Freya of the Seven Isles


I'd forgotten how much I enjoy Joseph Conrad, with his tropical marine settings and his thoughtful, melancholy narrators. Spending a sunny afternoon with Freya of the Seven Isles kindled my interest in revisiting Lord Jim, Victory and Heart of Darkness, and in exploring the rest of his work that I haven't read.

Freya is a classic tragedy of the kind the reader sees coming from the opening pages due to the flaws-which-are-often-actually-virtues of the characters, yet still hopes will turn out right in the end. As we open, the narrator tells us he has just received a letter from an old sea buddy of his, who asks if he remembers "old Nelson"—an Englishman and former settler in the Dutch East Indies who, it turns out, is actually named "Nielsen." The narrator continues to call his old acquaintance by both names—"Nelson (or Nielsen)"—throughout the novella, and the this double moniker, marking him as somewhat English, or at least cozy with the English (Nelson) but also somewhat Scandinavian (Nielsen), turns out to be key to his character and the unfolding action. Nelson (or Nielsen) is Scandinavian enough to be permitted to settle in the Dutch-controlled Seven Isles group, but not Dutch enough to feel secure there, and is so perpetually terrified of the Dutch "authorities" that he allows himself and his daughter Freya to be walked all over by a petty officer named Heemskirk. Add into the mix the pride and attractiveness of Freya herself; the high-spirited English man she actually loves and who loves her; and the failure of the characters to communicate at key moments, and you have the makings of an inevitable love-triangle-cum-disaster. In case we were not getting the message, the narrator gives us passages like this one, in which he's talking with Freya's secret fiancé Jasper Allen:

"Mind you don't come to grief trying to do too much," I admonished him. But he dismissed my caution with a laugh and an elated gesture. Pooh! Nothing, nothing could happen to the brig, he cried, as if the flame of his heart could light up the dark nights of uncharted seas, and the image of Freya serve for an unerring beacon amongst hidden shoals; as if the winds had to wait on his future, and the stars fight for it in their courses; as if the magic of his passion had the power to float a ship on a drop of dew or wail her through the eye of a needle—simply because it was her magnificent lot to be the servant of a love so full of grace as to make all the ways of the earth safe, resplendent, and easy.

Oh man, the kid is doomed. "Nothing could happen to the brig," indeed. It's pretty plain that the earth will not remain for him safe or resplendent, and least of all easy. Still, with his parallel constructions and heightened imagery Conrad manages to elicit (in me, at least) a bit of the soaring feeling Jasper describes, even as my gut sinks with the dismal knowledge that his confidence is about to be crushed.

In contrast to Jasper's romanticism we have Freya's supposed "sensibleness," which her father believes will prevent her from falling in love with anyone in the first place, and which in reality means that even when she has fallen in love, she still wants a well-planned and executed elopement rather than a rushing off pell-mell into the wide blue yonder. Conrad's attitude toward Freya's seeming sensibleness is interesting to me. The narrator seems to admire it, contrasting it favorably with the "absurdity" (fearfulness in Nelson, jealousy in Heemskirk, impetuousness in Jasper) of all the men around her, and in a way it's refreshing to read a 1911 novella where the most down-to-earth character is the single woman. On the other hand, though, one wonders about how positive this quality really is; after all, had Freya simply consented to run away with Jasper earlier in the book, the couple would probably have had a happy life together—or at least some kind of life, which is more than either one ends up with in the end. Freya is a managerial type, and although her insights into others' characters—her father's likelihood to descend into anxiety attacks if she tells him her marriage plans ahead of time, for example—are spot-on, her fatal flaw is, perhaps, taking too much on her own shoulders and failing to communicate to any of the other characters until it's far too late. As the narrator laments,

And yet there was something she might have told a friend. But she didn't. We parted silently.

Freya's extreme self-sufficiency is part and parcel of her sensibleness, and is indeed opposite of the frailties so often laid at female doors (hysteria, clinginess, indecisiveness, etc.). Yet Conrad depicts even this as something that can be taken too far, however admirable it might be.

Notes on Disgust
(for more information on the disgust project, see here)

Disgust is mentioned twice in Freya of the Seven Isles, and in both cases it's used to underline the mutual aversion felt between the Dutch and English traders. As in Pamuk's Snow, this is very much a disgust marking the boundaries of "us versus them." In the first instance, the narrator is speaking about the Dutch attitude toward Freya's lover Jasper:

They considered him much too enterprising in his trading. I don't know that he ever did anything illegal, but it seems to me that his immense activity was repulsive to their stolid character and slow-going methods.

One senses here that the narrator is being slightly flip here: the Dutch are probably not literally repulsed by Jasper's level of industry. Still, as Willian Ian Miller points out, the rhetoric of disgust is still strong even when used in jest. The Dutch may not quite retch when they see Jasper approach in the Bonito, but they are averse to him; they distrust him. His way of being in the world does not accord with their own. To the Dutch "we," in other words, he is a "they." The narrator's own lightness in this paragraph perhaps mimics Jasper's own lack of seriousness around Heemskirk and the Dutch in general, while at the same time foreshadowing the tale's tragic end. In any case, the reader is certainly not supposed to share the Dutch disgust for Jasper. The boy may be a little foolish, but he's essentially a sympathetic, if doomed, character. Thus the Dutch revulsion against him makes them less sympathetic generally, or at least signals a tragic lack of understanding between the two parties.

In the second instance, Freya thinks of Heemskirk as "odiously...absurd" and a "grotesquely supine creature" as he sits sulking that she prefers Jasper, and she avoids going to talk with him, instead sitting down at the piano to play. Here the reader is meant to share her revulsion, especially since we have seen his thoughts and they are petty, selfish and vindictive. Disgust here marks true moral flaws in the person eliciting the disgust, reflecting our own opinion of Heemskirk and confirming Freya as a good judge of character. Given the passage quoted above, it's probably not irrelevant that Heemskirk is Dutch and dark-complected (that is, in opposition to the fair-haired, attractive English characters who would otherwise find happiness on the island). Conrad isn't above a bit of jingoism (infamously). Still, he makes Heemskirk a sufficiently loathsome and petty little man in his own right that I felt justified in sharing Freya's view. At the same time, her disgust in this scene prevents her from sweet-talking Heemskirk out of his funk, which might potentially have saved the entire progression of events from veering out of control.


I read Freya of the Seven Isles as part of Frances's Art of the Novella Challenge. It's the third of six novellas from Melville House's Art of the Novella series that I hope to read over the course of August. And thanks to Nicole for sending me this Melville House copy of Freya for my shelves!

As for drinks pairings, I spent a sunny Sunday afternoon sitting on my patio, reading Freya, and sipping iced mango black tea. Fresh-brewed as needed at double-strength, steeped for four minutes and immediately poured over ice and enjoyed. It seemed to combine the refreshing and the exotic in just the right combination.


  • I've now posted on this twice and you've outdone me in a single turn! I love especially how you further explore the issue of Freya's sensibleness and managerial nature as just her own tragic flaw. I suppose I should take note; I obviously took to this aspect of her as I identify with it.

    If you do revisit other Conrad I'll be interested to see what you think of some of his other women. While Freya is particularly un-hysterical for him, I don't think she's the only one that wins the sensibility contest against the overly romantic man who is her love interest.

    Yay, so glad you enjoyed this one!

    • Thanks, Nicole! I definitely related to Freya's managerial qualities as well, don't get me wrong. :-)

      You have me curious to revisit Conrad in a survey of his female characters. I remember pretty much none of them—oh! except for Winnie Verloc from The Secret Agent. She's a super-interesting character! (I always forget about The Secret Agent; it seems so un-Conradian somehow.)

