The Beach of Falesá
"The Beach of Falesá" is a short story by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. It was first published in the Illustrated London News in 1892, and later published in book form in the short-story collection Island Nights' Entertainments (1893). It was written after Stevenson moved to the South Seas island of Samoa just a few years before he died there.
The story is told in the first person by John Wiltshire, a British copra trader on the fictional South Sea island of Falesá. Upon arriving on the island, he meets a rival trader named Case, who (in an apparently friendly gesture) arranges for him to be "married" to a local girl named Uma in a ceremony designed to impress the natives but to be completely non-binding in the view of Europeans.
Wiltshire soon discovers that Uma has a taboo attached to her which causes all the other natives to refuse to do business with him, to Case's profit. He also hears rumors of Case having been involved in the suspicious deaths of his previous competitors. Although realising that he has been tricked, Wiltshire has genuinely fallen in love with Uma, and has their marriage legalised by a passing missionary.
Wiltshire gradually learns that Case's influence over the villagers stems from their belief that he has demonic powers, as a result of his simple conjuring tricks as well as strange noises and visions they have experienced at a "temple" he has built in the forest. Upon investigating, Wiltshire finds that these experiences are also tricks produced by imported technologies such as luminous paint and Aeolian harps.
Wiltshire sets out that night to destroy the temple with gunpowder. Case confronts him and the two men fight, resulting in Case's death.
The story concludes with Wiltshire several years later living on another island, still happily married to Uma, worrying about what will happen to his mixed-race children.
Stevenson saw "The Beach of Falesá" as the ground-breaking work in his turn away from romanticism to realism. Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin:
It is the first realistic South Seas story; I mean with real South Sea character and details of life. Everybody else that has tried, that I have seen, got carried away by the romance, and ended in a kind of sugar candy sham epic, and the whole effect was lost - there was not etching, no human grin, consequently no conviction. Now I have got the smell and look of the thing a good deal. You will know more about the South Seas after you have read my little tale than if you had read a library.
In an unusual change for Stevenson, but in-line with realism, the plot of the story is less important, rather the realistic portrayal of the manners of various social classes in island society is foregrounded; it is essentially a novel of manners. As Stevenson says to Colvin in a letter, "The Beach of Falesá" is "well fed with facts" and "true to the manners' of the society it depicts." Other than the island itself which is fictional, it contains the names of real people, real ships and real buildings which Stevenson was familiar with from his personal travels in the South Seas.
Of further interest regarding the analysis of this text is its publication history. Censored by its publisher, The Beach of Falesá directly addresses British colonialism while confronting the taboos regarding miscegenation. A comparison of earlier printed editions to Steven's original draft has been a source of fairly recent scholarly inquiry. In a somewhat similar vein, another provocative approach to Stevenson's South Seas writings has been taken through the lens of ethnography.
"The Beach of Falesá", along with his two other South Seas tales in Island Nights' Entertainments, were generally poorly received by his peers in London. Stevenson was known and loved for his historical romances such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae and so his shift to realism was not widely applauded. Oscar Wilde complained "I see that romantic surroundings [Samoa] are the worst surroundings possible for a romantic writer. In Gower Street Stevenson could have written a new Trois Mousquetaires. In Samoa he wrote letters to The Times about Germans." Edmund Gosse wrote "The fact seems to be that it is very nice to live in Samoa, but not healthy to write there."
Modern scholarship and the reflection of time has been more kind to Stevenson's late works. What his critics could not see or know at the time is that modernism was just around the corner and Stevenson had begun to experiment with early forms, along with a critique of the European colonial venture (post-colonialism), something most people in the 1890s were not interested in hearing, but within a decade or so, such as with Joseph Conrad, would become fashionable.
- Roslyn Jolly (editor). Robert Louis Stevenson: South Sea Tales. The World's Classics. Oxford University Press. 1996. See "Introduction".
- Robert Louis Stevenson and 'The Beach of Falesá': A Study in Victorian Publishing by Barry Menikoff
- The ethnographic potential of Stevenson's South Sea Writing by Liam Connell