Geography and Law in Almayer’s Folly

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In his preface to Almayer’s Folly, written soon after the novel’s completion Conrad takes issue with Alice Meynell’s recent article on “decivilisation.” “I am content to sympathise with common mortals” he writes, “no matter where they live; in houses or in huts, in streets under a fog or in the forests behind the dark line of dismal mangroves that fringe the vast solitude of the sea” (Conrad, Almayer’s Folly 3). At first reading, Conrad seems to peddle the very same prejudices he critiques in Alice Meynell: Jim-Eng, the Chinese opium wreck; Taminah, the impassive oriental woman inured against pain; Almayer himself, the Indo-European ruined by his own fantasies of fortune and unable ever to return to the European world he reveres. Each are stock characters amongst many more in the novel playing a part little different from those given to them by the popular authors whose works Meynell dismisses. What distinguishes them is the narrative context into which they are put, whose machinations throw into relief the instability of the rule of law and of the “civilizing” mission of colonialism. Conrad’s time in South East Asia was one of particular political and legal transformation for Borneo, the repercussions of which Conrad translates directly into Almayer’s Folly. My argument is that his sympathies with the colonized are expressed less through individual characters but rather through the complexities, frustrations and indeterminacies that arise out of the colonial enterprise. A key concern for Conrad, therefore, is the problem of justice in an international setting. As I argue, long before the publication of “Geography and Some Explorers,” Conrad’s fiction was already illuminating the inconsistencies that emerge in the process of putting (international and transnational) law into practice in the indeterminate spaces of colonial geography.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-84
Number of pages18
Issue number2/3
Publication statusPublished - 24 Feb 2021


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