Making Sense of the Colonial Encounter in Conrad’s Shorter Indian Ocean Fiction: Narrative Technique, Meaning and Epistemology in ‘Karain: A Memory’, ‘A Smile of Fortune’ and The Shadow-Line

Stephen Edwards


The narrative techniques of Conrad’s shorter Malay and Indian Ocean fiction are examined to see the extent to which they either reveal or complicate and obscure interpretation and meaning, in their attempts to represent the colonial encounter. In the process, the paper seeks to balance the opposing claims of John Peters who absolves Conrad from ‘epistemological solipsism and ethical anarchy’ and those of Daniel Just who argues that ‘the disintegration of meaning’ is ‘the only ethically acceptable response to the historical experience of colonialism’. It also seeks to show how Conrad’s narrative strategies, such as use of in medias res and achronology techniques as well as use of the first person narrator, changed through the course of his writing career. We therefore find different solutions to the question of whether the voice of the colonial Other can be articulated in ‘Karain’ and ‘A Smile of Fortune’. In the former, Karain is allowed to speak and implicitly challenge the narrator’s values, although he worryingly seems to articulate his outlook in western terms. In the latter, the colonised voice is not heard at all as we struggle to work out what is happening through the lens of the narrator’s prejudice and misogyny. The Shadow-Line, on the other hand, satisfyingly balances epistemological and ontological uncertainties as the Western sea-faring ideals of masculine self-sufficiency break down and colonial vulnerabilities are internalised. A first person narration here becomes a multi-voiced narrative. In their different ways, all three stories grapple with intractable issues involved in adequately characterising the colonial encounter. In addition, their epistemological quandaries and the murkiness of their insight express the intellectual, emotional and ethical frisson of the inevitable failure to attain a responsible state of being in a morally compromised universe.


Conrad; Malay Fiction; Colonialism; Narrative technique; Indian Ocean

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