Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Karain: A Memory

One of Joseph Conrad’s early Malay stories, “Karain: A Memory” was first published in the November issue of Blackwood’s Magazine in 1897 and subsequently appeared in Tales of Unrest (1898). A story of betrayal and exile and a twofold frame story, it prefigured Conrad’s allegorical novels of the British Empire and imperialism in its choice of theme and form.

With its orientalist representation of “a land without memories, regrets, and hopes” (62), “Karain” masterfully expresses the meeting of commercial expansion and European orientalism. A rich past of piratical ventures contrasts ironically with the downsides of imperialist commercialism. In the frame story, the first-person narrator comes across references to political unrest in the Malayan Archipelago in the newspaper. He remembers his encounters with the Malay chief Karain, and his initial reaction is a feeling of nostalgia. The romanticized delineation of the region is sharply posed against the mundane everyday of Victorian London: “Sunshine gleams between the lines of those short paragraphs— sunshine and the glitter of the sea. A strange name wakes up memories; the printed words scent the smoky atmosphere of today faintly” (61). In a juxtaposition characteristic of Conrad’s fiction, the commercial trade that takes the narrator to the Far East breaks into a heavily orientalist exotic. In the embedded story, the nameless narrator recounts how he, together with his shipmates Hollis and Jackson, came to Southeast Asia to smuggle guns. Their commercial ventures are at once different from and involved in the continuation of native warfare, including the ambiguously idealized piratical past: “It was almost impossible to remember who he [Karain] was—only a petty chief of a conveniently isolated corner of Minanao, where we could in comparative safety break the law against the traffic in firearms and ammunition with natives” (64). A muted self-irony runs through the story: “He was treated with a solemn respect accorded in the irreverent West only to the monarchs of the stage” (64). The clash of “the irreverent West” with the enigmas of the Orient ultimately becomes central to the resolution of Karain’s dilemma. The orientalism that suffuses the story is complemented by an occidentalism that reassesses the (self-)representation of “the West” through its juxtaposition with the changing conceptions of the Orient.

The unfolding of Karain’s story is generated as an orientalized ghost story. Karain always appears accompanied by his old sword bearer. After two years of trading, the sword bearer dies, and for once Karain does not pay his usual visit to the smugglers’ schooner. Then one night, he arrives on board ship to narrate his story. This ghost story is thus doubly framed. Karain asserts that he is haunted by the ghost of Pata Matara, once his friend, whom he has murdered. Pata Matara’s sister, Karain recounts, has brought shame on her people by going to live with a Dutchman, who “said he came to trade” (83). This connection between imperialist commerce and betrayal, including sexual betrayal, runs through Conrad’s stories. The Dutchman stands in for the dark side of imperialist trade, as the story capitalizes on Anglo-Dutch colonial rivalry in Southeast Asia. Conrad’s most famous novella, Heart of Darkness, establishes a similar juxtaposition between the narrator and the enigmatic Dutchman Kurtz in its representation of European imperialism in Africa. The commercial rapacity of late imperialism and anxieties of degeneration at the fin de siècle form entwined themes that become pivotal to Conrad’s Modernism.

“Karain” prefigures this allegory, as Karain and Pata Matara embark on an “obscure Odyssey of revenge” (92) in pursuit of the Dutchman and his mistress. This reference to the Odyssey, an Ancient Greek epic attributed to Homer accentuates the allegorical levels of the story by imbuing—not without a hint of irony—Karain’s tale with an epic and specifically classical dimension. Plagued by dreams of Pata Matara’s sister, Karain ultimately shoots his friend instead of the Dutchman. Shortly afterward, he begins to feel haunted by Pata Matara’s ghost. Only the old sword bearer can offer him protection. After the old man’s death, Karain fl ees to consult the three smugglers, who represent “the irreverent West.” Their rejection of the magical seems to offer a new refuge. At first puzzled by Karain’s request of a Western charm to fend off the ghost, they coin just such a specific talisman by capitalizing on a belief in money in their choice of a Jubilee sixpenny piece, a special coin manufactured for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887: “The thing itself is of great power—money, you know—and his imagination is struck” (100). In this focus on the magic of money and Western coinage, the ironic treatment of commercial imperialism becomes pivotal.

At the same time, Western conceptualizations of order are juxtaposed with an orientalist imaginary of suspended time. The belief in icons of power is ironically treated through its identification with the ghosts that plague the haunted chief. In the narrator’s words, as he concludes both framed stories, “that man loyal to a vision, betrayed by his dream, spurned by his illusion, and coming to us unbelievers for help—against a thought. The silence was profound; but it seemed full of noiseless phantoms, of things sorrowful, shadowy, and mute, in whose invisible presence the firm, pulsating beat of the two ships’ chronometers ticking off steadily the seconds of Greenwich Time seemed to me a protection and a relief,” (92). Greenwich Time stands for normality. But the end of the story proves that the orientalist imaginary has irrevocably seeped into the empire. The frame story closes with Jackson’s assertion that the memory of Karain is more real to him than the bustle of the great metropolis of London. As the narrator self-ironically comments, “I think that, decidedly, he had been too long away from home” (106).

This loss of cultural identity is further developed in Conrad’s subsequent “Malay novels,” which include such allegorical masterpieces as Lord Jim and Almayer’s Folly. Set in or near the Malayan Archipelago (now Indonesia), they have recently been reassessed for their insights into 19th-century Southeast Asia. Conrad himself, however, emphasized the region’s allegorical importance in his works. In A Personal Record, he signifi cantly called it a “particular East of which I had but the mistiest, short glimpse.”

Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Stories

Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Novels


Conrad, Joseph. The Eastern Stories. London: Penguin, 2000.
———. A Personal Record. London: J. M. Dent, 1919.
Hampson, Robert. Cross-Cultural Encounters in Joseph Conrad’s Malay Fiction. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2000.
White, Andrea. Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition: Constructing and Deconstructing the Imperial Subject. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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