  • I confess I have never read Conrad and, until now, have never even considered doing so! I like the idea of beginning with a novella, though, as a gentle entry to his work. Maybe one day I will pick him up.

    All I know about him was that he was just the most tortured writer. He would spend a whole day at his desk, banging his head on it, howling with despair in order to produce a paragraph. Poor man!

    • Really, not even Heart of Darkness? It's novella-length as well, although not exactly "gentle"...but I do HIGHLY recommend it. Spectacular writing.

      I didn't know that about Conrad's extreme difficulty with writing—poor man. The narrations in his books seem to flow so easily; interesting to know it's an illusion.

  • I do like Conrad and haven't read him in ages. This is one I am not familiar with and I see I am going to have to get a copy for myself. As I was reading the passage you quoted about Jasper I was thinking, oh no! the guy is going to die probably in a horrible shipwrek or something. But as you note, the passage is also uplifting. The sign of a good writer who can mix doom and uplift together in the same paragraph.

  • I'm really puzzled by books like this. "Freya is a classic tragedy of the kind the reader sees coming from the opening pages..." describes the kind of book that I find insanely frustrating, especially when problems could have been prevented by better communications.

    But you start this out by commenting on how much you enjoy Conrad, and I'm really curious to know what exactly it is that you enjoy. Not in an argumentative sort of way, I'm genuinely curious, because I suspect if I could figure out what it is people do love about this sort of story I would enjoy them more myself...instead of finding them so frustrating and upsetting.

    • Hmm, good question, Wendy. I guess I feel that the "classic tragedy that proceeds from the characters' fatal flaws" is a genre like any other. I don't love books because they belong to the genre, but if a book is a well-executed example of the genre with other things going for it (well-crafted writing, believable characters, striking imagery, etc.) then the genre itself won't be a turnoff for me. It's pretty much neutral, if that makes sense. I do love MANY works that fit into this category, though: Aeschylus and Sophocles, Shakespeare, Hardy, Wharton...the list goes on.

      With this particular Conrad example, things that made it a positive experience for me were the interesting gender stuff, Conrad's ability to combine dread with uplift as discussed above, the examination of the doubleness of Nelson/Nielsen's identity and how that preyed on him, and so on.

      But I mean, it IS upsetting! I guess I enjoy lots of books that upset me in one way or another.

  • I haven't read Conrad since grad school -- Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and the one with the really awkward name :) -- and he's not someone I'm particularly drawn to, I guess for a stupid reason like I don't care much for sea tales (unless it's Robinson Crusoe). I need to get over that, I think, and pick him up again!

    • Haha, ah yes, the one with the awkward name. I believe Nicole reviewed it a few weeks ago. :-)

      I'm a little reluctant to pick up a sea tale as well, but I'm usually won over pretty quickly with Conrad. And this time through I actually found that I quite enjoyed the sea-related parts.

  • Mango black tea is just about my favorite tea, Emily, so maybe I'll have to join the novella/tea party with this Conrad some day. In the meantime, I'm encouraged to hear what you say about that Conrad character in The Secret Agent since that'll prob. by my next Conrad. Hopefully soon.

    • Mango black iced tea is totally my go-to refreshing beverage this summer. Mmmm, so good!

      I bet you will like The Secret Agent. It's a weird Conrad novel, land-bound and more overtly funny than a lot of his stuff, though still in a dark way. (Although I think there are darkly hilarious parts of Heart of Darkness, like when he encounters the ships firing their cannon randomly into the heart of the continent.) I'll be curious about your thoughts!

    • Great stuff, sweetie, as always! And — though I'm sure it comes as no surprise — I, too, wanted to remark on your drinks pairing, which I thought you tied in wonderfully to the mood and subject matter at hand.

      It seems an appropriate choice on several levels, given the historical impact of both the Dutch and English on the tea trade, and their impact upon each other's tea empires.

      Jolly well done, old girl!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography