Analysis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesá

“The Beach of Falesá” is a story of colonialism in the South Seas that shocked many of Robert Louis Stevenson’s admirers when it was first published in the Illustrated London News (1892). It is related in the first person by British trader John Wiltshire, who is sent to the mission station of Falesá. Upon landing, he is introduced to other Britishers on the island: the drunken Captain Randall and Case, the principal trader on the island, who initially appears affable. Case suggests that Wiltshire take a native “wife” and picks out a likely girl, Uma. Wiltshire acquiesces and goes through the requisite sham marriage ceremony as practiced by whites in the region. He feels ashamed of such a travesty but is genuinely taken with Uma, as she is with him. Thereafter he settles down to business but is perturbed to find the islanders avoiding him, and he finally enlists Case’s help in finding out what they have against him. Case informs him that, while he is not exactly tabooed, the natives harbor some kind of superstition about him. Case refuses to help him any further, and Wiltshire realizes that Case is quite happy with the situation, as it means he has a monopoly on trade on the island. Wiltshire finally extracts the whole truth from Uma: He is being shunned because Case has helped spread some unsavory rumors about her. Wiltshire thus realizes the trick Case has played on him, setting him up with a girl of whom the islanders are wary. At this point the missionary Tarleton arrives. Wiltshire meets with him to arrange a proper marriage ceremony for himself and Uma. Tarleton then proceeds to reveal how unscrupulous Case really is and how, by devious means, he has established great influence among the islanders and eliminated rivals in the past. Subsequently Wiltshire also learns that Case has instituted a kind of devil worship to keep the islanders in perpetual awe. He goes to see for himself and uncovers the paraphernalia with which Case beguiles the natives: an Aeolian harp, a luminous painted idol, and such items. Later he is agreeably surprised to find that Maea, one of the tribal chiefs, has come over to his side, having fallen out with Case over a girl. Heartened by this unexpected support, Wiltshire determines to expose Case as a fraud. This leads to a final conflict with Case in which Wiltshire, although wounded, stabs Case to death. Wiltshire is eventually moved to another station but remains in the South Seas, unable to return to England to fulfill his modest dream of running his own public house; although he evidently remains loyal to Uma and has children by her, he frets over their future as half-castes.

In some ways, “The Beach of Falesá” reads like a typical colonial adventure tale, with a resourceful hero and wily villain, treachery, dark deeds by night, and a spectacular (and extremely violent) climax; all of this is set against a backdrop of tropical sunshine and beaches and dimly visible natives who, with the notable exception of Uma, do not really emerge as characters in their own right. But in many other ways this text is starkly different from the usual run of glamorous, exotic adventure stories much in vogue among the British reading public at that time. The most notorious aspect is its frankness about sex and miscegenation, and the paragraph concerning the illegal marriage of Wiltshire and Uma was removed altogether when the story was first serialized (an act of censorship that infuriated Stevenson). The Europeans in the story are unfl atteringly portrayed: the scheming Case, the ineffectual Tarleton, and the wholly degenerate Randall, who is described as being like some sort of hairy grey animal. All of this is filtered through the medium of Wiltshire, who, although he declares himself to be plainspoken, is of course being disingenuous to a degree: He is still keen to win the local struggle for mastery with Case, and in his account of the final confrontation he dehumanizes Case by referring to him more than once as a “brute” while appearing no less brutish himself in stabbing his adversary many more times than is necessary. Despite this ending, we also get a sense of Wiltshire’s basic decency. Although he evinces a familiar colonialist tendency to look down on the natives, the Kanakas, he genuinely cares for Uma and later for their children. She is not merely a beautiful woman, an exotic alien object but, as he fully acknowledges, a true friend, and his only friend in the place in the absence of any solidarity among the whites. At the same time it would be wrong to assume that, just because he is able and willing to expose the shady dealings of whites in the area, he has any unusual sympathy for the natives. He has limited horizons; his chief concern is simply to detail the business rivalries in the region and his own part in them. Unlike the tragic realism of Joseph Conrad, or even of Stevenson’s own later story “THE EBB-TIDE,” there is no tragic awareness here, no percipient analysis of the human condition, nor even any of the systematic exploration of evil that characterizes some of Stevenson’s other works.

Linehan, Katherine Bailey. “Taking Up with Kanakas: Stevenson’s Complex Social Criticism in, ‘The Beach of Falesá,’ ” English Literature in Translation 1880–1920 33 (1990): 407–422.
Menikoff, Barry. Robert Louis Stevenson and “The Beach of Falesá”: A Study in Victorian Publishing. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1984.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Beach of Falesá.” In South Seas Tales. Edited by Rosslyn Jolly. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: