Racism and The Nigger of the "Narcissus".
The opening scene of the tale is arresting, and it sets the stage. Members of the cast--Baker, Belfast, Wamibo the Russian Finn, the two Norwegians, Singleton--are shown, while the Captain, off-stage, is referred to--almost a kind of portrait gallery. The importance of the Merchant Service to the thematics is clear from the outset; in a letter to Arthur Quiller-Couch of 23 December 1897, Conrad said: "it has been my desire to do for seamen what Millet ... has done for peasants." (CL I 430-31) Then there occurs the delayed, dramatic entrance of the Afro-Caribbean Wait that focuses all eyes on the "nigger" and draws attention to his surname. When he first cries it out, it seems a verb and sounds like a command. Eugene B. Redmond points out "the Wait-late equation and the weight-burden/ed pairing" (Redmond 361), meanings generated by the evocative name, increasingly important as the narrative unfolds. In as far as Wait is first presented as tall, impressive, "disdainful" and capable of imposing his will on the white sailors, "standing easy" while manipulating them to carry his baggage before he is credited with illness, he builds himself up as a figure invested with dignity, calm and confident, perhaps in a conscious maneuver to compensate for his weak and isolated position, a kind of preemptive defense and pose of superiority, not to be dissipated by the term "nigger." Nowhere in the narrative, here nor elsewhere (as in Belfast's attempts to make him comfortable), is there a sign of a color bar, but racism, introduced by the reference to Wait as "the nigger" and used constantly, becomes increasingly prominent, heralded by the description: "a head powerful and misshapen, with a tormented and flattened face--a face pathetic and brutal; the tragic, the mysterious, the repulsive mask of a niggers soul" (Nigger 11). Specifically applied to Wait, it is then generalized. "Mask" maintains the aura of dignity and possible worth with which the delineation of Wait begins, contributing to our fascination with the revelation we wait for as we read on to know the heart of the mystery. But "the mask" is not really a mask as, when it is stripped away, the "soul" too is "repulsive"--brutal, craven, driven by nothing nobler than indolence and craving for physical comfort. Not a nice picture of an African. The fact that Wait is preceded by Donkin, contemptible, his worst characteristics highlighted without subtlety, signals that two disruptive forces have entered the ship.
It is not valid to argue simplemindedly that Conrad and the narrators are not one, that the racism is not Conrads but the narrators'. It is true that the narrative point of view changes. This has long been a centre of argument. Broadly speaking, the narrative voice shifts between a detached, third-person omniscient narrator and a first-person narrator who is a member of the crew. The first-person narrator can identify with the seamen (as "we"), or maybe a member of the crew but detached from them (the seamen then become "they"). There are variations within this continuum. Rather than adopting a post-Conrad critics' view on this matter, it is sounder to look at it from an authorial perspective. I then see it as narrative flexibility rather than "narrative incoherence" (Lothe 162). At this time, modern though Conrad may be, E.M. Forster, for instance, maintained the right of the author to speak in the text as Jane Austen, Dickens and George Eliot did. Indeed, by employing a combination of narrators, Conrad seems to be trying to project a multi-faceted, stable, objective view to which the reader could relate. Conrad's structure and plurality of points of view are perhaps unorthodox but innovative and enabling. Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) is only one among the contemporary reviewers who complained (in the Academy) that the tale had "no plot." (Sherry 95) As playwright and presenter of vignettes, Zangwill (more blunt than most) would be almost obsessively concerned with obvious cause-and-effect connection. Plot, in the sense of unobtrusive linkages, would be invisible to such as Zangwill: Belfast's account of his act of insubordination, Donkins dwelling on seamen's rights as well as Wait's barely veiled challenge to Baker's dignity during the opening, point forward to the aborted mutiny and tension between officers and crew. Furthermore, there is the sense of a developing plot line in the changing perspectives on Wait's illness and the consequences of these for the authority-crew interaction--combined, of course, with the fluctuations in the weather. After all, Conrad does occupy a transitional position as 19th-century realism is succeeded by early 20th-century modernism. The Nigger of the "Narcissus" straddles both phases. The narrators merge into a singular, the first-person "I"-narrator at the conclusion, necessary artistically, to bid the crew good-bye at the completion of the voyage and, autobiographically, for Conrad himself to add the valedictory touch to his "tribute" and to his own sea-going career/ experiences.
