Shelley

How a Teenager Invented Science Fiction: The Story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

“The act of writing may compose the mind…but the boiling of the soul, and quake of the heart, that precede, transcend all the sufferings which tame spirits feel.” 

Most of us view our teenage years as times of uncertainty. When I was sixteen, my biggest challenge was getting out of bed, and though I tried my hand at longform writing, getting a full novel done was completely out of the question. It is with a great amount of curiosity, then, that I approached the story of Mary Shelley. At 16, she had started her masterpiece, Frankenstein, a novel now credited as being the first major work of science fiction. What began as a pet project, however, would soon become a reflection upon the trials and tribulations of her youth–a turbulent period of happiness, sorrow, romance and burnt bridges.

Mary came from a family where intellectualism was not only rewarded, but championed as the greatest strength in the household. Her adopted father, William Godwin, was a prolific London activist and novelist who not only brought atheism and anarchism to the fore of English public debate, but who also wrote what some call the first detective novel, The Adventure of Caleb Williams. Many connected to the Wollstonecraft legacy would not only create new forms of literature and philosophy, but would also inspire whole new ways of reading and expression.

Mary Wollstonecraft, known today as one of the pioneers of the modern feminist movement, died 11 days after giving birth to Mary Godwin. Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, would nevertheless become one of the most influential figures in her life. William Godwin raised his adopted daughter outside of the bounds of traditional womanhood–stressing independent thinking over domestic servitude.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Godwin, as she was known before her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley, was naturally precocious, but Williams’s stature as a public intellectual permitted her to access hundreds of books most could not retrieve, and allowed her to encounter some of the greatest minds in the Western World before she had even reached puberty. She dined with then-American Vice-President Aaron Burr, met poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth, novelists like Maria Edgeworth, and even witnessed one of the first ever skydives in recorded history from aeronaut and daredevil André-Jacques Garnerin in 1802. 

At a young age, her father exposed her to countless influences for her novel. The Age of the Enlightenment had waned on the European continent with the despotic rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, but now the movement was spilling over into England, where a surge of intellectual fervor prompted everybody from poets to chemists to combine their artistic efforts with an air of radicalism. It is this confidence in drastic change that most dramatically influenced the young Mary Godwin, whose tireless avidity for reading lead her to study gothic horror and the natural sciences with equivocal temerity. 

But then Percy Bysshe Shelley arrived. Half a decade her senior, the charming and handsome Oxford dropout immediately made an impression on her. By helping her father out with his Children’s Book enterprise, William Godwin trusted him, and enjoyed seeing his daughter taken by revolutionary and romantic opinion.  Unfettered by popular opinion, the young atheist neither ate meat nor drank alcohol. He did, however, make life itself his primary indulgence, and soon enamored the teenaged Mary to do something so drastic, it would irreparably alter the course of her life thereafter. After proposing to William to take his daughter’s hand in symbolic union (not marriage), he vehemently objected. The rejection, however, only bolstered the couple to disobey even further, and on July 28th, 1814, almost exactly 200 years ago, the couple escaped to the continent.

Young and in love, the two hiked in France and Switzerland, rode donkeys through the hills and haphazardly made love whenever they wanted. After playfully cajoling and idly sketching unfinished manuscripts, they returned to England with barely any money to their name, and Mary was pregnant. Shelley had started but failed to complete a prose work called The Assassins, about a group of covert terrorists in Lebanon, perhaps one of the first attempts at the spy novel. Amid the domestic battle between her and her father, Shelley suffered several bouts of consumptive sickness and Mary attempted to regain her father’s favor through carefully-constructed argument. When she was seven months pregnant, Mary went into labor and bore the child prematurely. After only 11 days, the child was dead, and a year of Romantic hopes had come to an end. 

