Joseph Conrad’s novels are shunned for a lack of political correctness by American teaching institutions and by many secular readers. Such an accusation is particularly damning at a time when scrutiny goes, for good reason, to issues of discrimination and redress. “The Nigger of the Narcissus” is one of Conrad’s lesser-known novels. This is the first and last time the title will be fully spelled out in this article. Critics at the time, despite being mostly favorable to the novel, denounced it as the “ugliest conceivable title”, and that still stands. Is it tolerable in our 21st century to read The N**** of the Narcissus? If it is racist, do its qualities outweigh its sins? The N**** of the Narcissus is the story of an English ship that travels from Bombay back to London. It seems to have no cargo but its crew, although a ship on that route would realistically have been packed to the brim with Indian wares. A Caribbean sailor on board, James Wait, is ill. The Narcissus hits a storm and flips to its side, threatening to sink. Eventually, the ship straightens up, and the black man dies. The fate of the ship does not make a difference to the man’s health, in strict logic, just as his illness and death do not affect the fate of the ship. The two narrative threads, if considered independent from each other, weave an adventure novel. This is probably how most people read it at the time, the genre’s popularity ensuring serialization on both sides of the Atlantic. As an adventure novel, the plot lacks originality which Conrad deplored himself in his letters. Additionally, the text comes across as racist: its Caribbean character is depicted with the some of the stereotypical traits attributed to black men. He’s lazy and selfish. He acts with cowardice in the face of his upcoming death. He could be accused of being “uppity”, or rather, Conrad could be accused of having pictured him as “uppity”: he speaks an elaborate form of English unlike the rest of the crew, and whines about the living conditions aboard. He generally shows disdain for the crew, particularly those that treat him with kindness. When they save his life, he exhibits no gratitude. His behavior, consistently the opposite of what one would expect, comes across as irrational, or lacking intelligence. A sick man, he is often reduced to the sum of his body parts, as for an animal. However, Conrad does frequently use this device in his texts to stress the identity of men, white or others, as a group rather than an individual. When the ship tips, the crew of the Narcissus fights the rising water: “caps, handspikes floated. Clenched hands, kicking legs, with here and there a spluttering face, stuck out of the white hiss of foaming water.” Either Wait is reduced to his animal presence, or he resembles an exotic god: “The little place, repainted white, had, in the night, the brilliance of a silver shrine where a black idol, reclining stiffly under a blanket, blinked its weary eyes and received our homage.” Incidentally, this adoration makes pagans out of the crew, rather than out of the black man. In this story of sailors facing the elements, Wait, deity and animal, is denied the superior humanity that bonds the white crew.
But the element in the novel that strikes the contemporary reader as most plainly racist is its title. N**** was a derogatory term then, just as it is now. The title of the first US edition was changed to “Children of The Seas” to placate sensibilities. Conrad, once his rising fame allowed him more control, insisted the 2nd US edition revert to the original title. Clearly, he knew the term was controversial, and clearly, it mattered enough to him to ignore the outcry. Throughout the novel, Conrad makes subtle use of qualifiers for the Caribbean sailor. In the scene introducing him, “n****” is the term used to define his identity. Subsequently, “n***** ” tends to denote a sympathetic attitude, for example during the crew’s rescue of Wait in the storm, or to describe a sailor as “sentimentally careful of his n*****”. Paradoxically, “black” indicates distaste in the crew’s speech: ugly black head, black fraud, black faced swine. “Davis ceased to talk at him provokingly about black eyes and flattened noses.” Even the wind in what will become a catastrophic storm is described thus: ‘This was the last of the breeze. It veered quickly, changed to a black south-easter.’ With black a symbol of everything bad in contrast to the white innocence of the Narcissus, Conrad perpetuates the Christian symbolism of black as evil, and white as good, the tragic merge that served the slavery system so well.
Conrad often characterizes members of the Narcissus crew by their origins: the two Finns, the character named Belfast, and many more. But Wait’s ethnicity defines neither his habits nor his speech. Just as Conrad was a man without a homeland to go back to, Wait has no context, no family, little past, no future. Were he’s picturesque, that would make him just another member of the colorful crew. He’s certainly never described as a savage like the Africans in In The Heart of Darkness. Psychological insight is offered for significant characters, but not for Wait: he is portrayed from the outside, as perceived by the men on the ship. By definition, his blackness makes him other. He plays a symbolic role in the novel instead of portraying a human being. He’s sick when everyone else is healthy. He’s alone, singled out, different. Joseph Conrad knew a thing or two about being other. He was born in Ukraine to Polish parents, when Poland did not exist, picked over by Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Conrad was a small child, his nationalist father was jailed in harsh conditions that compromised his health. Upon his release, his wife and son followed him into forced exile in a cold, humid climate which soon killed Conrad’s mother then his father. A kind uncle took the orphan, age eleven, under his wing. At fifteen, the young boy got the notion he wanted to become a sailor. He had never seen the sea. His family at large, which belonged to the small landed nobility, was appalled as Poland, if only the concept of a nation, was landlocked, and sailing deemed undignified. But he held on to his calling and became a sailor at sixteen, first on French ships, then in the English navy. Over the years, he took the necessary exams to climb up the ranks. He sailed for twenty years. Then in 1894, at age thirty-seven, he quit. And turned to writing. His decision to stop sailing can be pinned to a number of objective factors. He had health issues. Additionally, as an outsider, he lacked the connections in English society to obtain the rank he was qualified for. His personality probably got in the way: touchy, headstrong, solitary. When the merchant navy switched from wind to steam, elegant clippers were replaced by ships whose constant, predictable progress lacked romance. His job in command of a steamer on the Congo rather than on an ocean sailing ship was taken out of desperation. This experience, one of his last assignments, would lead him to write his most famous book, In The Heart of Darkness.
While we know when he stopped sailing, the decision to write is harder to date. As a youth, he did not exhibit literary ambitions, nor did he study formally past his 15th year. His family was educated. His father, the first Pole to translate Shakespeare, introduced him at a young age to literature. He always read a lot, probably out of loneliness as much as from inclination. The reasons that pushed him to write can at best be guessed at, and there is an element of mystery to Conrad’s prose too. Maybe the most remarkable literature always retain an unfathomable core. Subtle mystery is badly lacking in his first novel, Almayer’s Folly. The title refers directly to a grandiose building that decays before is it completed, and symbolically to the European character’s doomed marriage to an indigenous woman. The story is based on a real character that Conrad befriended in South East Asia. The wife, who lacks both a first and a last name, and the local characters are depicted with a racist, if well meaning, point of view, and no lengthy article would prove the literary qualities of this novel as counterbalancing its prejudice. His second novel, Outcast of The Islands, shows more sophistication. A dishonest English man, on the run from a scandal, finds refuge in a native village. His lust for an indigenous young woman leads him to betray his benefactors. With The N***** of The Narcissus, his third novel, Conrad came into his own as a writer, and he knew it, even if he still eyed his writing with a relentless skepticism. In a letter to his friend, the writer and critic Edward Garnett, he wrote: ‘And understand well this: If you say “Burn!” I will burn and won’t hate you.’
Conrad was influenced by Flaubert, Dickens, Turgeniev, Thackeray, Maupassant, writers whose works explore the human condition. Aware that sailing novels always found a readership, he was intent nonetheless on emulating 19th century’s best writers and their search for meaning. An educated reader can pick multiple clues that the two narrative threads in The N***** of The Narcissus are linked symbolically if not logically. Even a cursory read suffices, as Conrad tends to layer his symbols with a heavy hand. Approached with this optic, the novel offers a picture radically different from a simple naval adventure, and its racism needs to be reconsidered. The Narcissus of the title, rather than alluding solely to the innocent whiteness of a flower, refers to the famous Greek myth. Narcissus, the son of the river god Cephissus and of the nymph Liriope, falls in love with his own image, until his self absorption destroys him. Clinically, narcissism was defined in the 1910s by Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank as a tendency to grandiosity, an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and a lack of empathy for others. This emotional immaturity, a normal development in children and teenagers, becomes pathological when it persists into adulthood. In a portrait that astoundingly predates the work of these psychiatrists, the Narcissus’ doomed character is described as self involved, selfish, self aggrandizing – which leads to his incapacity to bond with the crew. If we accept that narcissism informs Wait’s personality rather than the stereotypical traits of a black man, this mitigates the accusation of racism. Wait’s narcissism could be ascribed to his exclusion from the group. Isn’t behaving with aloofness a common reaction to being rejected? From the moment Waite appears, he is singled out from the other men. Wait comes on ship when they are expecting no more crew, like the mean fairy in Sleeping Beauty, or the Commendatore in Don Juan. The crew stops what they’re doing to watch the mythical entrance: it’s a threatening presence, ominous, supernatural. Just as we all have our own way to face our impending death, each man on the Narcissus has his idiosyncratic reaction to Wait. When he says he’s too sick to work, the narrator does not take an open position, but the men on board who represent wisdom, mostly officers, believe he’s loafing. By contrast, many of the sailors tend to him with devoted care instead of abusing him, in an inverted hounding. They do him a disservice since Wait is trying to convince himself that he’s not really sick, only loafing. When he starts worrying about the severity of his sickness, he begs to be allowed to work. But the sky knows: early on, when Wait coughs – “the dome of the sky rang to it”. The philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch formulated in his writings, 50 years after Conrad, that death is something that happens to others.1 In final analysis, the crew embodies Narcissus, as they watch fascinated their dark reflection in the water that has to face his own extinction. They are Wait, or strictly speaking, he is their image. But where they are plural, their reflection in the mirror of death is individual.
With Freud’s first book published in 1891, it’s unlikely that Conrad knew his theories intimately by the time he wrote the Narcissus in 1896. His approach to the human psyche parallels that of psychoanalysts in that his characters have irrational fears and longings, and perceive their condition through symbols. We know that Conrad became aware of Freud’s work at some point, but he despised him, labeling him “a bigot”. We do not know his opinion of Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious which was published in 1912, nor of Hereditary Genius, 1869, by the founder of Eugenism Francis Galston, which was in Conrad’s library. The writer does not mention in his letters or in any other of his writings the real men who inspired the James Wait character. He worked with at least two black sailors: one, by the name of George White, on the Duke of Sutherland, and another one, Joseph Barron, who died on a ship actually called the Narcissus. Had he described these men, his account might have revealed more of his attitude toward real black people, without the symbolism attached to blackness in Narcissus. The irony of a black man named White, and another one dying on a ship called The Narcissus would not have escaped Conrad. He probably transmuted “White” to the close sounding “Wait”, particularly when spurted with a cockney accent. The word intimates additionally the suspended time while the ship hangs on the verge of destruction, and the symbolic “weight” that tips the ship. Conrad carefully chose the names for all his characters. At times, he modified the name of the person that inspired the character, such as Olmeijer becoming Almayer, or he opted for words that carried meaning: Nostromo (our man), Flora (a young woman aboard the Ferndale), Holroyd (holy rod), Razumov (reason in Russian).
Objectively, the person with the most despicable personality on the ship is not Wait, but Donkin. This unionist sailor is pictured as a loafer, a coward, a thief. Like Wait, he hates everything and everyone, and is self serving, but he does not have the excuse of being black. The captain, a man of sound mind, and certainly Conrad’s alter ego, finds justification for Wait’s negative traits: “One lone black beggar amongst the lot of us”. While Wait’s blackness is symbolic, and an objectionable literary device at that, Donkin is white as can be, and abject: “a little fellow with white eyelashes. He looked as if he had known all the degradations and all the furies. (…) His neck was long and thin; his eyelids were red; rare hairs hung about his jaws; his shoulders were peaked and drooped like the broken wings of a bird.” Over this despicable species of the human race, Wait towers with a very tall and muscular physique. In fact, Donkin’s lack of power enrages him. The double portraits of Wait and Donkin, if read superficially, would have pleased the publisher W. E. Henley, who was known for having progressive tastes in literature, but conservative politics. He believed that colonialism was justified by the inferiority of other races, and scorned philanthropy and socialist ideas. Though Conrad did not share in his letters his attitude toward racism, he revealed his hopes that The N***** of The Narcissus would be serialized by Henley’s magazine The New Review. Even if Conrad was just starting out in his career as a writer, and constantly doubted the quality of his work, even if both portraits are actually less derogatory than they seem at first glance, he bent low for the sake of a publisher. In a way, the denigration of Donkin shocks more because anti unionism was not as pervasive as racism. This duplicity belongs to the less palatable side of Conrad who had to survive as a stateless Pole, and make it in the navy against the odds. The motivation for his show of racism is the worst: flattery. As ethics go, that seems hardly more acceptable than truly believing in racism, which is an error of judgment: there is just one human race. Conrad actually believed less in racism than was common at the time, but he promoted supremacist values in his book out of self interest. It complicates the evaluation of racism in Narcissus: this novel comprises fewer racist descriptions than Almayer’s Folly or In The Heart of Darkness because he intended to portray a symbolic character of exclusion rather than a realistic non white character. Conrad gave the book a coat of racism and anti-unionism, but a deeper analysis shows the narrative to consider all men as “n*****” inside: ‘Little Belfast seemed, in the heavy heat of the forecastle, to boil with facetious fury. His eyes danced; in the crimson of his face, comical as a mask, the mouth yawned black, with strange grimaces.’ Conrad also extols the efforts of the crew who do not meet adequate compensation for their labor. When the ship tips, the sailors’ meager possessions float out to sea, in a poignant image, as they will be all the poorer if they get out of the wreckage alive.
Racism, the idea that there are different human races with different characteristics, was pervasive in the 19th century. It seemed obvious to Westerners as they judged by their own values of efficiency, of regimented behavior and of creed that other races were inferior. If everyone was racist at the time, does that constitute a sufficient excuse? Judging retrospectively the ethics of a 19th century writer constitutes a dangerous call for the modern reader as that might end up in self indictment. A culture is produced by its individual members who for the majority are blind to its faults. What ills does our culture foster that we are not questioning sufficiently but for a few brave mavericks? Philosophers, thinkers, writers should be the first to identify and denounce prejudice. Nietzsche was anti-Semitic at first under the influence of Wagner until he realized the futility of the notion.2
Conrad, in all his brilliant intelligence, disappoints our expectations by his text’s biased approach to ethnicity, in particular the offense of a black man symbolizing doom. ‘He seemed to hasten the retreat of departing light by his very presence; the setting sun dipped sharply, as though fleeing before our n*****; a black mist emanated from him; a subtle and dismal influence; a something cold and gloomy that floated out and settled on all the faces like a mourning veil.” The wannabe English writer did not envision black people as belonging to his readership. Most 19th century writers were racist, not to mention sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic: Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Gustave Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence. Thackeray, who was also sexist and elitist, wrote: ‘Sambo is not my man and brother; the very aspect of his face is grotesque and inferior.” Very few male writers from the 19th century steered clear of prejudice against women in their books, nor from the 20th for that matter. We routinely read writers who were racist in their opinions, because they focused their stories on white characters and their racism was not so apparent. Conrad addressed instead the hazardous issues of clashing civilizations, of globalization, of Europe’s plundering of Africa and, in the case of The N***** of The Narcissus, of otherness. While he showed no concern about exhibiting prejudice, he did express the basic belief that we are all humans. Some Westerners, usually anti slavery advocates, opposed the exploitation of other “races” imposed because of their perceived inferiority. Conrad shared this idea. In In The Heart of Darkness, he indicts European imperialism in Africa, its greed and brutality. The narrator, Marlow, says as he starts his tale: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it much.” In this passage, Conrad’s alter ego Marlow depicts the others as differing only by physical features. His mind-set evolved between his first novel, and the African epic written much later. The prejudice, in comparison to brutal oppression, probably seemed a small detail to this big picture guy. While he denounced in his work the exploitation of Africans and that of sailors, he did not commit himself in the public space. His condition as a foreigner, as a writer who needed to support a family, caused him terrible anxiety which might explain his political timidity, but does not excuse the affected racism in Narcissus.
