- Orality and Outcasts:Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Narrator
Joseph Conrad’s experiments with storytelling techniques and narrators have earned him lasting recognition as a founding figure of modernism. Indeed, with the creation of Charlie Marlow Conrad set the standard for representing fictional storytellers, one that powerfully reverberated within early twentieth-century British cultural consciousness. Given this influence, however, surprisingly little critical attention has focused on Conrad’s own earliest adventures in storytelling. This essay fills this critical gap by exploring Conrad’s second novel, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), through the lens of its representation of and own experimentation with the act of storytelling. While most critics examining the relation of Conrad’s storytellers to modernism’s emergence fixate on Marlow or one of the early Marlow-texts,1 I argue that Conrad’s largely neglected second novel is foundational both within the trajectory of his career and in modernism more broadly.2
Outcast repositions the figure of the storyteller and the act of storytelling within turn-of-the-century British culture, a move that reflects and coincides with the advent of modernism. This repositioning fundamentally connects to the novel’s critique of European, and particularly British, imperialism, since the pivot point for this shift is a figure that played an essential role in supporting the British imperial project. I call this figure the “imperial narrator.” An iconic figure within turn-of-the-century British cultural consciousness, the imperial narrator appears in both historical and literary texts, in paintings and popular culture. This figure would certainly have been familiar to Victorian readers of literature of empire. Typically the bearer of a univocal story justifying British imperialism, this figure reiterates dominant cultural narratives.3 Conrad’s representation of storytellers in Outcast provokes and expresses anxiety not only about communication, but about the way that preexisting cultural [End Page 5] narratives shape perception and understanding. This anxiety leads, from one perspective, to a diminishment of the traditional authority of the storyteller. From another perspective, however, one might say that Conrad precipitates not the diminishment, but in a shift in the locus and impact of this authority, a move from the presupposition of transparency and certainty to the assertion of potential limitations and uncertainty. In this way, Conrad’s critique of the imperial narrator exorcises a space to make room for later, more ambiguous storytelling figures such as Marlow.
Outcast is a tale of political intrigue. It unfolds the story of a shift in power in the small settlement of Sambir in the Malay Archipelago, a shift precipitated by one man telling another man’s secret. Cast out by the European trading community after he is discovered stealing from his employer, Peter Willems betrays his only benefactor, Captain Tom Lingard, by revealing Lingard’s secret knowledge of how to navigate the Sambir river to his most formidable trading rival, Abdulla bin Selim. This revelation effectively breaks Lingard’s trade monopoly and enables a group of inhabitants to overthrow the current, Lingard-sponsored government.
Centrally concerned with the relationship between the creation, circulation, and exchange of knowledge and manifestations of power in an imperial context, Outcast features a cast of oral storytellers—characters either directly portrayed or indirectly described as transmitting experience by word of mouth. Willems and Babalatchi, the two vagabonds for which Conrad originally planned to name his text, are both avid storytellers. We first meet Willems sharing stories of his success and personal philosophy over a game of pool, a common activity for him. On the way home, he contemplates waking up his wife and possibly the entire Da Souza family to hear him talk, an event also not out of the norm. We also first meet Babalatchi engaged in an act of storytelling, as he recounts for Lakamba news of Aïssa and Willems’ romance. Later he deploys storytelling as a tactic of persuasion in dealing with both Abdullah and Lingard. Almayer, Aïssa, Lingard—each outcasts in their own way—also appear in their own storytelling scenes. These scenes of storytelling are also oral performances; they highlight connections between patterns of storytelling and the personal expectations and social customs that circumscribe such exchanges. They...