The couple, however, would slowly find their footing again, and several months before beginning the first draft of Frankenstein, Mary took again to an athletic level of reading, devouring dozens of books in an extremely short period of time. She also took the downtime to endure a less turbulent legacy, and gave birth to a baby boy, who she named William Godwin. Between tours of England and an unintended love triangle, Lord Byron began paying the Godwin’s visits, eventually seeking to court her step sister, Clare, who had been briefly involved with Percy. Byron lived up to his reputation as a rakish sleuth who approached the company of woman as comfortably as he dispensed his wit, and the couple admired his natural charm but surprising humility. A year after her tragedy, they left to spend the Summer in Italy, which would end up being perhaps one of the most innovative seasons in literary history. 

Lake Geneva

Mary, Percy, Byron and his friend Polidori sought the clear air and fair weather of the Swiss Alps, but instead of idle sunbathing, and lengthy excursions, they were forced indoors by powerful electrical storms and abnormal weather. The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 would literally cause the infamous “Year Without a Summer” in Europe, so the young writers, stuck indoors and justifiably bored, decided to make up their respective horror stories. 

Byron and Shelley abandoned their stories almost right away, but Mary persisted in its creation. For one reason or another, the necessity to confront a horrifying incarnation–and one created by her, for that matter–affected her so badly that she suffered violent, semi-conscious nightmares relating to a “hideous phantasm of a man”. Thus, with the poets mocking her brooding reflectiveness, she saw, for the first time, the mental image of what would become the most recognizable monster in modern pop culture. Meanwhile, Polidori, the proverbial fourth-wheel on this trip, would complete his story, a novella called The Vampyre, now considered the first example of the mythic creature being associated with romance (just imagine a world without Twilight). Two of the most fundamental cultural icons of modern Western Folklore may not have been created were it not for a volatile combination of creative genius and boredom.

For the next three weeks, Mary would become increasingly involved in the endeavor. The locale also helped drive the plot forward; while the local Ingolstadt University was one of the scientific hubs of Europe (where Victor Frankenstein learns his craft), the surroundings mountains provided a stark reminder of the insignificance of humanity in its quixotic battle to control nature. 

Subtitling it The Modern Prometheus, Mary delved into the classical canon for further inspiration, reading and rereading Paradise Lost without relent. By late August, she was diligently plotting the first novelized manuscript. Several coming events, however, would not only alter her life but also her story. After once again failing to win back her father’s admiration, she lamented that she was “an outcast from human society” and that she “must be going mad.”

 

Just when things could not get worse, Mary and Percy were confronted by the suicide of two quite close to them. The first, her step-sister Fanny, poisoned herself. Then, Harriet Shelley, Percy’s embittered ex-wife, drowned herself in the Serpentine River. The summer of 1814 may go down as one of the most “innovative” in literary history, but the sensational meeting of the era’s literary pantheon drew further light away from the jealousy of those caught in the obscurity of England’s young and famous writers. 

Nevertheless, death’s long shadow proved to be a blessing for Mary, who now garnished her story with a generous heaping of morbidity. Those who learn Frankenstein at any level of schooling are told that the novel is a cautionary tale against humanity’s desire for progress. What lesson plans rarely address, however, is that Mary herself was unwittingly spearheading a paradigm shift in the way that we understand the classical parable. Instead of looking way back, Mary considered the dangerous hypotheticals of the near future. Ironically, her forward-thinking clairvoyance could not prevent her from reconciling with the problems that she and the Romantic poets so easily swept under the rug. Their years of pleasure carried with them a trail of destructive jealousy. 

Mary continued to pick away at the manuscript for three years until it was finally accepted for publication in 1818. Mary confront detraction from both sexist and traditionalist critics, but Frankenstein became an eventual commercial success in only a couple of years. By the time that most of us are old enough to enjoy our first legal drink, Mary Shelley had already experienced a lifetime worth of highs and lows. 

Unfortunately, she would never outperform her own success, and instead of creating another moment of magic with fellow writers, she would remember her young adulthood more for the death of her beloved Shelley, as well as one of her other great influences, Lord Byron. That’s not to say she stopped pioneering a genre she didn’t even know she created. The Last Man, written in 1826, is the original “last man on earth” story, is undoubtedly influenced by the passing of so many of those around her, but it is also the original of a subgenre adopted today for novels like Stephen King’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is doubtful that we would even understand what “post-apocalyptic” means without Shelley. 

