You are a bit too much of a Jacobus, Mr. Jacobus.”
_A Smile of Fortune_ is set in a beautiful Pacific Ocean island, at which the narrator, a captain, has docked; the suppliers of the ships are the Jacobus brothers, who have not spoken to one another in 18 years. The word “Jew” is not mentioned in Conrad’s great story.
One of the brothers, Ernest, is an assimilated citizen. He is owed a lot of money, hosts parties, has taste and manners , and is trusted. He treats half-caste servants just as brutally as the rest of the colonists.
The other is Arthur, an outcast, not because of race or profession, although he has been forced to make aggressive deals, beating his brother to incoming captains to get contracts for food and equipment before his brother does. He has heavy, lidded, searching eyes; his face is a mask; his chest “heaves with a soundless sigh.” He has the “veiled expression of a man after some soul-shaking crisis.”
Pariah Arthur Jacobus has not only run off with a "low" circus performer, shocking enough for the community, but also had the effrontery to bring her back to the lovely (oh yes) island, where she gave birth and then passed away, leaving a daughter. He has kept detached from the town, in a secluded house where he keeps his now-beautiful, mysterious daughter and her harpy of a chaperone. Most foreign to the community is his infernal perseverance. Nothing stops him from sailing the harbor with perfect knowledge of what each boat needs, and he has just the provisions they lack.
That’s uncanny, but the narrator finds more to it than “trade.” A captain of a ship seeking supplies, this narrator is a frequent visitor to Arthur’s house while he makes daring (b/c Ernest does not trust him) arrangements for his provisions. He recognizes “The depth of passion under [his host’s] placid surface” – “how he had the stuck to that circus-rider woman.” Here is weirder mystery of perseverance, effrontery, stubbornness. The narrator also notices the stunning garden: “A brilliantly colored solitude, drowsing in a warm, voluptuous silence.”
The garden mirrors the distant, indolent, insolent Alice, Jacobus’ daughter, a Jewess sphinx with “Egyptian eyes.” The captain is entranced, so much so that he must return to Jacobus' house (lair?) often, and must make a deal with Jacobus from which he cannot imagine profiting. His disorientation is brilliantly rendered. Without anything more than description of gesture, the movements of people’s bodies, their words, Conrad shows his narrator in direct contact with an alien world—the Other: the outcast Jew (whose fascination with the circus rider is the same as the captain’s for Alice), the silent princess imprisoned by her nasty chaperone and her own father in a dark heavy-scented garden from which Alice gives indication at her last meeting with the captain that she wants to be rescued. She represents a side of himself that has been relegated to his subconscious: deeper than reason, social propriety, decency or honor. Deeper, stranger, more real—like heaven or hell.
The “bad” Jacobus and his off-putting (“I don’t care”) yet exotically seductive daughter are nemeses for the narrator-captain. They present a challenge similar to the circumstances (Newark’s “polio summer”) and his girlfriend (who entices Bucky Cantor away from his playground director’s job) that confront young Cantor in Philip Roth’s _Nemesis_. They can’t be ignored, any more than one can ignore a haair-raising figure that appears in the background as one looks at oneself in a mirror.
Will the captain bargain with Arthur Jacobus for his daughter? With his “sleepy watchfulness,” he can “procure anything for a price.” A key moment comes at a point late in the story. Only a world-class writer like Conrad can conjure it up as he has. Alice has just left the room, leaving one slipper behind. As Jacobus tries to convince the narrator to do more business with him when he next docks at the island, he picks up the slipper and absentmindedly toys with it. This is just before the final meeting between Alice and the captain. She actually offers him a kiss. “This was the moment when I realized clearly with a sort of terror my complete detachment from that unfortunate creature.” The “terror” of the Other(s)?
Can the captain detach himself from the strangeness of the reclusive family?
What will happen to an-- at present-- daydream of a relationship which, although the slightest touch is hypnotizing, is so ill-suited to both captain and sphinxlike heavy-lidded beauty?
What *is* the smile of “fortune” (a loaded word)? Is it fortunate to come in contact with one's opposite and irresistible desire? Kafka said, “There comes a point from which there is no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”