Conrad, then, is implicated in the accounts of the narrators, especially the omniscient narrator and the "they"-narrator (and, of course, the T'-narrator), and, certainly, when they harp on the "niggerness" of the "nigger" (the term is used by the crew as well as the narrators). Conrad used the term "nigger" when speaking to G. Jean-Aubry about the tale (Jean-Aubry I 77). It is not for nothing that Conrad gives Comrade Ossipon, the worst of the revolutionists in The Secret Agent, a face of "the Negro type" (Secret Agent 50). In Nostromo, the baseness of the revolutionary Montero brothers is indicated in that their appearance argued "the presence of some Negro blood" (Nostromo 320). In his "Author's Note" to Victory, Conrad wrote: "a certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti ... fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal, to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards" ("Authors Note," Victory lviii-lix). Importantly, Makola in "An Outpost of Progress" is cunning, manipulative, and even evil, though it is possible to be also amused by the manner in which he manages the white managers.
It is true that there was a Negro sailor aboard the "Duke of Sutherland" and one aboard the "Narcissus" during the short time Conrad worked on these ships as ordinary seaman and second mate respectively (Jean-Aubry I 77, 52-4). Conrad went to the Congo and met Africans there. He knew that there were widespread prejudices against Negroes: when The Nigger of the "Narcissus" was first published in America (30 November 1897), he changed the title, adopted in editions in Britain since the first (1897), to The Children of the Sea "in deference to American prejudices" (Ehrsam 266). (2) In England, W.L. Courtney, the Liberal Daily Telegraph's reputed reviewer, objected to the racism of the tale's "ugliest conceivable title." (Sherry 85-86) But the conventional views were so influential and insidious that even people such as Conrad succumbed unwittingly to such prejudices. He was no worse than, say, Thackeray. From New York, Thackeray wrote thus to Mrs Carmichael-Smyth in 1852: "I want to see slaves and slave countries with my own eyes. I don't believe Blacky is my man and my brother, though God forbid I should own him or flog him, or part him from his wife and children" (Thackeray 187). The conventional influences were so potent that his experiences of the South only serve to confirm and extend his attitudes: "They are not my men and brethren, these strange people. ... Sambo is not my man and brother; the very aspect of his face is grotesque and inferior" (Thackeray 198). W.E. Henley and his Circle were opposed to "treating blacks as equals." (McDonald 33) The undeniable racism of The Nigger of the "Narcissus"reflects both its time and the prejudice of its author. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad recognizes the rooted vitality and power of the African response to life and intellectually understands the African, (3) but in that case he seems to have transcended himself.
The title The Children of the Sea is understandable, given that the community of seamen occupies the position of the central character in the tale. It does sound vaguely sentimental, yet it catches the streak of nostalgia evident in the narrative, especially prominent at the close. From one perspective, Conrad was right to state in "To My Readers in America," his "introductory note" to the 1914 Doubleday, Page (New York) edition of The Nigger:
Its pages are the tribute of my unalterable and profound affection for the ships, the seamen, the winds and the great sea--the moulders of my youth, the companions of the best years of my life. (Nigger 168)
The title The Nigger of the "Narcissus," alliterative and crisp, however, is more to the point and packs more punch. In the same "note," he wrote of Wait: "in the book he is nothing" (Nigger 168). As the main focus of the narrative is on the interaction of authority and the seamen/the hoi poloi, he is meant to be only a catalyst, the nigger in the woodpile. Moreover, as the charismatic figure turning into a gibbering coward, he is "nothing." But he is the most prominent of the characters and, as Conrad goes on to add, "the centre of the ship's collective psychology and the pivot of the action" (Nigger 168). He is also the most important and most fully portrayed of the Negroes in Conrad's oeuvre. It is true that, as Conrad wrote: "the sea [is] the only world that counted, and the ships the test of manliness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity--and of love" (Shadow-Line 73). Yet the more searching test in Conrad's major nautical narratives is always imparted by human problems, in this case by Wait. In The Nigger of the "Narcissus," then, Conrad is aiming to perform two tasks: to project the texture of sea life as he experienced it, inviting the reader into a dimension unknown to him/her except perhaps vaguely; and to project the puzzle of Wait. It engenders minor infractions of discipline that disturb the habit of submissiveness of the crew to authority, particularly as they respond to Donkin's demagogy. The reader realizes the extent to which tension rises, and the danger of conflict is quelled by the unshaken firmness of the officers. "The threatened mutiny founders when the crew re-enter the matrix of duty and collective responsibility" (Simmons 55).
A. J. Guerard considers Wait as "the Negro" (Guerard 110). Wait does have features typical of his race in physique and, in the appalling description of the omniscient narrator quoted above, in "soul." But, contrary to this description, as Wait enacts his role, he does not appear an archetype of his race in character and, in fact, Conrad does not present him as such. Indeed, it would have been absurd to attempt this. Negroes are like all other races in this respect: individuals possess qualities in common, but they constitute an immense variety and belong to diverse social groups or classes. One may imagine a Negro typical of a group or class, but not of his race as a whole. Wait as a Negro in a British forecastle represents aspects of the life of Negroes in such a position. Conrad himself made a relevant statement in "To My Readers in America": "A Negro in a British forecastle is a lonely being" (Nigger 168). Captain Allistoun observed: "One lone black beggar amongst the lot of us" (Nigger 78). Wait is, indeed, isolated, but this isolation is, in the main, of his own making--as a consequence of his egoism and as an aid to dissimulation. He is, in fact, highly individualistic. He claims that he is gravely ill and even close to death. He thinks he is using illness, even death, as a pretext to malinger. But Wait is unable to gauge accurately the degree of seriousness of his sickness, presumably tuberculosis if the reader is to judge by the symptoms he displays. (4) He is bluffing to the seamen and, ironically, he is bluffing himself as well because he is more ill than he knows. His appearance and conduct make it extremely difficult for the white seamen to distinguish between the "reality" and the "sham" (Nigger 22). The narrator, as he would do in real life, falls back partly on a conventional racist formulation: "a nigger does not show" (Nigger 27). This points to a part of the tangled truth. Wait, indeed, does not want to "show" and, what is more, does not know how much he is showing. Moreover, the fact that Wait is black robs the white crew of the ability to judge his health by pallor. More importantly, Wait deliberately exerts an imposing, even charismatic effect: his late (dramatic) presentation of himself; his use of scorn as a weapon, a quality he shares with Makola in "An Outpost of Progress" and the black boy who announces Kurtz's death in Heart of Darkness; indeed, his use of language itself as such is a kind of weapon, an educated English meant to be different from, and even superior to, seamens speech and intended to overawe the crew and even the officers (he tells Baker during their opening exchange of words: "You misapprehended"(Nigger 11).
Wait's flaunting of "death" is disturbing to the seamen, given that, ironically, it is close to them too while at sea, especially during the storm, and underlined by the imagery during both the normal and abnormal weather: for instance, "Over the white rims of berths stuck out heads with blinking eyes; but the bodies were lost in the gloom of those places, that resembled narrow niches for coffins in a white washed and lighted mortuary" (Nigger 4, this hints at death's dominion); "The double row of berths yawned black, like graves tenanted by uneasy corpses" (Nigger 13); "He [Wait, during the storm] was as quiet as a dead man inside a grave; and, like men standing above a grave, we were on the verge of tears" (Nigger 42). The seamen are as intimate with death as Wait makes out he is. The recurrent imagery of darkness and death is closely related to sides of the problem posed by Wait. "Death" is indeed a major strand in the tale. Jimmy's surname in its various suggestive ramifications does resound throughout the narrative. Jimmy has to wait, crushing down doubts and fears. Jimmy is a dead weight on the spirits of everybody on board: "We had no songs and no music in the evening, because Jimmy (we all lovingly called him Jimmy, to conceal our hate of his accomplice) had managed, with that prospective decease of his, to disturb even Archie's mental balance" (Nigger 22). The seamen wait upon Jimmy and everybody is waiting for his death. Death waits for Jimmy and all his shipmates.
In the early phases of the narrative, Conrad suggests that Wait's illness is partly pretence and partly truth, but does not disclose the degree of dissimulation and genuineness, and, partly as a consequence of this, the reader himself/herself is drawn in to grapple with the puzzle posed by Wait. Both Wait and the white seamen are unaware of the degree of illness. The prose conveys the predicament of the seamen with precision and Wait's situation with an effective ambiguity. Equivocalness thus becomes a layered theme, enriched by a whole range of ambivalent responses to Jimmy drawn out by the ambiguity of his state of health: "We served him in his bed with rage and humility.... We grew desperate and remained submissive" (Nigger 23). Conrad is not dealing with a simple instance of dishonesty. He is contemplating the complex ironies of a case where pretence is hard to distinguish from the objectively true. Wait's power lies in his illness and the obligation to indulge, give in and humor the sick in order to comfort them. He bullies the seamen by his whimpering reminders of his illness. Moral blackmail is his chief weapon. William A. Johnsen claims that Conrad does "not commit himself finally to either accusing or exonerating Wait" (Johnsen, 117, his emphasis). Surely, Wait stands accused.
Wait and Donkin form an important contrast in the tale. While Wait exploits the natural goodness and compassion of the rest, he responds well to Donkin (he gifts material comforts of the sort Donkin who broods enviously over "the well-filled sea-chests" of the others, would value)--not to buy his silence, but in grudging recognition of the fact that Donkin sees through him and will not let himself be manipulated--simply because Donkin lacks the instinctive humane reactions of the others who allow Jimmy to extort their pity (even when he responds by being nasty to them) and their services (even though they resent it): "Donkin ... told Jimmy that he was a 'black fraud'; hinted to us that we were an imbecile lot, daily taken in by a vulgar nigger. And Jimmy seemed to like the fellow!" (Nigger 25). Donkin's strength is seated in the fact that he has no natural goodness; in Shakespeare's words, Donkin
... any print of goodness wilt not take,
Being capable of all ill! (The Tempest, I.ii.352-53.)
At the beginning, Wait gains in impressiveness by contrast with Donkin who is paltry and mean. Wait is arrogant but Donkin cannot be so, given the circumstances in which he is placed. Wait's dignity is undercut when he is shown as a manipulator and slacker, while Donkin too turns out to be a slacker and a would-be manipulator. Both are equally indolent and selfish. At the start, the crew donates clothes to Donkin but, unlike Wait, he is unable to acquire their sympathy. Claude Lanzmann wrote; "A novel is a microcosm: if the only coward in it is a Jew, and the only Jew a coward, an inclusive if not a universal relation is established between these two terms." (Qtd Beauvoir 387). If one applies Lanzmann's paradigm to Negroes and to this tale (without taking the untenable position that negative qualities should not attach to characters who are Jews and Negroes), it turns out that Wait, the Negro, and Donkin, the white European, possess undesirable qualities in common. Conrad thus is not guilty of the extreme form of racism whereby turpitude is regarded as the preserve of a single race. Cedric Watts is right to assert: "On the moral scale, Donkin, a white man, is undoubtedly far worse than Wait" (Watts xxvi). But this does not absolve Conrad of the charge of racism--of a grave sort.
Wait matters even during the storm: "We had so far saved him; and it had become a personal matter between us and the sea" (Nigger 44). The two major problems, Wait and the storm, interpenetrate. Thereby, Conrad makes the problems of the seamen as acute as possible in the given context and tests the very essentials of their character and their values. Wait manages to exercise some sort of moral hold or supremacy to dominate the whites as long as he maintains his aloof, amused stance. His moral ascendancy breaks down when the whites witness his behavior during his rescue from his cabin--which strips him of all claims to respect. He is arrogant till he is confronted with death. During the storm, in his cabin, he screams in shrill, continuous terror. His lost dignity as he howls and gibbers during his rescue, his awareness that death is close, physical tiredness, all of these contribute to peel away the elegance of his speech. "Nigger" is identified as an insulting/humiliating term (even so far back--understandable given its connection to the horrifying history of slavery in America) in the text when Wait tells Belfast after the rescue: "You wouldn't call me nigger if I wasn't half dead, you Irish beggar!" (Nigger 49). Wait himself is not making a "racist retort" (Simmons 57) but a mere retaliatory gesture and also, more importantly, revealing his sense of his own greatness which still lingers. At this stage in the narrative, racist language becomes more prominent in the depiction of Wait and the narrator partakes of the tradition of equating colored people with animals: Wait has "wool," not hair (Nigger 43), "rolling eyes" (Nigger 43), "... a thing of instinct--the unthinking stillness of a scared brute" (Nigger 72), "panted fast like a dog after a run" (Nigger 75),a "scared brute" (Nigger 78). As Wait fears death, he cannot be "a symbol of death" (Miller, Jr. 19) or "A Death" (Guerard 109). When one tries to recall an effective symbolic projection of death, one still thinks of Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale." Wait is reduced to almost the comic/ludicrous figure of the nigger minstrel. His deceitfulness, manipulative exploitation, lack of principles, total selfishness and ungratefulness--all combine to show him up as the Other, a black set apart from the whites who respond unselfishly (if frequently resentfully) to his demands. The emotional Belfast steals the officers' Sunday fruit pie (a status symbol) entirely to tempt the appetite of Wait who grumbles about the food brought considerately to his bedside, but Belfast gets no thanks for his pains. In fact, Wait says the pie aggravated his illness. In a scene after the storm, Podmore the cook brings Wait a pot of cold tea for drinking at night "sweetened with some white cabin sugar" (another status symbol), and adds "it won't break the ship," uneasily salving his tender conscience (Nigger 70). Belfast is the male most feminized in the tale, but this has nothing to do with homoeroticism. The initial impressiveness of Wait and the strong demand for pity and protectiveness exerted by his illness, work on the emotionally facile Belfast. He behaves like a wife to Wait: he cares for him, fusses and even grows hysterical over him. The narrator catches the thin edge of a wife both adoring and infuriated by a husband at the same time in Belfast's clamor as the crew try to break down the door of Waits cabin when he is trapped in there during the storm: "Knock! Jimmy darlint!.... Knock! You bloody beast!" (Nigger 42). Conrad's irony, springing from the disparity between the intensity of Belfast's feelings and the true nature of its object, does show up Belfast as silly, sentimental and ridiculous, but Belfast is also seen as revealing genuine unselfishness and decency especially to the dying Wait, a contrast to Donkin's thieving exploitation. Wait is unlike all the whites except for Donkin--obviously, the Other.
After the storm, Wait is a shadow of his former self despite his attempts to recapture it. He is now aware that he is deteriorating physically and close to death. This is evident to the crew (and now, ironically, they dissemble to Wait) and the reader too: "He was becoming immaterial like an apparition; his cheek-bones rose, the forehead slanted more; the face was all hollows" (Nigger 88). Death is no longer a pretext, but clearly an unavoidable, imminent reality, thereby charging the atmosphere and altering the ironies. Wait offers himself for duty when he is near enough to the pay table and smells the shore, but Captain Allistoun rejects his offer. The Captain sees through and pities Wait; he is benign but maintains a stern facade even when faced with a near-mutiny partly as a consequence of his decision: "It never came into my head, those fools. ... H'm! Stand to it now--of course" (Nigger 78). Despite Allistoun's own cool courage, he can respond with mercifulness and sympathy while being critical of Wait's cowardice in the face of death: "He might have been half a man once" (Nigger 78, my emphasis)5--a cowardice underlined when Wait's body refuses to slide off and Belfast's shriek echoes this line: "Jimmy, be a man!" (Nigger 99). Wait's cowardice seems to be attributed to his blackness partly because the Captain's language, which carries weight in view of his exemplary conduct, suggests this connection ("sick brute" etc.).
The ship is becalmed, following the storm. Guerard and Scrimgeour interpret Wait symbolically at this stage of the narrative "as something the ship and the men must be rid of before they can complete their voyage" (Guerard 109, Scrimgeour 350). This view probably arises from a confusion of Conrad with his characters (the narrator included). After the storm Singleton voices this sentiment (similar to Burns's view of the dead captain in The Shadow-Line), and the rest of the ordinary seamen, including the narrator, think that "the old man's ideas might be true" (Nigger 87). But these "ideas" are not endorsed by Conrad. At this stage in the tale, he is revealing how the rationality of these men with average minds has been weakened by psychological and physical strain so as to make them susceptible to false supernatural explanations and consolations. At a later stage, the crew quarrel over the question whether "the glass started down" before or after Wait's death; it is soon after Wait's burial at sea that a "fair wind" blows. In these instances, Conrad shows how coincidences are liable to take on a false meaning for these men under strain, with their already aroused superstition. Jacques Berthoud feels: "We cannot decide whether coincidence is to be explained in terms of chance or magic" (Berthoud 37). It seems to me that Conrad suggests that coincidence is no more than coincidence; he also suggests an explanation and it is in psychological terms. Conrad does not invest the Negro with a symbolic significance analogous to that of the albatross in Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Wait is a fully realistic character though his name radiates suggestions.
Among the centers of interest in the tale is egoism/narcissism, confirmed by the symbolic associations of the name of the ship and the title of the tale. Egoism is considered in relation to altruism/pity, a basic Christian virtue. For instance, Donkin's sorrow for Wait is mixed with sadness over his own final destiny: "Donkin watching the end of that hateful nigger, felt the anguishing grasp of a great sorrow on his heart at the thought that he himself ... would have to go through it all--just like this, perhaps! His eyes became moist. 'Poor beggar,' he murmured" (Nigger 95, my emphasis). Conrad brings out the complexities of the interplay of egoism and altruism, and the antinomies of human behavior. Altruism is usually regarded as a positive, desirable quality from the standpoint of both the individual and society, whereas egoism is its exact opposite. Conrad shows how both these qualities are mixed in the conduct of the crew and constitute a danger to both the individual and society, and how even pure altruism corrupts and does not always lead to good results. From the beginning, the attitudes of the crew to Wait include "the latent egoism of tenderness" (Nigger 85). The crew likes to see itself look good in the mirror of their minds. "The critical consensus on the novel, which follows the lead of both narrator and title in seeing the crew's sympathy for Wait as nothing more than the disguised narcissism of those who would avoid recognition of their own mortality" (Deresiewicz 209), however, is wrong: the crew, certainly, fears and faces mortality in the storm. The corruption wrought by pity is evident in Belfast's theft of the officers' pie (it shook the confidence between the officers and the crew), Podmore's adding of "white cabin sugar" to Wait's tea (Nigger 70), the crew sending overboard the carpenter's tool box in their hurry to rescue Wait (a professional lapse, Nigger 42) and siding with Wait against the Captain when he rejects the now incapacitated Wait's belated offer to report for duty. Wait is an egoist. When the ship is righted, egoism gets the better of the crew: "We boasted of our pluck, of our capacity for work.... We remembered our danger, our toil--and conveniently forgot our horrible scare. We decried our officers--who had done nothing" (Nigger 61). Conrad's irony reveals how the harmonious interaction of obedience and command has been disrupted, how the accepted code of conduct in the Merchant Service is on the verge of rupture. A complex of impure and sullied feelings leads to a near mutiny, a violation of professional and moral codes. Pity for Wait makes the crew vulnerable to his insidious influence till his death and after it too: even Knowles, who is "pacific," and Davies, who is "good-tempered," come to blows over the question whether the "glass started down" before or after Waits death. Belfast grieves for Wait till the end of the narrative. His emotions are shown up as facile but not as a pretence, and do appear genuine. Archie is different and can cope with pity: practical, deft at work, stable, and with firm views, he helps at two crises: in liberating Wait from his cabin and by stopping Donkin at his murderous attempt. He is just but not devoid of compassion: '"Poor Jimmy,' breathed out Belfast. 'He be blowed!' said Archie with untruthful brutality" (my emphasis, Nigger 81).
Equivocalness, altruism/egoism and Death are important concerns in the tale. But equally important is Conrad's desire to pay a tribute to his erstwhile colleagues at sea and critically affirm the positive aspects of the Merchant Service and positive values, a sort of 'hail and farewell!' to his former profession. The fact that the illustrative figure (Wait) suddenly captures the reader is just one of those freaks where the writer's genius outruns the writer (trust the tale, not the artist, to echo D.H. Lawrence). Yet the tale does carry a full load of information regarding the Merchant Service--conditions of work, officer crew relationships, departure-arrival, storm-calm, mutiny-authority, the note of Death-burial at sea, adjacent shore life (via the Captain's wife and Baker's family)--almost a guide to the Service in a dramatic form. In his famous Preface to the tale, his fullest manifesto, Conrad wrote of the artist: "He speaks ... to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds together all humanity" (Nigger 145-46). In the tale, Conrad is celebrating the "solidarity" of those who followed the sea, while suggesting a wider application to it too. There is very much a sense that the crew--except for Donkin and Wait--form a community. The two Norwegians also seem outside--not unnaturally, especially since language and unfamiliarity as newcomers keep them out of it. But Wamibo the Russian Finn, for all his being an alien, gets often involved--and not only in the rescue of Wait. On board the ship, the seamen inhabit a world of their own, a kind of freemasonry which ensures certain responses, certain loyalties to a code. The amazingly powerful storm sequence affirms "solidarity" For instance, two bearded shellbacks show protective warmth and care for the boy Charley one trying to provoke him into spiritedness ('"Twill make a blooming man of you, sonny.'"), the other wrapping Charley in his own coat (Nigger 38). This dire predicament brings out the best in the officers and the crew--duty, discipline and the bond of brotherhood, as the crew shares/is at one, in its fear, its suffering and its labors. It also "produces two acts of singular moral beauty, the rescue of Wait and the cook's miraculous making of coffee, and both are undertaken on the men's own initiative, are irrelevant to the sailing of the ship, and thus outside the hierarchy's purview, and the actions bespeak an essential and generic social bond--in other words, a feeling of common fellowship" (Deresiewicz 210). In these instances, "solidarity" acquires a universal application. Wait experiences the terror of death, while the seamen too feel it via Wait and also fear and face death via the storm, proving their mettle. Singleton, strong as he is, momentarily collapses through exhaustion, a reminder of mortality, but not before providing that unforgettable final image of the storm sequence: "he steered with care" (Nigger 55) for thirty hours, a precise nautical task in specific, enormously difficult, life-and-death circumstances which make it remarkable: "To steer a sailing ship in a high following wind requires concentration and courage, for as the ship dips forward in response to an overtaking wave, it will start a yaw (or swing) which, if not instantly corrected, will go out of control, turn the ship broadside, and expose it once again to the full weight of wind and water" (Berthoud 1984, xvi).
Both the crew and the officers contribute to the total impression of "solidarity" and human resistance to the sea, the nature of things and, our ultimate fate, Death. The crew shows respect and even some liking for the officers--except Donkin. Wait is not against authority; he merely wants to have his own way. Donkin and Wait do not work in collusion. Donkin awakens and promotes the crew's political and economic fantasies: "they dreamed enthusiastically of the time when every lonely ship would travel over a serene sea, manned by a wealthy and well-fed crew of satisfied skippers" (Nigger 63). Conrad's ingrained repulsion from a wordy claim of "rights" is also implicit in The Secret Agent and in his attitude to the anarchists there. He casts a satiric glance at Marxism in both The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and The Secret Agent. Donkin with his "picturesque and filthy loquacity" (Nigger 62) as a modern working-class agitator and his slacking stands as a contrast to Singleton with his taciturnity and staunch upholding of the work ethic of the Merchant Service. Significantly, Singleton is impervious (if pitiless) to the corruptions wrought by Wait and Donkin. Donkin is a caricature but Singleton is, in Conrad's words in his letter to R.B. Cunninghame Graham of 14 December 1897, "simple and great like an elemental force" (Collected Letters 1423). Conrad stresses the simplicity of the lives of the seamen and also the simplicity of their thought processes, isolated from cities and people--which make them vulnerable to Wait and Donkin. In contrast to the crew, the officers to their credit are not affected by Wait and Donkin. Baker is twice termed "a model chief mate" and appears human enough to be accepted as such. Captain Allistoun, at the head of the chain of command and discipline, seems to see nothing but sees all, virtually omniscient. It has been argued that the captain ignores the safer and recommended procedure to cut the masts of a ship during a storm to ensure a faster and thus more profitable passage (Foulke 113-15). But the captain is risking his own life as well as the lives of the crew, and, more probably, he does not succumb to the pressure exerted on him by the crew to cut the masts because these would be necessary if the ship were not to drift if it survived. This is a terrific test and triumph of authority; after all, cutting the masts, to the sailors, is a matter of life or death. Allistouns apotheosis as the perfect captain is made less unacceptable by the realistic stress laid on his slightness and lack of an impressive personality, his smallness being emphasized in contrast to Baker and Creighton.
The conclusion of the tale is very significant. "Solidarity" is reaffirmed, though being a generalized, indeterminate notion, Negroes are presumably unconsidered and "beyond the pale" (to quote the title of a Kipling story). Trust the tale, not the artist (to echo D.H. Lawrence again)! No one accepts Donkin's invitation to drink with him. Donkin gives up the sea for a land job, a verdict on Donkin in itself. The sailors are misfits ashore, but the land is described as "dark," the atmosphere "precious and disgusting" and so on. "The toil" of the seamen is "glorious" as well as "obscure." Their wages are meager. The social structure of England is suggested. The smooth, resigned acceptance of the able, deserving mate, Baker, of the manifest injustice of being passed over in favor of a socially-privileged individual of equal claims but lesser seniority, Creighton, is highlighted critically but with approving acceptance by the narrator. The tale holds "very different attitudes towards sea-life in a sort of suspension, not reconciling their contradictions, but affecting some sort of cohabitation between them" (Hawthorn 115-16). Conrad himself seems to join the Tnarrator at the close as he panders to England's heritage (catering to/trying to hook the British public) (6) and bids farewell not only to the seamen but also to the way of life they represent, as he enters consciously on the full tide of his calling.
Conrad's right-wing political views (behind the caricature of Donkin and the discrediting of the labor movement) were formed before he became a naturalized British subject on 18 August 1886, and he did think that these chimed in with the dominant British attitudes: in a letter to Spiridion Kliszcewski of 19 December 1885, he exclaimed:
Where's the man to stop the rush of social-democratic ideas? The opportunity and the day have come and are gone! Believe me: gone forever! For the sun is set and the last barrier removed. England was the only barrier to the pressure of infernal doctrines born in continental back-slums. (CL I16)
These views were formed before he came into contact with W.E. Henley and his Circle, but it is possible that the desire to please Henley in The Nigger of the "Narcissus" would have made these more pronounced in the tale. Undeniably, the judgment of that arbiter of literary excellence and an appearance of the tale in the prestigious New Review would influence the public and place Conrad in the ranks of the foremost writers (see McDonald 15-56). Moreover, he was attached to Britain before he thought of Henley:
I have been all my life--all my two lives--the spoiled adopted child of Great Britain and even of the Empire, for it was Australia that gave me my first command. (Conrad, "Author's Note" vi)
When speaking, writing or thinking in English, the word "home" always means for me the hospitable shores of Great Britain. (Letter to Spiridion Kliszcewski, 13 October 1885. CL I12).
During the early phase of his literary career, Conrad was also trying to forge an English identity. All these, probably, prompted "the strain of aggressive Toryism, anti-liberal sentiment and lyrical patriotism" which critics have observed, but these were not merely or not only "devised to flatter the ebullient Henley's right-wing opinions and to flatter the journal's [The New Review] masculine, imperial, and staunchly oligarchic stance" (Knowles and Moore 177). The celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 may also have unconsciously influenced Conrad to make his conservative political views more explicit in this tale than he would have otherwise have done.
The Nigger of the "Narcissus" possesses the ingredients of a popular sea story--storm, calm, near mutiny, and purveys the escapist lure of a vivid and vigorous narrative, probably, fascinating to land-lubbers in the limitations of Edwardian secure, humdrum life, aware of the men who faced the vastness and terror of the sea in sailing ships and steamers. Conrad's unconventional overall conception of the negro, as projected by Wait, supercilious, sneering and dominating the whites by playing upon their sympathies until he is reduced to the level of pathetic gibbering by cowardice, is flawed by racism, but the originality of the tale--as manifest in the choice of themes as in the rendering--makes it a major work of fiction and Conrad's first work of this magnitude.
Berthoud, Jacques. Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
--. "Introduction." Joseph Conrad: The Nigger of the "Narcissus." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Bock, Martin. "Joseph Conrad and Germ Theory: Why Captain Allistoun Smiles Thoughtfully." The Conradian 31, 2 (2006) 1-14.
--."Joseph Conrad and Germ Theory: Further Thoughts." The Conradian 38, 1 (2008) 165-66.
Conrad, Joseph. Nostromo. London: Penguin, 1963.
--. The Nigger of the "Narcissus." Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton, 1979.
--. The Secret Agent. London: Dent, 1961.
--. The Shadow-Line. London: Penguin, 1986.
--. Victory. London: David Campbell, 1998.
--. "Author's Note," 1917. Youth, Heart of Darkness, End of the Tether. London: Dent. 1956 edn.
--. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad Vol. I. Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
De Beauvoir, Simone. Force of Circumstance. London: Penguin, 1968.
Deresiewicz, William. "Conrad's Impasse: The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and the Invention of Marlow." Conradiana 38, 3 (2006) 205-27.
Ehrsam, Theodore G. A Bibliography of Joseph Conrad. New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1969.
Foulke, Robert. "Creed and Conduct in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'." Conradiana 12 (1980) 105-28.
Goonetilleke, D.C.R.A. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. London & New York: Routledge, 2007.
Guerard, A.J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, Mass,: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Hawthorn, Jeremy. Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment. London: Edward Arnold, 1990.
Jean-Aubry, G. Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters. Vols.I & II. London: Heinemann, 1927.
Johnsen, William A. '"To My Readers in America': Conrad's 1914 Preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'." Conradiana 35, 1-2 (2003) 105-22.
Knowles, Owen, and Moore, Gene M. Oxford Reader's Companion to Conrad. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Lothe, Jakob. "Conradian Narrative." The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Ed. J.H. Stape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
McDonald, Peter. "Men of Letters and Children of the Sea: Conrad and the Henley Circle Revisited." Conradian21, 1 (1996) 15-56.
Miller, Jr., James E. "The Nigger of the 'Narcissus': A Re-examination." Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Nigger of the "Narcissus." Ed. John A. Palmer. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1969. 15-23.
Redmond, Eugene B. "Racism or Realism: Literary Apartheid, or Poetic License? Conrad's Burden in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus.'" "The Nigger of the "'Narcissus'" by Joseph Conrad. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton, 1979. 358-68.
Scrimgeour, Cecil. "Jimmy Wait and the Dance of Death: Conrad's Nigger of the 'Narcissus.'" The Critical Quarterly 7, 4 (1965) 339-52.
Sherry, Norman (ed). Conrad: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
Simmons, Allan H. Joseph Conrad. Basingstoke, U.K., & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Stape, J.H. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Stape, J.H., and Knowles, Owen (ed.) A Portrait in Letters: Correspondence to and about Conrad. Amstedam: Rodopi, 1996.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray. Vol. III. 1852-1856. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946.
Watts, Cedric. "Introduction." Joseph Conrad: The Nigger of the "Narcissus." Ed. Cedric Watts. London: Penguin, 1988.
UNIVERSITY OF KELANIYA, SRI LANKA
(1.) While the publishers defended the edition as a "public service" to readers and as addressing the reason for the neglect of Conrad's text, and Hilary Shelton, director of NAACP's Washington bureau, found the edition appropriate for readers, the storm of criticism ranged from summary dismissal as "a joke" to "a blatant piece of politically correct censorship."--Joshua Rhett Miller, "Publisher Renames Joseph Conrad Classic 'The N-word of the "Narcissus"'," in FOX News.com, January 7, 2010.
I owe this reference to Andrea White's "Response" to my original paper as presented at the "Conrad Under California Eyes" Conference, Chapman University, January 7-10, 2010.
(2.) The first American edition was published by Dodd, Mead & Co. (New York). In 1899, the same publishers issued the first American edition under the original title. William Heinemann (London) published the first edition in Britain.
(3.) See D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. London & New York: Routledge, 2007.
(4.) See Martin Bock, "Joseph Conrad and Germ Theory: Why Captain Allistoun Smiles Thoughtfully": The Conradian, 31, 2 (2006) 1-14; and Bock, "Joseph Conrad and Germ Theory: Further Thoughts": The Conradian, 33, 1 (2008) 165-66--for a full treatment of this matter.
(5.) I wish to thank Debra Romanick Baldwin for drawing my attention to this line; she interprets it differently in her unpublished paper, 'Conradian Effect, Narrative Solidarity and Darwin's The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals' (2009).
(6.) We have something in this style, but more significantly placed, in the sea-reverie of Marlow's listener/frame narrator in Heart of Darkness.
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