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Taking Up With Kanakas: Stevenson's Complex Social Criticism in 'The Beach of Falesá' KATHERINE BAILEY LINEHAN Oberlin College MORE THAN AN ADVENTURE STORY, Robert Louis Stevenson's South Sea island tale "The Beach of Falesá," published serially in 1892, is a fascinatingly complex reflection of and commentary on late Victorian attitudes towards race, Empire, and sexuality. It deserves to be better known in the context both of Stevenson's development as a writer and of the literature of imperialism, particularly as an antecedent to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, published serially in 1899. Indeed Patrick Brantlinger, in his recent Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, suggests that Stevenson's "South Sea stories are as skeptical about the influence of white civilization on primitive societies as anything Conrad wrote."1 In addition to exploring "The Beach of Falesá" as a reflection of the skepticism about the European presence in Polynesia which Stevenson developed after moving to the South Pacific in 1889, I suggest that Stevenson's critique of colonialism incorporates a remarkable dimension of feminist insight into the parallel workings of racial and sexual domination. At the same time I want to emphasize how much care is needed in reaching conclusions about the social views transmitted in the story. Both literary and social-psychological complications contribute to the challenge the reader faces. Literary complications inhere partly in a host of aesthetic details which promote interpretive ambiguity, but they derive most of all from the fact that Stevenson hides behind the narrative mask of a heavily racist first-person narrator and subtly contrives to make that protagonist simultaneously the vehicle and object of social criticism. Social-psychological complications are linked to authorial racism and sexism confusingly mingled with intimations of liberal intentions. However, evidence outside the novella allows us perspective on how Stevenson's participation in the cultural ideology of his own day—the heyday of the British Empire and an era of painfully conflicted responses to changing sexual mores—carries over 407 ELT: Volume 33:4, 1990 at an unconscious level into the tale, producing a story which is at once a critique and an enactment of racism and sexism.2 Perhaps the one point on which critics agree is that the story's bluff working-class narrator John Wiltshire, a British trader who comes to the South Sea Island of Falesá prepared to exploit the natives commercially and sexually, is meant to become more appealing to the reader as his loyalties shift from his treacherous fellow-trader, Case, to the loyal, proud island woman Uma whom he learns to love and honor. The tricky question is what to make of the fact that this flashback first-person account of apparent growth into heroism through love for a "kanaka" (native Polynesian) is full of arrogantly bigoted present-tense pronouncements about natives: "I know how to deal with kanakas. . . . They haven't any real government or any real law, that's what you've got to knock into their heads; and even if they had, it would be a good joke if it was to apply to a white man. It would be a strange thing if we came all this way and couldn't do what we pleased."3 With Wiltshire as the teller of the tale, it is not immediately obvious to the reader whether Stevenson portrays such imperialist bravado uncritically, as an amusing embellishment to the character of a heroic man of action, or whether he uses the crudeness of Wiltshire's sentiments to point a moral about the arrogance of imperialism itself, thus giving us a protagonist whose capacity to act upon humanitarian impulses is seriously compromised by his implacably racist mentality. Various aspects of the construction and execution of the tale thicken the smokescreen of indeterminacy surrounding Wiltshire and the story as a whole. The narration begins with a statement of ambiguity—"I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning"—and ends with a question—"I'd like to know where I'm to find them whites?" The full content of that closing question, as well as its placement in the final sequence of the narration, compounds difficult judgments...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 407-422
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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