricacy...
(This entire section contains 934 words.)
intrudes when it is hinted that Drystubble is “mirrored” in the colonial world of Lebak by Slimering, while Shawlman is, most probably, Havelaar himself, thus solving the mystery of how the Havelaar manuscript came into his hands. Furthermore, Multatuli comes onstage at the end, proclaiming that Drystubble’s illusion-making is but an inadequate reflection of Multatuli’s own authorial reality. It is left uncertain how authoritatively the reader is to take this last intervention.
Max Havelaar seems a forerunner of modernist self-conscious text, of a kind of fiction more concerned with the ironies and processes of storytelling than in conveying an external reality. Yet the novel’s greatest force comes in its realistic portrait of colonial Java. Furthermore, whatever the games played by Multatuli in the novel, the reader’s moral sympathies are meant to lie with Havelaar. The reader’s empathy with him is only occasionally made questionable.
Part of the contradiction involved in the use of polemical and self-conscious text in one work may be explained by the history of Dutch literature, in which, unlike that of most European countries, Romanticism and realism began more or less at the same time. In other literatures, such as English or German (the two languages closest to Dutch, and the two cultures most influential upon Dutch culture), Romanticism flourished in the early nineteenth century and was largely associated with poetry, whereas realism flourished in the later nineteenth century and was largely associated with fiction. In Dutch literature, however, Romanticism began only in the nineteenth century, with the group of poets known as the Tachtigers, or “men of the eighties.” Max Havelaar was published in 1860, and it is apparent that in Dutch literature the two movements are far more conflated in time than readers may expect. This fact might help to explain what seem to be the many contradictions in the book. Max Havelaar, whatever its idiosyncrasies, is a significant contribution to world literature.