"Ain't we men?": illusions of gender in Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the "Narcissus".
Conrad once described The Nigger of the "Narcissus" as his "effort to present a group of men held together by a common loyalty and a common perplexity in a struggle not with human enemies, but with the hostile conditions testing their faithfulness to the conditions of their own calling" (Nigger 137). At a time when Conrad was attempting "to assert his new persona as a 'manly' British author," society was struggling with the destabilization of the hierarchies and divisions between social classes and race (struggles also evident on the ship), with the changing moral and sexual codes of the day, and with an increasingly discontented female population that was challenging the ideologies that kept them bound to the domestic sphere (Messenger 2001). These societal shakeups found their way into fiction; and, as Conrad reveals, part of the struggle for the men on the Narcissus is to resituate themselves in a world where once-resolute hierarchies were being challenged on every turn. As The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Moby Dick, and countless other tales of the sea would suggest, a surefire way to reassert the patriarchal order is to create a world on the sea. There, men can live among men, and they can fulfill their common destiny. But life on the Narcissus, like the text itself, is "riven with gaps, fissures, potential break-ups, not to mention storm, starvation, and illness," to quote Miriam Marcus, and it is in these "gaps" that Conrad explores the changes occurring in the gender codes of his day (40). Conrad venerates the traditional form of masculinity wherein being a "man" is tantamount to possessing rugged strength and displaying emotional stoicism. However, this type of masculinity is also characteristically oppressive, and Conrad acknowledges that and admits that it must die away.
But Conrad had anxieties about the newly emerging forms of masculinity; and those anxieties, as evidenced by the ways in which different types of masculinity are presented, are problematized and brought to the fore in this text. For example, will men, in an attempt to prolong the life of the old definition of masculinity, plant their feet and become overly oppressive and, if so, what effects will that have on those men who do not adhere to such a stringent code? Or, will emerging definitions of masculinity go in the opposite direction and lead to the emergence of a masculinity that is overly feminized, an occurrence that would only exacerbate Conrad's anxieties? But Conrad's exploration of the changing face of gender does not end with a simplistic foray into masculinity and, although he ejects the feminine in an effort to reassert patriarchal control, there is an insistent feminine presence that looms over and under the text, continually imposing itself back into the narrative. In other words, despite the attempt to create a world without women, Conrad is ultimately unable to escape the influence of the feminine. He is compelled to address, through the feminization of the Narcissus, the ways in which gender codes were being transformed for the rising class of feminists who were attempting to disentangle themselves from the "Cult of True Womanhood," the tenets of which bound them to the domestic sphere. As he explores the changing codes of gender for women, Conrad also examines the male response to these burgeoning New Women, and The Nigger of the "'Narcissus," then, becomes a text that interrogates the very ideas of what it means to be a man and a woman in a world that was increasingly blurring the lines and codes of gender. In this paper, I shall explore the homosocial world that Conrad has created and argue that it is in this all-male world that an interrogation of masculine gender codes is made possible. It is also through his stretching and pulling of masculinity, through homoerotic tension and through his dramatic feminization of the Narcissus, that this text destabilizes gender codes and suggests that traditional notions of masculinity and femininity are actually illusions that can be transcended and reshaped.
Conrad's longtime friend Edward Garnett claimed that The Nigger of the "Narcissus" is a "masterpiece [ ... ] because the whole illusion of the sailor's life is reproduced before our eyes" (qtd in Simmons, Nigger 165). With painstaking attention to detail, Conrad ushers the reader into a world that appears to recreate the illusion of traditional nineteenth-century conceptions of masculinity. In his portrayal of the men who populate the ship, specifically Singleton, Conrad pays tribute to the physicality and dispassionate posture associated with a rugged variety of masculinity. Singleton, a "tall and fatherly man" who "resembled a learned and savage patriarch," is the archetypal seaman; he is "invested with ideal value," as Simmons puts it, and is a model of rugged masculinity (Nigger 11; Simmons, "Representing" 51). "Old Singleton, the oldest able seaman in the ship, sat apart on the deck right under the lamps, stripped to the waist, tattooed like a cannibal chief all over his powerful chest and enormous biceps [...] his bare back was propped against the heel of the bowsprit" (Nigger 5). Conrad places emphasis on the ruggedness of Singleton's body--the "muscles of his big white arms rolled slightly under the smooth skin"--and celebrates his body as a masculine force that, in part, represents the standard of manhood (Nigger 6).
Conrad also remembers that traditional masculinity entails more than just the physical body; it is also an emotional or, rather, a non-emotional state of being, as he demonstrates, once again, with Singleton, a stoic and unemotional man who "lived untouched by human emotions" (Nigger 32). Singleton had "lived unscathed, as though he had been indestructible" and "passed through many trials--known all the furies," and Conrad looks nostalgically on the heroics of men like Singleton (Nigger 73). But what Conrad also reveals is that Singleton's type of masculinity can be oppressive, as his overt physicality and emotional aloofness suggest, and he represents what Andrew Michael Roberts would call "ideological masculinity," a masculinity that "reproduces and re-enacts oppressive aspects of the masculinity of [Conrad's] time" (6). Though there are no women onboard the Narcissus, the ship itself is feminized, and Singleton's heavy-handed masculinity is demonstrated in his interactions with her. He approaches his duty on the Narcissus like a paterfamilias who sternly imposes his will, and when Singleton gives the commands, the Narcissus obeys:
Singleton seized the high lever, and, by a violent throw forward of this body, wrung out another half-turn from the brake. He recovered himself breathed largely, and remained for a while glaring down at the powerful and compact engine that squatted on the deck at his feet, like some quiet monster--a creature amazing and tame. "You ... hold!" he growled at it masterfully, in the incult tangle of his white beard. (Nigger 19-20)
Singleton is, as his name suggests, singled out--he is an example of the old tradition, and although he is venerated and called "an oracle," the type of masculinity that Singleton ascribes to is no longer a viable form of manhood, one that cannot continue to be emulated (Nigger 33). (1) He belongs to "an evolutionary stage in human history that is destined to vanish forever" and, as if to ensure that Singleton's patriarchal tendencies will go with him when he passes, the narrator refers to him as "a lonely relic of a devoured and forgotten generation" (Watt 123, 18). As a man with "a vast empty past and with no future" and who is therefore prevented from bequeathing both his knowledge of the sea as well as his tradition of manhood to others, Singleton, in the words of Geoffrey Galt Harpham, "produces nothing, and nothing claims him as its forebear" (Nigger 18; 44). The traditions that Singleton holds dear are "already dead"; even the "men who could understand his silence were gone" and, along with Singleton's death, the old patriarchal order will also die (Nigger 18). A new day is dawning--"a truth, a faith, a generation of men goes--and is forgotten, and it does not matter" (Nigger 19).
Populated with men like Singleton, the ship would be a place of unmitigated masculinity, but even as Conrad venerates that rugged masculinity, he complicates such stereotypical portrayals of men with the eroticization and coupling of the crew. Out on the open sea, detached from the land with its rules and governing ideologies, the Narcissus is, in the words of Simmons, "a microcosmic world," a world where the laws of gender are loosened and men don't have to be "men" in any oversimplified, conventionally heterosexist or patriarchal sense ("Introduction" xviii). Life onboard the Narcissus is "utopian" in the sense that Roberts uses it to mean "those moments and structures in Conrad's fiction which offer a potential transformation, ironizing or destabilizing of its own formations of masculinity" (6). Or as Bernard Meyer once put it: "Unhindered by the burdens of love and sexuality that had caused his other literary craft to drag or founder in their course, the Narcissus moved swiftly, a thing of grace and beauty, carrying her creator, in his fancy, once again into the familiar serenity of the open seas" (123). However, while there is indeed an absence of love and an absence of (hetero)sexuality, there is, in the "serenity of the open seas" a presence of homo(sexuality), at least in the ways in which the crew members are presented (Meyer 123). The forecastle, floating luxuriously in the sea, provides a space for alternative masculinities, including homoerotic tendencies, to emerge. The sea invites, as Harpham has noted, a "liberation of nonstandard sexuality," and on the Narcissus, this malleability of gender codes enables not only the eroticization of the crew, but also the possibility of homosexuality (117).
In the same way that Melville's Ishmael and Queequeg are eroticized, so too are Conrad's Scandinavians--they are "two young giants with smooth baby faces" who "helped each other to spread their bedding" (Nigger 5). Only moments later, they appear sitting on a chest "side by side, alike and placid, resembling a pair of love-birds on a perch" (Nigger 7). But the lovebirds are far from being the only couple on the ship. Indeed, Conrad couples off a number of the men on this voyage; it is not surprising to see "[m]en in couples" moving about the ship, whether they are "walking couples" or "silent couples" lounging in James Wait's cabin (Nigger 22, 25, 78). (2) And Conrad does not stop with coupling; from the opening descriptions of the major characters to the anonymous "fellows with shirts open wide on sunburnt breasts," the atmosphere is charged with homoerotic tension as the Narcissus overflows with the bodies of half-naked men (Nigger 24). The second mate is "a fair, gentlemanly young fellow, with a resolute face and a splendid physique," and another "half-undressed man" is onboard as well; Donkin joins in the display when he "unbuttoned the only two buttons that remained" on his coat, baring his "long and thin" neck and chest (Nigger 15, 7-8). There are "muscular arms" on display, while crew members walk about "bare-armed, with coloured shirts open on hairy chests" (Nigger 98, 4). As they make themselves at home onboard the ship, constricting clothing can be removed, and the conservative bounds of society are held in abeyance.
In another narrative maneuver that breaks away from the traditional representation of sea life, Conrad places his highly eroticized seamen in a highly romanticized atmosphere. W. L. Courtney once observed that Conrad "is keen to give us the right atmosphere; he will surround his characters with elaborate descriptions of sky and sea, storm and calm; he will spend pages and pages prodigal in careful touches, and deliberate word-painting" (163). But what exactly is Conrad trying to create with his "careful touches" (Courtney 163)? What type of "atmosphere" is he attempting to create, and for whom is this certainly homosocial and suggestively homoerotic scene created (Courtney 163)? (3) The atmosphere onboard the Narcissus seems more apropos for a romantic cruise ship than a ship filled with sailors, and on the first night out to sea, the Narcissus seems anything but a working ship: "They were forgetting their toil, they were forgetting themselves" as a "soft breeze [...] stirred the tumbled hair with a touch passing and light like an indulgent caress" (Nigger 25). Conrad's language echoes romance novels as he describes faces shining, eyes sparkling, and teeth flashing in the "glow of sunset" (Nigger 25).
In casting the reader's gaze upon the eroticized bodies of the crew of the Narcissus, Conrad interrogates traditional modes of representation and further complicates the already blurred code of masculinity in this text, and because he is positioning these men as sexual objects for the reader to gaze upon, Conrad calls into question the very idea of what it means to be a man in the conventional sense of the word and challenges the idea that only women could be sexualized objects. Conrad offers up one of the most intensely masculine stereotypes as a potential object of the gaze--the sailor--and effectively capsizes the ways in which the gaze is used to establish power hierarchies and assert masculine power. Laura Mulvey has argued that the female "stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning" (433). In The Nigger of the "Narcissus," however, there are no women; indeed, they are so entirely obstructed from view that they are shut out from both the act of looking and the possibility of being looked at. Without women to signify the "male other," how, then, can man "live out his fantasies and obsessions"? (Mulvey 433). The homoeroticized male body thus enters as an other to traditional representations of maleness, but while the gaze is present and it does reinforce patriarchal power, especially when Captain Allistoun uses it, it does not disempower the object of the gaze in the same way that a woman is disempowered when she becomes the object of the gaze.
First, I want to consider the ways in which Conrad preserves the use of the gaze as a way in which the gazer can assert his power over the gazee. As the visual exchanges between Captain Allistoun and James Wait demonstrate, the type of active gazing that occurs between one character and another in this text allows for the reassertion of an already existing power; it confirms the necessary hierarchical structure of the crew. Andrew Michael Roberts has observed that a
politics of the visual is involved, in the sense of a power differential between seer and seen, subject and object of the act of vision. In Conrad's fiction, the act of seeing frequently serves to establish a power relation, because this act is a product of the desire, control or supervision of the one who sees (or, in certain cases, of the one who is seen). (166-7)
This "power differential" is overwhelmingly present between James Wait and Captain Allistoun, who, following Wait's explosive encounter with Podmore, "watched [Wait] with a quiet and penetrating gaze," and following Wait's claim that he "was going back to duty ... tomorrow--now if you like--Captain," the patriarch responds, "No [...] looking at him fixedly" (Nigger 87, 88). Captain Allistoun's firm words and penetrating gaze reinforce his complete authority over Wait as well as the rest of the crew, and this is especially apparent when the captain confronts the crew about their growing discontent: he "faced them with his worn, steely gaze, that by an universal illusion looked straight into every individual pair of the twenty pairs of eyes before his face" (Nigger 98). He "gazed fixedly at their faces" when he presents the "iron belaying pin" to them, and his order to Donkin to "[p]ut it back where you took it from" is accompanied by yet another fierce look that only reaffirms the captain's role as the patriarch of the ship and possessor of the gaze (Nigger 99, 100). Captain Allistoun also serves to reinforce the conservative tradition of masculinity, and although the gaze is being utilized to reassert masculine power, the vitiating effects of the gaze that Mulvey has pointed to have been diminished because, as captain of the Narcissus, his power is based on a necessary hierarchy that is neither sexual nor gender-based.
However, there is a gaze at work here that does sexualize the crew, a gaze that does not come from the penetrating eyes of Captain Allistoun, but rather through the eyes of the narrator. Through his eyes, the bodies of the crew are sexualized, and he also invites the reader to gaze on the bodies of these men. Even Donkin, who "lounged negligently by the rail," seems more like a sexualized woman than a brutish sailor (Nigger 25). However, although Donkin is presented as a sexualized object, he refuses to be forced into passivity. The crew succumbs to the power of the gaze; they cannot resist the eroticization that the narrator imposes on them, and they cannot prevent the reader from gazing upon their bodies. However, their actions do reveal a refusal to wholly abandon their masculine power. In other words, though Conrad's descriptions sexualize the crew, they escape the disempowerment that women who become victimized by the gaze traditionally experience. Although Donkin stands on the forecastle "with the white skin of his limbs showing his human kinship through the black phantasy of his rags," he "knew how to conquer the naive instincts of that crowd," and though the reader is invited to gaze upon what seems to be a passive body, the individual attempts to "conquer" that image by behaving in a way that belies his physical passivity (Nigger 9).
By pressing against the ways in which men were traditionally presented, Conrad may have achieved a few things in this book, each one speaking to a completely different readership. For those who wanted a reassertion of a traditional, patriarchal manhood, The Nigger of the "Narcissus" would reestablish the homosocial community and escape feminine intrusion. It would restore already existing hierarchies and secure the world that is made by men and for men. It would create a space for male intimacy without the fear of homosexual involvement, for although Conrad suggests a homoerotics, there is never a confirmation of homosexual behavior; as Roberts reminds us: "there is no reason to assume that all male intimacy is sexual, any more than there is any reason to assume that it is not [...] homosexuality is neither definitely present nor definitely absent in Conrad's work, but figures as an occluded part of a homosocial structure, not as the key which undoes that structure" (9). However, for those who felt stifled by the strict nineteenth-century codes of gender, this book, with its portrayal of male sexuality and the malleable homosocial community, encourages a breaking away from the bonds of traditional masculinity. Because Conrad blurs the lines of gender in this work, introducing both ultramasculine characters such as Singleton and Captain Allistoun as well as other characters who do not conform to a traditional version of masculinity, this book would suggest that it is unnecessary to comply with a narrow version of manhood. On the Narcissus, at least, there is a space for an entirely new type of masculinity. Harpham notes that "for Conrad, the ideal society was achieved at sea," and for readers wishing to break free of antiquating gender codes, Conrad acknowledges that there are places where this can happen (114). In the Preface to this novella, Conrad wrote: "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word [...] before all, to make you see [...] and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask" (130). For Conrad's less conservative readers, the "glimpse of truth" in this text would let them "see" gender as more of a construct than as a biological factor, and that by blurring gender codes, gender can actually be pushed off stage and what emerges is a world where gender is not the determining factor in power relations at all (Nigger 130). What is troubling about this portrayal, however, is that once onshore Conrad's utopian vision is dispersed along with the members of the crew, and this dispersal foregrounds Conrad's own anxieties about the changing face of gender codes, suggesting that although he is able to escape traditional gender codes in a space that is itself wild and governed by the laws of nature, Conrad, finally, is unable to locate such a space on land, where the laws of man preside.
Unlike Singleton and Captain Allistoun, James Wait is a representation of a more ambiguously defined masculinity. Not only is he not the embodiment of a rugged seaman, but numerous gender-based tensions are also made manifest through him. He represents a problematic form of manhood that is unbalanced; within James Wait there is a space where both feminine and masculine gender roles reside and clash. It is in James Wait's character, as Hawthorn has observed, "that incoherences are to be found in the greatest abundance" (111). On the one hand, Wait is "weak and powerless," and his powerlessness--his feminine side--is demonstrated in the fact that he is called "darlin'" by Belfast and that the crew, rather than calling him a "manly" James, softens his name and "lovingly called him Jimmy" (Hawthorn 114; Nigger 49, 51, 27). On the other hand, Wait is domineering and, despite being feminized, he is overly aggressive. Possessing what Hawthorn has called "an imposing, carrying voice," James Wait uses that imperious voice to abuse and emasculate his shipmates (Hawthorn 114). He refers to them as a "blooming lot of old women"; "he trampled on our self respect, he demonstrated to us daily our want of moral courage; he tainted our lives" (Nigger 27, 36). Wait "made himself master of every moment of our existence," and he exerts a masculine control over the crew (Nigger 28). That the narrator has already eroticized the crew through his descriptions only sets the stage for the ways in which the crew is transformed into a group of midwives during the birth scene and in the way in which that feminized identity is perpetuated as they assemble around Wait's cabin.
However, that "a knot of men could always be seen congregated before Jimmy's Cabin" is also suggestive of yet another interpretation--one that sees the crew as gentlemen callers lingering about the door of their beloved (Nigger 78). At any rate, James Wait is the impetus for the feminization of the crew and for what Conrad's conservative readers would likely see as a decline in masculinity, and the breach in Wait's masculinity exaggerates the growing fracture in the masculinity of the crew, as if Conrad were trying to warn his readers about the pernicious effects that degenerative masculinity can have. He is what Nigel Messenger calls a "figure of abjection," referencing Julia Kristeva's idea of abject. Messenger continues, and defines the abject as "what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite" (Messenger). Wait's masculinity disrupts the idea of nineteenth-century masculinity; he is "the in-between" that represents both masculinity and femininity in their worst, most stereographical forms, and Conrad warns his conservative readers about the "infernal spell" that degraded masculinity can have on the "guileless manhood" of those who appear to be unyielding in their manhood, which is another reason that Wait must die--to prevent the further degeneration of masculinity (Messenger; Nigger 28).
Nevertheless, the masculinity that unites the crew points to an alternative masculinity that escapes the overbearing type of manhood that Wait represents and also challenges the conventional rough and rugged stereotypes connected to able-bodied seamen such as Singleton and Captain Allistoun. Following Wait's rescue from his cabin after the storm, the language used to portray Wait actually infantilizes him further and emasculates the crew: "He wouldn't stand; he wouldn't even as much as clutch at our necks [...] his arms and legs swung jointless as pliable; his head rolled about; the lower lip hung down enormous and heavy," and the crew, already resembling midwives, takes on an even more maternal role as they "pressed around him [...] protecting him [....] We literally passed him from hand to hand" (Nigger 53). And even in their speech, the crew invokes the language used when a baby is passed from one person to the next: "We cried:---'Got him?'--'Yes. All right. Let go'" (Nigger 54). Although it is ephemeral, this moment in which the crew gently passes Wait from one hand to the next suggests yet another alternative form of masculinity, one that has the power to fortify male bonds within the homosocial community and create a way for men to achieve solidarity.
Hawthorn has argued that The Nigger of the "Narcissus" is filled with what he calls "inconsistencies"--the "manipulation of point of view" and the fact that "the crew [...] is presented to the reader in strangely contradictory ways"--which problematize the narrative and make it seem "in many ways [... like] an apprentice piece" (104, 107, 115). While I agree that the ambiguities in the characters do present the reader with an intriguing challenge--it is indeed odd that Singleton can read Pelham, but must sign an "X" to collect his pay--I have hesitations about Hawthorn's assertion that there are "fundamental disunities which present the reader with insoluble and, finally, artistically unrewarding puzzles, rather than with aesthetically productive challenges" (102). I would suggest rather that it is in these very "disunities" that Conrad is able to do his most important work, especially as it relates to gender (Hawthorn 102). Roberts has observed that "the gender binary" is essentially elided in this sea tale, but that it is present "in the form of supposedly feminine or masculine qualities" in the crew, particularly in Belfast, who possesses a "curious passion" and is the singlemost feminized character on the Narcissus (Roberts 56). As has been shown, it is because of the inconsistencies in Wait's character that Conrad can explore the changing face of masculinity and make postulations about the ramifications of those changes.
Roberts maintains that "Conrad's description of Belfast's behavior seems a satire of that form of sentimental male protectiveness (usually directed toward women) that serves to justify violence and aggression," and though Belfast's extreme behavior can be seen as parody, I would suggest that to end the discussion here seems reductive (56). The masculine-feminine disunities in Belfast's character are profoundly more complex than "satire" (Roberts 56). Belfast is, at times, an acerbic, visceral man who "abused the ship violently [...] just to give the new hands something to think over"; he wants to be perceived as forceful and recalcitrant. "That's the kind of man I am," he claims after telling a clearly fabricated story of capsizing his tar-pot "all over [the] blamed loved face and [...] lovely jacket" of the second mate of another ship (Nigger 4, 7). The image of little Belfast dumping tar over the second mate seems comedic on the surface, but it also reveals a frightening imbalance in his masculinity; for, like Wait, Belfast's masculine traits are of the most violent and dangerous type. His temper erupts haphazardly; "emotional little Belfast was for ever on the verge of assault or on the verge of tears," and his explosive behavior tends to alienate him from the crew because his tearful explosions "generally ended in a fight with someone" (Nigger 28, 126).
But Belfast's exaggerated displays of masculinity are belied by his increasingly womanish behavior. First, he seeks out a relationship with a man who eventually abuses him, and obsequiously yields to him from the beginning. In an attempt to seduce Wait, Belfast even steals the officer's Sunday fruit pie, to "tempt the fastidious appetite of Jimmy," and Conrad's erotic undertones foreshadow the type of relationship that will develop between the two (Nigger 28-9). Ian Watt has observed that Belfast "hunger[s] for an object of devotion," and Wait fills that need (105). It is Belfast who is the first to affectionately call Wait "Jimmy," and he is the only person to refer lovingly to him as "Jimmy, darlin'" (Nigger 105, 27, 49, 51). Without a doubt, Belfast's entire life on the Narcissus revolves around gratifying James Wait, regardless of the fact that his own heart is broken and he is made miserable in the process. Second, Belfast exhibits behavior that gives him the countenance of a hysterical woman. He shrieks and screams, and is called "illogical Belfast" by the crew (Nigger 29). (4) Throughout his stormy relationship with Wait, Belfast is entirely driven by his emotions, and his erratic behavior is exacerbated when he is in Wait's presence--one moment the crew fears that Belfast will "strangle Wait without more ado" and in the "[n]ext moment we saw Belfast hanging over him. He was saying plaintively:--'Don't! Don't, Jimmy! Don't be like that. An angel couldn't put up with ye--sick as ye are.' He looked round at us from Jimmy's bedside, his comical mouth twitching, and through tearful eyes, then he tried to put right the disarranged blankets" (Nigger 29). Finally, as the relationship progresses, Wait and Belfast begin to resemble a married couple with domestic problems, and what is of concern in this "marriage" are the roles that each "partner" takes and the dangers of such roles. Wait is an abusive husband who calls Belfast a "little Irish lunatic" and violently shoves him when he offers a shoulder for Wait to lean on (Nigger 29, 88). In some sense prefiguring other abused partners in Conrad's fiction, Belfast's resemblance to an abused wife is uncanny; he lovingly "tended him, talked to him; was as gentle as a woman," he helps the dying Wait to bed, and often completes the task with tears in his eyes (Nigger 29, 96, 104). Throughout their entire relationship, Belfast only wants to mollify the acerbic Wait, who both depends on him and abuses him in return. When Wait dies, Belfast resembles a grieving widow; "Belfast took his bereavement very hard. He gave proofs of unextinguishable devotion" (Nigger 116). He is "overcome with sorrow, dropping tears on the tarred twine" as he and the sailmaker sew a burial shroud (Nigger 116). Upon reaching London, Belfast emotionally appeals to Captain Allistoun for a tangible object, something that will remind him of the deceased Wait (Nigger 125).
The final image of Belfast shows him having a "crying fit" as "two bulky policemen" watch "with a disapproving and incorruptible gaze," and, once again, Belfast's fractured masculinity is disconcerting; his emotional outbursts suggest that he has become overly feminized, and the fact that two police officers are watching the display suggests that Belfast has gone too far in breaking the codes of gender (Nigger 126). His character serves as an admonition to warn men away from such decadent displays of unmanly behavior. But Belfast also speaks to female readers. Because he is so feminized and takes on many characteristics of a weak, victimized female, Belfast teaches women about the dangers of becoming trapped in an abusive relationship. Belfast lost himself in James Wait, and after Wait's death, he is left with nothing; his experience is a caveat that warns women about the dangers of identifying themselves through a man.
Conrad's birth scene, in which the ship is transformed into a laboring woman who gives birth to James Wait, transforms Conrad's all-male world into a place of ubiquitous femininity. (5) Conrad's feminization of the Narcissus is in and of itself little more than a trope--all ships are female--but the birth scene does much more than break pedestrian codes of fiction; the feminization of the ship foments an explosion of gender codes that speaks specifically to a female readership. Conrad, in his brilliant portrayal of the ship, exposes the mythification of femininity and demonstrates the complexity of what it means to be a "New Woman." (6) On the one hand, the ship represents the ideal, or True, woman who labors and gives birth like an adored wife. Captain Allistoun "loved his ship," and during the monsoon his role as husband/protector is amplified: "he never took his eyes off the ship. He watched every motion; he kept his gaze riveted upon her as a loving man who watches the unselfish toil of a delicate woman, upon the slender thread of whose existence is hung the whole meaning and joy of the world" (Nigger 23, 37-8). However, what is inextricably linked to this love is the male gaze and, unlike the ways in which the gaze operates from one crew member to another, when the gaze is focused on the feminized Narcissus, she becomes weak and passive, fully defined by the way in which she is perceived: "We all watched her. She was beautiful and had a weakness. We loved her no less for that" (Nigger 38). The crew celebrates the Narcissus's passivity and gaze upon her in the same way that they would gaze upon a beautiful woman. She represents the idealization of all that is feminine, and Conrad's evocation of the language of romance novels emphasizes the female's objectified place:
The moonlight clung to her like a frosted mist, and the white sails stood out in dazzling cones, as of stainless snow. In the magnificence of the phantom rays the ship seems pure and like a vision of ideal beauty, illusive like a tender dream of serene peace. And nothing in her was real, nothing was distinct and solid but the moving shadows that filled her decks. (Nigger 107)
The Narcissus is lionized for her ideal beauty and virginal purity, and for her submissiveness and ability to be acted upon rather than one who acts. Roberts has observed that "[w]hen looking is an activity shared among men looking at a woman or at a feminized object, matters of power, desire, fantasy and control are inescapably present," and because the Narcissus is identified by the ways in which she is perceived, the male who gazes upon her is in control (176). She was created by and for men, and she represents, ironically, a way for them to escape the feminine world of domesticity that remains onshore. "Nothing in her was real"; she is a surface being with no depth, nothing within herself that contributes to her own state of being--she is literally an empty vessel, comprised of the shadows of men who determine her meaning (Nigger 107).
But as Edward Garnett observed, the Narcissus, at times, has a life of her own: "the ship is seen as a separate thing of life, with a past and a destiny, floating in the midst of the immense mysterious universe around it" (165). At a time when women were expected to acquiesce to the superiority of men, New Women were challenging the patriarchal order and demanding the right to create their own destiny, which meant broadening their role in political society, having a choice in marriage, career, and even sexual matters. Although Conrad's physical descriptions of the Narcissus would suggest that she is merely an object, he also reveals the struggle of New Women to escape that narrow role. Conrad's words, which, in some readings, reveal the disparities between the social classes, also reveal a burgeoning awareness of feminine oppression: "We were oppressed by the injustice of the world, surprised to perceive how long we had lived under its burden without realising [sic] our unfortunate state, annoyed by the uneasy suspicion of our undiscerning stupidity" (Nigger 75). And in a passage that portrays the Narcissus as a solitary entity moving about in the open sea, Conrad's feminist readers would discover a new politics of women's self-assertion:
A great circular solitude moved with her, ever changing and ever the same, always monotonous and always imposing. Now and then another wandering white speck, burdened with life, appeared far off--disappeared; intent on its own destiny. The sun looked upon her all day, and every morning rose with a burning, round stare of undying curiosity. She had her own future; she was alive with the lives of those beings who trod her decks; like that earth which had given her up to the sea, she had an intolerable load of regrets and hopes. On her lived timid truth and audacious lies; and, like the earth, she was unconscious, fair to see--and condemned by men to an ignoble fate. The august loneliness of her path lent dignity to the sordid inspiration of her pilgrimage. She drove foaming southward, as if guided by the courage of a high endeavor. The smiling greatness of the sea dwarfed the extent of time. The days raced after one another, brilliant and quick like the flashes of a lighthouse, and the nights, eventful and short, resembled fleeting dreams. (Nigger 23)
Desiring to escape the bounds of the domestic sphere, New Women were "intent on [their] own destin[ies]" and wanted to design their "own future[s]" (Nigger 23). The New Woman was "alive" with passion, and this passage reveals the tensions caused by the early feminists as they attempted to forge a new "path" for women (Nigger 23). The New Woman knows the "audacious lies" of patriarchy, and attempts to reveal the "timid truth" to others (Nigger 23). If the male characters in this tale reveal a sea of anxiety-ridden masculinity and the Narcissus represents the feminine spirit that continually reasserts itself, then Conrad has indeed captured the essence of the feminist spirit as he envisions the Narcissus as a New Woman carrying an "intolerable load of regrets and hopes" through a world that looks upon her with "undying curiosity" (Nigger 23).
Marianne DeKoven has called Conrad's sea "the power of the absolute," and Ian Watt has asserted that it possesses an "imperative power" (83, 96). And considering the way in which the sea wars against the feminized Narcissus, I would agree with these assessments. During the storm in the Cape of Good Hope, the sea's masculine qualities are intensified as the Narcissus increasingly takes on the characteristics of a laboring woman about to give birth. The Narcissus "rolled, restless, from side to side, like a thing in pain" when the "merciless" sea goes on the attack and "board[s] the ship time after time in unappeasable fury" (Nigger 37). Once again, Conrad invokes the image of an abusive patriarch; the "sea smashed one of the galley doors"; "[t]remendous, dull blows made the ship tremble, while she rolled under the weight of the seas toppling on her deck," and when the ship responds, her countenance is of a frightened woman (Nigger 39, 40). She "appeared to lose heart altogether [....] She refused to rise, and bored her way sullenly through the seas" (Nigger 39). Yet the unrelenting sea continues its assault: a "big, foaming sea came out of the mist; it made for the ship, roaring wildly, and in its rush it looked as mischievous and discomposing as a madman with an axe" (Nigger 43). As the struggle continues, Conrad demonstrates the ways in which masculine forces brutally impose their will on women attempting to "stand up": "the great sea came running up aft and hung for a moment over us, with a curling top; then crashed down under the counter and spread out on both sides into a great sheet of bursting froth" (Nigger 64). But the Narcissus is empowered; she forcefully fights back: "suddenly with an unexpected jerk [she] swung violently to windward, as though she had torn herself out from a deadly grasp. The whole immense volume of water, lifted by her deck, was thrown bodily across to starboard" (Nigger 65). Conrad is unwilling to allow such brutal displays of masculinity go unchecked, and although the Narcissus is "devastated, battered, and wounded she drove foaming northward, as though inspired by the courage of a high endeavor" (Nigger 70). These depictions of feminine tenacity belie the perceptions of a Conrad who would keep women bound to their domestic spaces; instead, they reveal a Conrad who would make room for women in public spaces and suggest that women too can break free of conventional ideas about gender. (7)
Despite the persistence of some obvious anxieties about those changes, the sea is an idealized space where Conrad is free to experiment with traditional gender codes. Land, however, is a place of bounds. It is a looming mother figure that "towered up immense and strong, guarding priceless traditions and untold suffering, sheltering glorious memories and base forgetfulness, ignoble virtues and splendid transgressions" (Nigger 120). The land is "anchored in the open sea," immobile, and she shelters antiquated traditions and conventions (Nigger 120). Consequently, when the Narcissus joins the other "lifeless ships" at port and the weight of society thrusts itself upon her, her life must end; the "dust of all the continents leaped upon her deck, and a swarm of strange men, clambering up her sides, took possession of her in the name of the sordid earth. She had ceased to live" (Nigger 122). Land, with its unyielding moral codes and conventions, is the death of the Narcissus, and Conrad, with his anxieties about gender, is compelled to symbolically silence the burgeoning feminist voice. Similarly, Conrad's alternative forms of masculinity cannot survive on land, and the crew, along with their various types of manhood, is dispersed and taken up by the society in which they live. Donkin asks, "Ain't we men?," and this book responds, "Yes, but there is more than one way to define that word" (Nigger 83). Thus, The Nigger of the "Narcissus" concludes, and the reader is left with a book that, on the one hand, looks back nostalgically on the world of Singletons and Waits, but recognizes the problems of such a world. On the other hand, Conrad looks cautiously toward a world that is unstoppably in the process of becoming and, although he is finally unready to bring that world into fruition, that he has imagined an alternative suggests that he is, at the very least, willing to consider a world where gender is no longer essentialized and where biology does not limit the roles that people play.
Carabine, Keith. Joseph Conrad: Critical Assessments Volume 1: Conrad's Polish Heritage, Memories, and Impressions, Contemporary and Early Responses. Mount-field, United Kingdom: Helm, 1992.
Conrad, Joseph. Last Essays. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1926.
--. The Nigger of the "Narcissus." Ed. Allan Simmons. London: Everyman, 1997.
Courtney, W. L. Rev. of The Nigger of the "Narcissus," by Joseph Conrad. Simmons, Nigger 163.
Crane, Stephen. "Concerning the English Academy." Carabine 262-3.
DeKoven, Marianne. Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Garnett, Edward. Rev. of The Nigger of the "Narcissus," by Joseph Conrad. Simmons, Nigger 165.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. One of Us: The Mastery of Joseph Conrad. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Hawthorn, Jeremy. Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment. London: Edward Arnold, 1990.
Jones, Susan. Conrad and Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Marcus, Miriam. "Writing, Race, and Illness in The Nigger of the "Narcissus." The Conradian 23.1 (1998): 37-50.
Messenger, Nigel. "'We did not want not lose him': Jimmy Wait as the Figure of Abjection in Conrad's The Nigger of the "Narcissus.'" Critical Survey 13.1 (2001): 62-79. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. U of Maryland Lib. College Park, MD. http://search.epnet.com. Accesssed 13 August 2006.
Meyer, Bernard C., M. D. Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993. 432-42.
Roberts, Andrew Michael. Conrad and Masculinity. London: Macmillan, 2000.
Simmons, Allan. Introduction. The Nigger of the "Narcissus." London: Everyman, 1997. xvii-xxxvii.
--. "Representing 'the Simple and the Voiceless': Story-telling in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus.'" The Conradian 24 (1999): 43-57.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.
Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
[Zangwill, I]. Rev. of The Nigger of the "Narcissus," by Joseph Conrad. Carabine 258-9.
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, COLLEGE PARK
(1.) In Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, Ian Watt observes that "Conrad does not pretend that Singleton is a viable model in the contemporary world" (124).
(2.) See also Harpham's One of Us.
(3.) Harpham has referred to this romanticized scene as "a portrayal of dreamtime at sea," but he is quick to note that for readers perceptive to Conrad's homoerotics, the scene also evokes "an altogether different interpretation, of life at sea as a floating bathhouse" (118).
(4.) Nigel Messenger, too, has observed that Wait "induces emotional hysteria in Belfast."
(5.) See Marianne DeKoven's discussion of Conrad and the maternal in Rich and Strange.
(6.) See Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's Disorderly Conduct.
(7.) Susan Jones writes convincingly about the construction of Conrad's image as a man who writes only for men, and claims that it is her purpose to "challenge the prevailing image of Conrad and to offer an alternative to its tenacious hold on the critical tradition" (5).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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