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.