Summary and Analysis
Part 2: Chapter 2
The narrator supposes that Heyst does not reflect on his course of action. There is no evidence that he thinks of pausing at any time between this particular evening and the morning of their flight. Heyst's inexperience gives him the audacity to plunge in and rescue the girl.
Now the narrator picks up the story on a later evening (Heyst goes every evening now, it seems) when the girl tells Heyst more about herself. Abandoned by her mother, she has been almost a child of the streets suffering the hopeless grip of poverty at all times. She has never had friends nor met the simplest forms of courtesy. Her father is in a home for incurables. She has no money at all.
Heyst cannot defend himself against compassion, and when the girl insists that he must do something to rescue her, he tells her that although he is not rich enough to buy her out of her employment, he can steal her.
The girl, comforted, goes back to her place in the orchestra, and Heyst, unable to bear the horrible racket, leaves the concert hall. He goes back to his chair on the verandah, where he muses over his new involvement and decides that his adventures among the New Guinea cannibals were not so daring as the action he is about to undertake. He gets up and walks in the darkened hotel garden and meets the girl. She is almost hysterical with fear and begs Heyst to rescue her. He will never be sorry, she says, and she is not yet twenty years old, but she knows how to stand by a man. Schomberg is pressing his attentions upon her, and she declares that if Heyst fails her now, the consequences will be "a thousand times worse than killing a body."
Heyst has no illusions about the girl, but his skeptical mind is controlled by "the fullness of his heart." He holds her close and comforts her. She intimates that she has often been pursued by fellows like Schomberg. Heyst, ashamed of his fastidiousness, shrinks at the thought of those "other fellows."
Her name, the girl says, is Alma or Magdalen. She assures Heyst that Schomberg's wife will help them escape; and again Heyst promises to steal her as soon as he can find a way. They part.
Back in his room, Heyst goes to bed but cannot sleep. He tosses until morning, then gets up and looks in the mirror half expecting to see some change in his appearance. He smiles at his own naïveté. He is already past thirty-five and knows that men don't really change much at that age.
All his life he has made a project out of his own detachment. It is the essence of his life. He has not withdrawn like a hermit but wanders from one place to another, rootless and free of all ordinary entanglement. So, up to this time, he has passed through life without suffering and almost without care, "invulnerable because illusive."
This important chapter sets up the Heyst-Lena relationship on which the remainder of the story hangs. Remember that Heyst is a titled nobleman, well educated, refined, accustomed to a detached life, fastidious. Lena is almost a child of the streets, a waif with nothing to commend her but physical charm, a lovely voice, and her deplorable helplessness.
The plot of this story is often referred to as the Pygmalion and Galatea plot. Kipling used it in The Light That Failed and W. Somerset Maugham used it in Of Human Bondage. Many other writers have used the same plot since Conrad wrote Victory.
The girl's names are significant. When Heyst finally chooses a name for her, he adapts Magdalen to Lena, thus following a common practice of the Indonesian people, who often use the last syllable of one's name as a nickname.
Heyst knows what Lena is. To him she will always be Magdalen (a repentant prostitute). He rejects the name Alma, which means cherishing or nourishing. Yet Heyst's pity outweighs his fastidiousness. He carries the girl off to his lonely island of Samburan. In all that follows, the reader must remember the vast difference between Heyst and Lena as measured by their background, education, and habits of life.