While the extent of the racism in Narcissus is debatable, its literary evaluation can only be more so, since it involves subjectivity and personal taste. If the reader has never held a book of Conrad before, and considers reading just one, The N***** of The Narcissus might not be the best choice. Conrad refined his style in his later books, and his symbolism and plots became more subtle. In The Heart of Darkness is his most famous work with its plunge into the dark depths of the human soul. Lord Jim probably shows the most tenderness for his youthful hero and his iniquitous doom, though Conrad’s sympathy for humanity is constantly peeking in his works behind the portrayals of abjection. If not his most polished, bravura and originality single out The N***** of The Narcissus in late 19th century literature. Conrad might have leant toward conservativeness in his politics, but not in form. When it comes to point of view and structure, he took enormous risks in his novel, just as the captain of the Narcissus refuses to amputate the masts off his ship for safety’s sake. Conrad is well known for playing with the point of view which changes sometimes quite abruptly in his texts. The reader of Lord Jim is lead to believe it is told by an omniscient narrator until the ubiquitous Marlowe, one of Conrad’s alter egos, shows up half way through the book, as a kind of deus ex machina. The Narcissus is also narrated initially in the third person, though several early passages express a concept of relativity: the ship becomes the steady referential around which water and land orbit, “Twenty-six pairs of eyes watched (…) flakes of foam swept past her sides; the water struck her with flashing blows; the land glided away slowly fading; a few birds screamed on motionless wings over the swaying mastheads.” The crew count is spelled out just that one time, an important clue, since “we” represents the crew soon after. The passage in the tempest with the boat flipped to its side is narrated alternately by “we” and by the omniscient narrator. The final flight of the boat through the Channel and up the Thames estuary is truly told from God’s point of view, way, way above the terrestrial world, the crew merged with the ship to form one single entity. And finally, after the sailors disembark, receive their wages, and go their separate ways, “I” appears in the last pages. But this narrator is no Marlowe, nor an alter ego of Conrad whose self portrait can be found in the short and grizzled and wise captain. A mere sailor who describes an officer as a “toff”, he is reminded by a crew member that he was a chum of Wait. In fact, we know “I”, a mere sailor, went to the rescue of Wait during the tempest since that was narrated from the “we” point of view. The “I” in the Narcissus is just an anonymous member of the crew toiling together for survival, a low denominator of our common humanity.
Not only does the point of view fluctuate, but Conrad takes on a formidable challenge: doing without a main character. In a traditional novel, the readers identify with the hero, experience what that character goes through, feel the same emotions, compare the decisions made to what they might have decided. Children tell each other: ‘let’s pretend I’m the queen and you the witch’, just as the readers role play with literature’s heroes. In the Narcissus, the main character with whom Conrad expects the reader to identify if any is the crew, and certainly not James Wait. The full title of the novella is The N**** of The Narcissus, A Tale of The Forecastle. The forward, and less stable, part of a ship hosts the sailors’ living quarters, by opposition with “after the mast” which denotes anything related to a ship’s officers.
The time structure of Narcissus also eschews the standards of a classic novel. The whole book covers the trip from Bombay to London, which takes several weeks. The ship is tipped for a day and a night, and that 24-hour stretch is told over 30 out of a total of 120 pages. The narration of the tempest, a stylistic tour de force, is relentless. Just as the crew is beaten by wave after wave of frigid water, the reader suffers pages after pages of human agony. In a traumatic situation, people’s conceptions of time become distorted, as Conrad might have experienced first hand. Not only does time lose all measure on the Narcissus, but most concepts of reality crumble, resulting in a hallucinatory maelstrom. Visions of previous lives haunt the sailors, ghosts float by, pagan apparitions animate the seascape. These mystical images evoke Turner’s tormented paintings that Conrad, a man of the sea living in England, is likely to have seen. For most of us, the storm as conjured by Conrad will be the closest to a near death episode we will experience. The anthropomorphism of the sea, the storm, the ship, contributes to a kind of teleological pathos to the point where Conrad’s symbolism slips into hermetic esotericism.
