Conrad Dismantles Providence: Deserted idylls in An Outcast of the Islands

  • Peter Knox-Shaw


With the grim sequel to his present misfortunes already told in Conrad’s first novel, a half-disillusioned Almayer at the close of An Outcast of the Islands (1896) vents his disappointment by rounding on the universe,

Where’s your Providence? Where’s the good for anybody in all this? The world’s a swindle! A swindle!

The abuse he hurls at the heavens is checked at length by a stammered reply:

My dear fellow, don’t — don’t you see that the ba- bare fac- the fact of your existence is off- offensive … I- I like you — like …


The speaker is a dying naturalist specially brought in for the novel’s coda, and he punctures the ‘quarrel with Providence’ by insisting on Almayer’s part in the order he vilifies. His enigmatic words trail into silence, but the trappings of his profession combine with details of the tropical setting (insects stream into a smoking flame) to impart a strong evolutionary bias to his utterance. The decisive gloss to his remark comes in Falk (1903) when Conrad characterizes his man-eating hero, almost an emblem of the will to strive, as a creature who perpetually gives ‘cause for offence’.2


Paternal Care Forced Marriage Malay Archipelago Insect Stream Tropical Setting 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes and References

  1. 3.
    In a letter to W. Blackwood, Conrad wrote, ‘I never did set up as an authority on Malaysia. I looked for a medium in which to express myself’. Joseph Conrad: Letters to William Blackwood and David S. Meldrum, edited by W. Blackburn (North Carolina, 1958) p. 34.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1980) p. 154.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham, edited by C. T. Watts (Cambridge, 1969) p. 56.Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    Unsigned review: Daily Chronicle, 16 March 1896. See Conrad: The Critical Heritage, edited by Norman Sherry (London, 1973) p. 63.Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    In a letter to Humphrey Milford, 15 January 1907. See Moby Dick As Doubloon, edited by H. Parker and H. Hayford (New York, 1970) p. 123.Google Scholar
  6. 18.
    See Barbara Hardy, The Appropriate Form: An Essay on the Novel (London, 1964, revised 1971) p. 53.Google Scholar
  7. 19.
    References to R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island are to the Everyman text (London, 1907, reprinted 1954).Google Scholar
  8. 27.
    Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, translated from the German by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, (London, 1896) I, 256.Google Scholar
  9. 29.
    ‘Naboth’ from Rudyard Kipling’s Life’s Handicap (London, 1896) p. 340.Google Scholar
  10. 37.
    Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, (London, 1869) I, 146. My italics.Google Scholar
  11. 43.
    Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891; London, 1974) p. 66.Google Scholar
  12. 44.
    Sigmund Freud, ‘The Justification for Detaching from Neurasthenia a Particular Syndrome: The Anxiety-Neurosis’ (1894) in Collected Papers: Volume One, translated by Joan Riviere (New York, 1924) pp. 76–106. See particularly pp. 101–2.Google Scholar
  13. 45.
    Sigmund Freud, ‘Psycho-Analytic Notes upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia’ (1911) in Collected Papers: Volume Three, translated by Alix and James Strachey (London, 1925). Freud writes: ‘The intensity of the emotion is projected outwards in the shape of external power, while its quality is changed into the opposite. The person who is now hated and feared as a persecutor was at one time loved and honoured’ (p. 424).Google Scholar
  14. 46.
    Sigmund Freud, ‘A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis’ (1917) in Complete Psychological Works: Volume Seventeen, translated and edited by James Strachey (London, 1955) p. 140.Google Scholar
  15. 47.
    See Albert J. Guerard, Conrad: The Novelist (Cambridge, Mass., 1978) p. 80.Google Scholar
  16. 48.
    Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo, translated from the French (New York, 1962) p. 17.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Peter Knox-Shaw 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Knox-Shaw

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations