The white man, leaning with both arms over the roof of the little house in the stern of the boat, said to the steersman—
“The white man”: here is a stranger venturing into another world. Yes, you can read colony and all the rest, but that is not the primary purpose of such a phrase and to read contemporary political concerns will not help understand Conrad. He is going into someone else’s world. And, as we shall soon see, he is going much further away than merely a jungle far away from Europe. In an important sense, this man will be passing out of the world.
‘We will pass the night in Arsat’s clearing. It is late.’
Arsat is not identified, but apparently, he is known. Notice also, “we will pass the night”. That will become important very soon: there will be a passage through a night.
The Malay only grunted, and went on looking fixedly at the river. The white man rested his chin on his crossed arms and gazed at the wake of the boat. At the end of the straight avenue of forests cut by the intense glitter of the river, the sun appeared unclouded and dazzling, poised low over the water that shone smoothly like a band of metal. The forests, somber and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of the broad stream. At the foot of big, towering trees, trunkless nipa palms rose from the mud of the bank, in bunches of leaves enormous and heavy, that hung unstirring over the brown swirl of eddies. In the stillness of the air every tree, every leaf, every bough, every tendril of creeper and every petal of minute blossoms seemed to have been bewitched into an immobility perfect and final. Nothing moved on the river but the eight paddles that rose flashing regularly, dipped together with a single splash; while the steersman swept right and left with a periodic and sudden flourish of his blade describing a glinting semicircle above his head. The churnedup water frothed alongside with a confused murmur. And the white man’s canoe, advancing up stream in the short-lived disturbance of its own making, seemed to enter the portals of a land from which the very memory of motion had for ever departed.
There is a great irony in this paragraph. The boat is moving. The white man watches the wake. The paddles are moving; but the realm into which they are moving is a motionless, timeless location. This is not merely a calm day; land has been “bewitched.” They are entering into a fairy land (to use the very old-fashioned sense of the word )
The sun is going down; the day is ending. Thus it will soon be night in a motionless jungle. We are entering into Snow White’s tomb/bed.
The white man, turning his back upon the setting sun, looked along the empty and broad expanse of the sea-reach. For the last three miles of its course the wandering, hesitating river, as if enticed irresistibly by the freedom of an open horizon, flows straight into the sea, flows straight to the east – to the east that harbors both light and darkness. Astern of the boat the repeated call of some bird, a cry discordant and feeble, skipped along over the smooth water and lost itself, before it could reach the other shore, in the breathless silence of the world.
The world become even more strange. The river is seeking to escape the confines of this jungle. It is “enticed irresistibly by the freedom”: if it is seeking freedom, it is in some kind of confinement here.
In just a moment, we will meet a man who was seeking freedom (even freedom from death) and yet finds himself absolutely confined and confronted with death.
This place is such that even a bird’s call dies out. The land is one of “breathless silence”: that is, we have entered into a timeless world of death. The analogy here is roughly to Poe’s not-life-or-death lands; or the Ancient Mariner’s horrifying trip.
The steersman dug his paddle into the stream, and held hard with stiffened arms, his body thrown forward. The water gurgled aloud; and suddenly the long straight reach seemed to pivot on its center, the forests swung in a semicircle, and the slanting beams of sunset touched the broadside of the canoe with a fiery glow, throwing the slender and distorted shadows of its crew upon the streaked glitter of the river. The white man turned to look ahead. The course of the boat had been altered at right-angles to the stream, and the carved dragon-head of its prow was pointing now at a gap in the fringing bushes of the bank. It glided through, brushing the overhanging twigs, and disappeared from the river like some slim and amphibious creature leaving the water for its lair in the forests.
The scene has become even more strange. The men in the boat become “distorted shadows”. The dragon-headed boat has become an “amphibious creature” now headed for “its lair in the forests.” (In case you thought the previous references to fairy stories was misplaced.)
The narrow creek was like a ditch: tortuous, fabulously deep; filled with gloom under the thin strip of pure and shining blue of the heaven. Immense trees soared up, invisible behind the festooned draperies of creepers. Here and there, near the glistening blackness of the water, a twisted root of some tall tree showed amongst the tracery of small ferns, black and dull, writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake. The short words of the paddlers reverberated loudly between the thick and somber walls of vegetation. Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous of impenetrable forests.
To the stillness has now been added a second quality: darkness. Here is an enchanted world were snakes are frozen into tree roots. We are in the land of pure myth where the lines between life and death, natural and preternatural no longer apply. The darkness is “mysterious and invincible”. The sunlight on the river is being replaced by “glistening blackness of the water”. It is an interesting turn of phrase to say the blackness “glistens”.
The men poled in the shoaling water. The creek broadened, opening out into a wide sweep of a stagnant lagoon. The forests receded from the marshy bank, leaving a level strip of bright-green, reedy grass to frame the reflected blueness of the sky. A fleecy pink cloud drifted high above, trailing the delicate coloring of its image under the floating leaves and the silvery blossoms of the lotus. A little house, perched on high piles, appeared black in the distance. Near it, two tall nibong palms, that seemed to have come out of the forests in the background, leaned slightly over the ragged roof, with a suggestion of sad tenderness and care in the droop of their leafy and soaring heads.
The very narrow creek open into a lagoon: the travelers have passed through a trial and entered into another world. They have been born, going through the canal.
The steersman, pointing with his paddle, said, ‘Arsat is there. I see his canoe fast between the piles.’
The polers ran along the sides of the boat glancing over their shoulders at the end of the day’s journey. They would have preferred to spend the night somewhere else than on this lagoon of weird aspect and ghostly reputation. Moreover, they disliked Arsat, first as a stranger, and also because he who repairs a ruined house, and dwells in it, proclaims that he is not afraid to live amongst the spirits that haunt the places abandoned by mankind. Such a man can disturb the course of fate by glances or words; while his familiar ghosts are not easy to propitiate by casual wayfarers upon whom they long to wreak the malice of their human master. White men care not for such things, being unbelievers and in league with the Father of Evil, who leads them unharmed through the invisible dangers of this world. To the warnings of the righteous they oppose an offensive pretence of disbelief. What is there to be done?
They have entered the Perilous Realm. The man they are meeting and the white man meeting him are understood by the boatmen as in league with Evil.
We now understand how these men understand Arsat, “Arsat, first as a stranger, and also because he who repairs a ruined house, and dwells in it, proclaims that he is not afraid to live amongst the spirits that haunt the places abandoned by mankind.” Interestingly, their fear of Arsat is true in a way they do not rightly understand themselves. Arsat is living with spirits; just not in the way the boatmen think.
So they thought, throwing their weight on the end of their long poles. The big canoe glided on swiftly, noiselessly and smoothly, towards Arsat’s clearing, till, in a great rattling of poles thrown down, and the loud murmurs of ‘Allah be praised!’ it came with a gentle knock against the crooked piles below the house.
The boatmen with uplifted faces shouted discordantly, ‘Arsat! O Arsat!’ Nobody came. The white man began to climb the rude ladder giving access to the bamboo platform before the house. The juragan of the boat said sulkily, ‘We will cook in the sampan, and sleep on the water.’
‘Pass my blankets and the basket,’ said the white man curtly.
There are conflicting movements and petitions here. The white man calls on Arsat. The boatmen call upon Allah. Most of seeking escape (they will sleep on the water); one is seeking to enter further into this enchanted realm. He will move from the lagoon and into the house.
He knelt on the edge of the platform to receive the bundle. Then the boat shoved off, and the white man, standing up, confronted Arsat, who had come out through the low door of his hut. He was a man young, powerful, with a broad chest and muscular arms. He had nothing on but his sarong. His head was bare. His big, soft eyes stared eagerly at the white man, but his voice and demeanor were composed as he asked, without any words of greeting–
‘Have you medicine, Tuan?’
‘No,’ said the visitor in a startled tone. ‘No. Why? Is there sickness in the house?’
‘Enter and see,’ replied Arsat, in the same calm manner, and turning short round, passed again through the small doorway. The white man, dropping his bundles, followed.
There is another irony here. Arsat is “young, powerful, with a broad chest and muscular arms”. But he comes in a kind of weakness; he needs medicine. This powerful man’s position will be seen to have been weakened in many ways as the story progresses.
In the dim light of the dwelling he made out on a couch of bamboos a woman stretched on her back under a broad sheet of red cotton cloth. She lay still, as if dead; but her big eyes, wide open, glittered in the gloom, staring upwards at the slender rafters, motionless and unseeing. She was in a high fever, and evidently unconscious. Her cheeks were sunk slightly, her lips were partly open, and on the young face there was the ominous and fixed expression – the absorbed, contemplating expression of the unconscious who are going to die. The two men stood looking down at her in silence.
‘Has she been long ill?’ asked the traveler.
‘I have not slept for five nights,’ answered the Malay, in a deliberate tone. ‘At first she heard voices calling her from the water and struggled against me who held her. But since the sun of to-day rose she hears nothing – she hears not me. She sees nothing. She sees not me – me!’
He remained silent for a minute, then asked softly–
‘Tuan, will she die?’
Like a great deal in Conrad, this scene calls out for a Jungian reading. The woman is sick. She – like the jungle – is “motionless and unseeing”. Her eyes are like the water: they “glittered in the gloom”. She is a state of fever, the inbetween space of life and death. Her face is “ominous”. She is under a red cloth – like the river under the sun’s rays. This is the bewitching influence on the world about. She renders the two men “silent.”
‘I fear so,’ said the white man sorrowfully. He had known Arsat years ago, in a far country in times of trouble and danger, when no friendship is to be despised. And since his Malay friend had come unexpectedly to dwell in the hut on the lagoon with a strange woman, he had slept many times there, in his journeys up or down the river. He liked the man who knew how to keep faith in council and how to fight without fear by the side of his white friend. He liked him – not so much perhaps as a man likes his favorite dog – but still he liked him well enough to help and ask no questions, to think sometimes vaguely and hazily in the midst of his own pursuits, about the lonely man and the long-haired woman with audacious face and triumphant eyes, who lived together hidden by the forests – alone and feared.
These men are friends. Arsat is a man who fights without fear; and a man who lived with this woman who in the past had an “audacious face and triumphant eyes.” These two lived together, “alone and feared.” But the fear has clearly shifted.
The white man came out of the hut in time to see the enormous conflagration of sunset put out by the swift and stealthy shadows that, rising like a black and impalpable vapor above the tree-tops, spread over the heaven, extinguishing the crimson glow of floating clouds and the red brilliance of departing daylight. In a few moments all the stars came out above the intense blackness of the earth, and the great lagoon gleaming suddenly with reflected lights resembled an oval patch of night-sky flung down into the hopeless and abysmal night of the wilderness. The white man had some supper out of the basket, then collecting a few sticks that lay about the platform, made up a small fire, not for warmth, but for the sake of the smoke, which would keep off the mosquitos. He wrapped himself in his blankets and sat with his back against the reed wall of the house, smoking thoughtfully.
Arsat came through the doorway with noiseless steps and squatted down by the fire. The white man moved his outstretched legs a little.
The enchantment is complete. The sun has gone down. The night has taken control. There is a slight fire against the evening’s danger. This has all been introduction to the story.
‘She breathes,’ said Arsat in a low voice, anticipating the expected question. ‘She breathes and burns as if with a great fire. She speaks not; she hears not – and burns!’
He paused for a moment, then asked in a quiet, incurious tone–
‘Tuan … will she die?’
The white man moved his shoulders uneasily, and muttered in a hesitating manner–
‘If such is her fate.’
‘No, Tuan,’ said Arsat calmly. ‘If such is my fate. I hear, I see, I wait. I remember … Tuan, do you remember the old days? Do you remember my brother?’
If such as her/my fate. They are both in the hands of something greater than them each. They had been fearless. Others feared them. Death had been kept at bay, but now death has come for its due: this is a matter of fate.
‘Yes,’ said the white man. The Malay rose suddenly and went in. The other, sitting still outside, could hear the voice in the hut. Arsat said: ‘Hear me! Speak!’ His words were succeeded by a complete silence. ‘O! Diamelen!’ he cried suddenly. After that cry there was a deep sigh. Arsat came out and sank down again in his old place.
We now have the third petition: Arsat, Allah and now Diamelen. They each have called upon another. But Arsat’s cry to this goddess, his hope (his soul? If this is Jungian?)
If we were to use Christopher Booker’s plots, this is the voyage and return. Arsat has made a voyage out from his home; has fought with death; and he will return. Here begins the reason for his leaving his home. In commenting upon the question above, “will see die?” Booker makes this observation (though not upon this story), “He is here in a common predicament of the Voyage and Return hero, feeling he has been caught up in some strange, unreal dream world where everyone knows more than he does.”
They sat in silence before the fire. There was no sound within the house, there was no sound near them; but far away on the lagoon they could hear the voices of the boatmen ringing fitful and distinct on the calm water. The fire in the bows of the sampan shone faintly in the distance with a hazy red glow. Then it died out. The voices ceased. The land and the water slept invisible, unstirring and mute. It was as though there had been nothing left in the world but the glitter of stars streaming, ceaseless and vain, through the black stillness of the night.
The white man gazed straight before him into the darkness with wide-open eyes. The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder of death – of death near, unavoidable and unseen, soothed the unrest of his race and stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts. The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing suspicion that lurks in our hearts, flowed out into the stillness round him – into the stillness profound and dumb, and made it appear untrustworthy and infamous, like the placid and impenetrable mask of an unjustifiable violence. In that fleeting and powerful disturbance of his being the earth enfolded in the starlight peace became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms terrible and charming, august or ignoble, struggling ardently for the possession of our helpless hearts. An unquiet and mysterious country of inextinguishable desires and fears.
The white man has now fully entered, along with Arsat into the Perilous Realm. The boatmen are staying on the borders. This is a region of darkness. This is a region of death. We can tell he is this world, but the danger of this world has now settled upon him, “The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing suspicion that lurks in our hearts, flowed out into the stillness round him.” This is a world of unseen spirits, “phantoms”. There was first the physical movement to the location of Arsat’s hut. Now he is fully living in Arsat’s world.