When the style is not mystical and cataclysmic, symbols teem so tightly in the text they overlap. The ship, known for being unstable, is further unbalanced by the presence of Wait, who does not pull his ‘weight’. As it approaches the most Southern part of the traveled world, and that’s certainly down under for a European sailor, reality tips over. Port becomes down, starboard becomes up, aft is port, and fore is starboard. Wait is the double of the crew, but then Donkin is the double of Wait. Wait is also a symbol of bad luck, of the ill fate that can descend on us unexpectedly. Conrad might have played at Czarny Piotr (Black Peter), the Polish version of Old Maid, with that doomed card that seems to stick in the player’s hand. When sailors rescue Wait, the scene is described as a birthing scene where the crew pulls Wait out of the womb of his cabin. That’s when Wait really starts dying. During the storm, men clinging to the masts offer images of crucifixion. Then the Finns indulge in a pagan worship of a black sun. It’s a lot. Some critics complained that even Conrad didn’t seem to know what he was writing, and how could the readers understand it. To Colm Toibín, this discrepancy makes Conrad’s literature all the more compelling: ‘This irreconcilable distance between what was precise and what was shimmering made him much more than a novelist of adventure, a chronicler of the issues that haunted his time, or a writer who dramatized moral questions. This left him open to interpretation.’
Conrad’s writing can be considered phenomenological, and consistently expresses the relativity of experiences and outlooks. We’re never privy to anyone’s thoughts, but we guess at their psychology through their actions and words, except for Wait who remains opaque. The terms ‘adjectival insistence’ has been applied to Conrad’s use of abundant and often contradictory adjectives. The complex world that he recreates in his writing can never be grasped in its entirety. This, as well as the extravagance of the images and his tendency to the sublime, classifies Conrad as a late Romantic. The theorist Isaiah Berlin has argued in his essential book The Roots of Romanticism that Romantics take the most meaningful aspect of the world for hidden. This taste for irrational feelings, dark ages, uncharted realms came in reaction to the Enlightment and to its faith that everything in the world could be understood and addressed. Until the 19th century, thinkers had no notion of the unconscious, Man was responsible and aware of his actions. According to Berlin’s theory, psychoanalysis belongs to late romanticism. Conrad’s thinking process emerged from a culture that produced psychoanalysis. Indeed, his approach to literature, to consciousness, to morality, contributed to the advent of modernism. “…I have come to suspect the aim of creation cannot be ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely spectacular: a spectacle for awe, love, adoration or hate, if you like, but in this view – and in this view alone – never for despair!” Conrad saw it as his task to record to the best of his abilities this spectacle. As Edward Said offered, this consciousness of the distance between expression and intent in the writer denotes modernism. Once thinkers were able to grasp the relativity of customs and behaviors, once they realized that people were different because of their culture, these new ideas lead to the questioning, and to the rejection of racism, and eventually of sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices.
For Henry James, who encouraged Conrad to write with a tenacious generosity, Narcissus is “the very finest and strongest fiction of the sea and sea-life that our language possesses—the masterpiece in a whole class”. William Faulkner’s favorite books were Moby Dick and The N**** of the Narcissus. The last pages of The N***** of The Narcissus spell out possibly one of the most beautiful passages ever written in the English language. After spending a seemingly infinite time on the Narcissus, sharing the crew’s uncertain fate, sharing James Wait’s certain fate, the readers enjoy a sublime pay off as their deliverance. In a romantic scene that brings to mind the most soaring cinematography, think Eisenstein, think David Lean, think Kurosawa, the ship races through the Channel, cuts through the land of pitiable terrestrials that watch her go by, mesmerized, from the banks of the Thames. The men’s “sinful lives” have merged to form one entity, the Narcissus with its sails flying high like an angel. No more threatening tempest and adversary winds! No more sickness! No more hunger! The pettiness of human’s desires, their fears, their mediocre ambitions have sunk in the Ocean with the corpse of Wait. The crew, by working hard together, have transcended their human condition, bringing about the miracle of the return. Death is vanquished. Conrad to fellow writer Edward W. Garnett: ‘N***** died on the 7th at 6 p. m.; but the ship is not home yet. Expected to arrive tonight and be paid off tomorrow. And the end! I can’t eat I dream nightmares and scare my wife. I wish it was over! But I think it will do! It will do! Mind I only think not sure. But if I didn’t think so I would jump overboard.’
- Re-Presentations of Death in the Information Media, (tr. Re-présentations de la mort dans les médias d’information); Alain Rabatel and Marie-Laure Florea, Translated by Inist; https://doi.org/10.4000/questionsdecommunication.8885
- Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism; Robert C. Holub; Princeton University Press, 2015; https://press.princeton.edu/titles/10635.html