Axel Heyst, a wealthy recluse, gets drawn into the imperial maneuvering in the East Indies; he rejects it all for the idle happiness of a remote island, only to have it all taken away from him in a single tragic moment. For Heyst, a simple and relatively small act of generosity sets the entire plot into motion. The novel begins with Heyst having a chance encounter with an English businessman named Morrison. During their conversation, Morrison complains about a recent and, for him, devastating fine his shipping business received. On a whim, Heyst offers to pay the fine for Morrison. Morrison is so struck by this, and the two men appear to get along so well right off the bat, that they agree to go into a business venture together. The venture is aimed at shipping coal for the burgeoning numbers of steamships.
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But soon after they form their partnership, Morrison, who is the real businessman of the two, dies on a visit to England. Heyst becomes the sole owner and for awhile, despite his relative inexperience, it appears that he just might succeed. But Heyst is not wired for the move and countermove of operating in the imperial scramble that is the East Indies. A series of seemingly minor bad decisions accumulate and the company goes bankrupt.
Heyst, who only got into this whole nonsense on a whim to begin with, lapses once again into a cynical indifference towards life and all its messiness. He withdraws to an isolated island called Samburan and decides to live the rest of his away from civilization, with only his servant Wang to keep him company.
This goes on for some time until a visit from his friend Captain Davidson. In an attempt to shake Heyst out of his reclusion, Davidson takes him to the mainland city of Surabaya, where a visiting orchestra of all female performers will be playing at a resort hotel owned by a man named Schomberg. Heyst becomes enchanted with Lena, one of the girls in the band. Schomber is also taken with the young girl. But when Schomberg's flirtatious advances are rejected by Lena, he becomes sexually aggressive and Lena flees with Heyst back to his island. Schomberg is outraged and nurses a growing hatred for Heyst.
While on the island together, Lena and Heyst fall in love. Heyst opens up to her about his past failures and his dark cynicism about life, which only seems to abate in her presence. Meanwhile, Schomberg has found his means of getting his revenge on Heyst. Three murderous gamblers arrive in Surabaya and insist on setting up operation in Schomberg's hotel. In order to get rid of them – and deal with Heyst – Schomberg makes up an elaborate story about Heyst murdering his old business partner Morrison, embezzling everything from their joint business venture, and then running away with the money to Samburan.
Persuaded by this story, the three men make their way to Heyst's island. Their plan is to force Heyst to reveal the location of his treasure and then kill him. But things don't go as planned. Two of the men are killed by Wang and Heyst, but not before Lena herself is accidentally killed. In his rage and grief, Heyst hunts down the last man and kills him, then, with nothing left to live for, he commits suicide.
Best part of story, including ending:
I didn't hate this book, but in light of so many other great Conrad books about the East Indies and withdrawals from civilization etc., this one kind of feels a bit irrelevant. It has the feel of a paycheck book.
Best scene in story:
When Heyst first meets Lena and he stops being such a cynical sad sack, it gives you some hope that maybe things will work out in some sense after all. It's a glimmer of something more than endless indifference. So, of course, Lena has to die.
Opinion about the main character:
I was with Heyst until the suicide. Lena's death wasn't your fault, buddy. You did everything you could. No need to kill yourself after your girlfriend of a few weeks dies.