Mary Shelley’s success reminds us all that age and experience are not necessarily the most important prerequisites for being a author. Rather, a voracious appetite for reading and a persistent investment in what inspires us–even if nothing of its kind has been written before–will at the very least guarantee a completed manuscript. 

Barleycorn

The Pleasure and Heartbreak of Jack London’s “Alcoholic Memoirs”

Jack London has remained a divisive figure in American literature. While some celebrate the author as one of America’s pre-eminent novelists and travel writers, some of his lesser-known work helped him exorcise the demons unseen in his more popular fiction.  

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jack London would invigorate a sense of adventure in the tens of thousands seeking fortune and glory at the frontier of a largely-unexplored part of the world. The brash Californian thrilled a wide all-ages audience with his own brand of the adventure novel, one that had been dominated by the British masters of the genre, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. While his stories would eventually be associated with the romantic allure of trodding upon uncharted territory, his adventures were not strictly geographical.

In fact, London’s taste for danger was not limited to the Arctic, The Rockies nor the Pacific. As his 1918 memoir-novel John Barleycorn reveals, a huge part of his upbringing consisted of brushes with death caused by a violent dependence on alcohol.

Jack London is known today as the author of dozens of novels and adventure books set primarily in the Klondike North and the Wild West, but few actually realize just how prolific he was. The man behind The Call of the Wild and White Fang wrote over twenty other novels, including high-sea fables such as The Mutiny of the Elsinore, epistolary works such as The Kempton-Wace Letters, and a downright bizarre work called The Star Rover, where an tortured San Quentin inmate sees visions of past lives while bound in a straight jacket.

Perhaps the most intriguing of his fringe work, however, is the short novel-memoir called John Barleycorn. There are several reasons why this work has not received the same prominence as his others, and one is evidently its inability to be categorized. Some have contended the veracity of some of his claims, but it is equally difficult to yield credibility to a work of nonfiction where the main character–John Barleycorn, London’s drunk alter-ego–doesn’t exactly exist.

 

This difficulty is also apparent in the rhythm of the book, which contains several romanticized vignettes of London’s past, but which also has those moments conflated with guilt, confusion, as well as an uneasy self-assuredness that London did not suffer from any sort of alcoholism, but that his drinking spurned from a willingness to join a kind of hyper-masculine pantheon where his gender could be validated in all of its glory: “Well, it was the way of men,” he says while recounting one of his many temptations to join a group of dock workers enjoying a drink in one of The Bay Area’s many saloons. “[A]nd who was I, just turned seventeen, that I should decline the way of life of these fine, chesty, man-grown men?”

The story begins with a kind of disclaimer that alcohol has always been London’s double-edged sword, something that has been his “august companion” but also a “red-handed killer” throughout his upbringing. He recounts swilling beer for the first time at five years old, and encountering it several times thereafter in Oakland taverns while working as a paperboy. At 15, he claims to have drunk two Bay Area “Oyster Pirates” under the table, a feat so impressive that he immediately became immersed in what he called the “bohemianism” of a life slightly off-center from that of a working-class boy.

Already, though, London would encounter the darker side of alcohol; he recounts wandering through Opium and gambling dens in the San Francisco Chinatown and witnessing his father squandering the family earnings right before his eyes. London saw in alcohol an entry into a life of romanticized masculinity, but even at such a young age, he understood that its indulgences hid a far more troubling aspect. As he laments upon one of his binges in the Oakland harbor–where he passes out in the low-tide mudflats after drinking with the pirates,

…this is not a world of free freights. One pays according to an iron schedule–for every strength the balanced weakness; for every high a corresponding low; for every fictitious god-like moment an equivalent time in reptilian slime. For every feat of telescoping long days and weeks of life into mad magnificent instants, one must pay with shortened life, and, oft-times, with savage usury added. 

London also details his time as a sailor, explorer and frontiersman in places on the West Coast, from Southern California all the way up to Alaska. On one of his binges, he ends up floating in the Oakland bay for nearly four hours, so drunk that he indifferently awaited his death at the fateful behest of the tides. At one point, he decides to embark on an expedition to Japan and Siberia, only to get derailed by the bar scene in the Bonin Islands of Japan, an enclave of binge-drinking sailors indulging ceaselessly in the local fare  (“drinking prodigiously, singing prodigiously, dancing prodigiously”), much to the dismay of the locals and maritime employers. When he eventually returns to Oakland, he attempts to live “normally”, but he is so torn between an idyllic youth and the indulgences of adult life that he grows restless and begins writing voraciously.

Had the work been insistently fictional, then it could possibly have been included among the many literary works describing the altered language of altered states–not to mention the Nietzschean descent into the Dionysian id, his work revealing “society” as a meager attempt to suppress man’s need to descent into collective decay. Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s Heart of Darkness come to mind as paragons of this doubleness. Regardless of whether John Barleycorn is true or false, however, the work shatters many illusion that the reading public had about Jack London. In fact, the book nearly obliterated his reputation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, London represented a kind of all-American boy who succeeded through the power of his will, and who did so by expounding all the virtues of strong, Aryan genes. For this reason alone, he was seen as a model figure for both educated and non-educated men in America seeking prosperity in difficult circumstances. Just like Ernest Hemingway would do a generation later, London would become a paragon of manliness–arguably the progenitor of what deodorant and whisky commercials now insist is the manliest of men. 

When he released Barleycorn, however, public adoration for the author soured considerably. As John Sutherland puts it in the Oxford World Classics introduction to the text, the Jack London persona “was an image which he could have easily kept intact, had he so wanted”, and that “the American public wanted desperately to believe in the simple myth of Jack London.” In an age still riddled with celebrity drug addiction and a media-friendly rehab mill, London would not be an exception. In an age where alcoholism was seen as a genetic weakness, however, the book severely put into question his polished reputation. London, aged 40 and with an uncompromisingly-good work ethic (even during his month-long benders), could probably have churned out dozens more novels, all of them unique in their subject matter. However, only a few years after the release of the book, London would die of an apparent morphine overdose, with disease and recurring depression tormenting him day in and day out.

Jack London’s “alcoholic memoirs”, as he dubs them, are undoubtedly a troubling read. So many parts of the book explicitly champion the camaraderie alcohol can provide, but London doles out the consequences with equal measure. “One who has been burned by fire must preach about the fire,” he says, recounting his lengthy binge in Japan. His preaching, it seems, took the form of writing, a habit that he developed and abided by more strictly than alcohol, writing 1000 words a day for most days in his youth. London’s authorial persona became the best line of defense against the compulsions he dreaded so. As he puts it,

And all my austere nights of midnight oil, all the books I had read, all the wisdom I had gathered, went glimmering before the ape and tiger in me that crawled up from the abysm of my heredity, atavistic, competitive and brutal, lustful with strength and desire to outswine the swine.

London’s “solution” (he never really found one) to what he saw as society’s drinking problem–outright prohibition–prompted him to make a shocking decision. Although he was the paragon of masculine heroism at the time, he saw a silver lining in the prohibitionist movement of the 1910’s, which was closely aligned with the women’s suffrage movement. Although he would die before women would get the federal vote, he urged his inner circle to vote in favor of women’s suffrage so that they could finally bring an end to his torment. Prohibition would eventually come true, but it would be too late for him.  London would die in 1916 after two and a half decades of addiction.

“He feels inarticulate affinities with self-conjured non-realities”, says London while describing an alcoholic he passes by on the street. London’s memoir-novel broke through many social taboos at the time of its publication, but it came at a big cost. As the previous quote elucidates so well, the only cure for a life of “self-conjured non-realities” was, well, fiction, a practice he engaged in with tireless vigor until his death. While the book is now a century old, its troubling lessons remind us that we must tread lightly when glorifying the indulgences of the artist; their work may provide escape for their audience, but this need for escape is often a reflection of struggles hidden beneath the surface of the page.

10 poems that look like what they mean

By May Huang

Poets employ various means to get their message across in their poems, ranging from rhyme scheme to alliteration. However, poetic meaning can also be translated visually through a form termed “concrete poetry;” indeed, numerous poets experiment with line breaks and typography to present their work in a way that ‘looks’ the way it is supposed to ‘mean.’ Here are 10 poems whose meanings lie in their appearances:

1) George Herbert – Easter Wings

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Published in 1633, George Herbert’s Easter Wings is the oldest concrete poem in this list. A poem about flight in its metaphorical sense, Easter Wings aptly takes the form of a pair of wings (the likeness is even more remarkable if you rotate the poem 90 degrees to the right).

2) 40-Love by Roger McGough

The English poet Roger McGough sends readers’ eyes travelling to and fro the way a tennis ball would across a net when they read 40-Love. Indeed, the poem itself – like the “middle aged couple” he writes about – is split by such a ‘net.’

3) Grasshopper by E.E. Cummings

Erratically spaced and scattered all over the page, E E Cummings’ Grasshopper conveys a strong sense of vibrancy that parallels the liveliness of a leaping grasshopper. The words indeed seem to ‘jump’ from line to line.

4) Bob Cobbing – Square Poem

Bob Cobbing’s Square Poem speaks for itself. Apart from experimenting with visual poetry, Cobbing was also known for his work in sound poetry. More of his poems can be read, or listened to, here: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/cobbing/

5) Ezra pound – In a Station of the Metro

In a Station of the Metro is Ezra Pound’s classic imagist poem. As Pound himself said,

“I was careful, I think, to indicate spaces between the rhythmic units, and I want them observed.” Indeed, the physical structuring of the poem itself contributes to the way readers ‘read’ and visualize the otherwise simple two-line poem.

 

6) A Mouse’s Tale by Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll’s A Mouse’s Tale appears in the third chapter of his best-known work, Alice in Wonderland. Many refer to it as a “quadruplepun” since it is a “tale” about a “tail,” features the “tail rhyme” rhyme structure and – of course- looks like a tail.

7) John Hollander – Kitty and Bug

Poet and critic John Hollander has penned a number of collections during his lifetime, as well as teaching at Yale University. His poem Kitty and Bug is self-explanatory in its simplicity. The cat’s unpunctuated, almost stream-of-consciousness thoughts fit into a physical ‘cat’ shape, while the bug – in sharp contrast – is but a 3-letter word near the edge of the page.

8) Shel Silverstein – Lazy Jane

Best known for his works Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein is famous for his children’s poetry and illustrations. Put both elements together and you get a poem like Lazy Jane, where words and drawings integrate to visually convey meaning. Indeed, the word ‘rain’ hovers just above Jane’s open mouth, as the string of words above it seems to represent the trickle of water she longs for.

9) Susan Howe – Thorow

This extract from Susan Howe’s poem Thorow embodies what she aimed to achieve when she declared in this interview to characterize her poems by “a hybridity of disparate elements, blurring for example the boundaries between visual and verbal art. “ Indeed, Howe’s trademark “overlapping” and disjointing of lines emphasizes the varied subject matter she writes about in the poem, from “a very deep Rabbit” to a simple “coin.”

10) Guillaume Apollinaire – Il Pleut

French poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined another name for concrete poems: “calligrammes.” In his poem Il Pleut (it rains,) the slanted letters cascade down the page like falling rain and spell out a poem about – you guessed it – raining.

The poems featured in this list represent but a sliver of the concrete poems in the ever-expanding realm of poetry – feel free to share more in the comments below!

 

Five Minute Study Guide | Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim

I am of the opinion that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness stands in a league of its own for the very breadth nightmarish, sublime and slightly racist vision, but Lord Jim is Heart of Darkness matured, a longer work with a more even-tempered focus on that divide between community and the individual, with the concept of agency and of Western ideals being forcefully upheld around the world. I think that those who disregard Heart of Darkness may feel more fulfilled by Lord Jim, a monumental work that is also parts Don Quixote and Hamlet.

Lord Jim is, simply enough, the story of a sailor who is forever haunted by a single action. When Jim, second mate of the Patna, decides to abandon the ship carrying hundreds of Muslim pilgrims up through the red sea, it permanently puts a damper on his reputation, as the ship, which had hit something sticking out of the water, gets safely towed to port by a small boat. While the other sailors escape any trial by running away, Jim gets banned for years from sailing and had to get odd jobs in several ports many times before his story caught up to him. Eventually, though, he meets Marlow, who hears his story and eventually sends him out to Patusan, a trading post in the far East few know about.

While Jim is there, things start turning towards his favor. While he’s there, he ends up routing the people against a local tyrant threatening their land and in doing so gains reverent status among the locals. But his happiness is short-lived, as a man named Gentleman Brown pays a visit, attacking some of the local while he’s gone. While he confers with Brown and he allows brown to leave without any force, Brown ends up taking another route and ambushing a group of Patusani that includes the chief’s son. Jim, then, will soon be embroiled in what can only be his own tragic end.

It is difficult to ascertain what exactly Conrad is trying to in this novel based only on the plot, as there is plenty going on in the storytelling itself. Without marginalizing the sheer complexity of the story, one major theme of Lord Jim is the relationship between the individual and language. I had a writing professor who once taught me about the importance of naming in fiction, and the example he used was the Patna/Patusan binary, which he recognized was separated by “us”. The Patna, the ship that Jim ends up being completely responsible for, represents the Western idealization of the individual, and how he must uphold a certain individual code. This is contrasted by his entry into the community of Patusan, where his actions have positive implications.

I mentioned two classic works of literature in the introduction that I want to briefly go over. The first is Don Quixote, and i think that Lord Jim speaks to the Quixote trope as one that simply cannot exist in the real world. Quixote, who romanticizes adventure and the individual, is simply delusion, just as Jim, who fancies a life out on sea, cannot live up to this individual code. I tentatively want to make a link between this seafaring code and Don Quixote as both speaking to the ideals the Western World creates for itself that cannot be upheld. This concept of reputation fetishizes the individual and shuns opportunity to redeem oneself. The appearance of Gentleman Brown at Patusan should feel inevitable, but should also remind us that colonialism was an ideal so many could not escape from alive. When Jim tries to leave it, he must suffer his fate.

The other work I mentioned is Hamlet, and while that work stands in a league of its own, I definitely see a striking resemblance between the two. Both of them are subsumed by a world that does not reward ambiguity and indecision, whereas Conrad’s narrative actually celebrates ambiguity and multiple perspectives. Not only does Jim’s perspective come out, but Marlow’s, Browns, and other Patusanis get a say as well. Conrad also does away with chronology, allowing the various narrators to tell their stories with disorder. this causes the reader to change impressions throughout the book, making them rethink what occurred in the past.

There is an order that Conrad is insistent on subverting here that represents a much larger pattern. Intent on breaking down the divides caused by colonialism, Lord Jim is one of the first novels to recognize that language can be an oppressor against a people, as opposed to mere force. It is so fitting that community is divided between those upholding impossible ideals and those welcoming unity and collective contribution.

 

Five Minute Study Guide | Joseph Conrad – Almayer’s Folly

Joseph Conrad’s career spanned several decades from the end of the 19th century to the 1920’s, but his career would often be as tumultuous and rough as the seas many of his works are set upon. Almayer’s Folly was the first of his many novels, but it would nevertheless capture many of the themes that he would later build upon, such as the breaking down of European illusions, most often promulgated by Romance and adventure novels that gave them all the agency, and none to the native populations.

The novel tells the story of Almayer, a European trader living in the Malay archipelago is Southeast Asia. He was married his mentor’s adopted Sulu daughter and hopes to one day be his heir, but his mentor, Lingard, has already skipped to Europe at the beginning of the novel because of lost money. Almayer nevertheless wants to gain a fortune anyway, so he employs a local Balinese ruler, Maroola, to help him find gold. However, as Almayer’s optimism grows, it soon becomes apparent that Maroola and his daughter Nina are in love and, as the Dutch arrive to arrest Maroola for trying to overthrow the  their colonial rule over the island, he runs away with his daughter.

Almayer will soon find out his chances of achieving some sort of prominence are virtually lost, but as he comes in contact with Nina one more time, he will try to convince her to come back to him, but his efforts are for the most part in vain. Now, just like his former mentor Lingard, Almayer will soon find himself destitute and broken, with the demons of opium and death gradually creeping up on him.

For all the criticism that Conrad receives for his treatment of the East as an artistic palette for Western Concerns, for his apparent racism of native peoples, for his romanticizing of exotic locales, as well as for his subversive view of moralism, Almayer’s Folly was actually a watershed book that forever changed the European view of colonialism.

The novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and perhaps even Sir.H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines begin like Almayer’s Folly does–with distant but exciting promises of resources, of an inherited amount of capital awarded through hard work, faith and adventure. But things in Conrad’s world are not quite as they seem. Conrad wants to set up this facade of romance to entice the reader, but then provide his hero with a series of events that will betray him, or perhaps subvert the reader’s original hopes. Just by doing so, Conrad undermines the Western project of colonial and resource-based imperialism by giving more agency to the counteracting forces. Maroola, for example, is not exactly a PC portrayal of a Balinese chief, but he is granted power that few Romance authors would otherwise give him, and the power he is granted is enough to cause the books pre-emptive narrative to collapse.

I also want to talk about just what exactly a euro-centric view entails. More than just a flag-waving expression of patriotism, Western thought has a sense of futurity to it that say, Balinese thought would not have. Almayer can envision a future where his riches will be had and his life will be happy, whereas many locals, fighting for the last acreage of land, must live day by day. As a westerner, he has a relatively strong amount of security, but it also leaves him ignorant to those operating out of immediacy. His daughter, marooned between two different lands, is much more enamored by young love and the impulse, by the immediacy that comes with colonial life.

This leads me to talk about the concept of sublimity, something that many theorists have discussed time and again. Basically, the “sublime” is this idea that something, most likely the forces of nature, become personified or animated to the point that they overwhelm the human observer. Conrad will implement this a lot in his own fiction, and I will argue that this force that he wants to portray is in fact an argument against colonialism often confused for racism. The ideals of the Western World, be they Adam Smith’s capitalism or Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, are not only Western by ideal but Western by setting. The forces that leave Almayer destitute go against the ideals of individual enterprise, especially through adventure. There is a great irony to Nina’s endeavors, too. By rebelling against her father, she achieves what he cannot. The most enticing ideals of Romance, at least in this novel, is their Romance, their union, and not Almayer’s individual gain. In the novel, the house he tries to build, symbolic of his enterprise and the general European presence, erodes and rots. Conrad’s symbolism is rich and detailed, but such an image is one of the most poignant, as it mimics a narrative we soon realize will never be fulfilled.

Of course, Almayer’s Folly did not gain as much popularity as Heart of Darkness of Lord Jim, two novels that expand upon the themes he introduced. However, it must be noted that this novel was the first of many radical challenges to the Western Romance, or the adventure novel. This has ironically caused confusion among contemporary readers of Conrad, who disregard his message because of his own penchant for the exotic. The fact is is that he knew the adventure novel was fantastical, so he used it, its utopian images, the way that it indiscriminately made areas European, jungles blank slates upon which white gold barons could plunder. Much like GI Joe celebrates warfare, for example, adventure novels promoted colonialism with much indifference. Conrad’s first of many novels, on the other hand, began his decades-long project of having the exotic lands and its people talk back.