The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ by Joseph Conrad (1897)

25 June 2012

In August 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, a few months after ‘Captains Courageous‘ was published in book form,  Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus” began to appear in The New Review. (This was a literary journal edited by WE Henley, major editor and minor poet, remembered for his poem Invictus, quoted by Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison and so used as the title of a recent movie about South Africa. Henley was an important player in 1890s literature. As editor of the Scots Observer he’d brought Robert Louis Stevenson to national attention. After Stevenson surprised the literary world by decamping to the South Seas, Henley was the first in London to recognise The Next Big Thing – Kipling – and helped him establish his reputation by publishing the ‘Barrack Room Ballads‘ in 1892.)

The ‘Nigger’ is a novella, only 140 pages in the Penguin edition, a study of men isolated on a merchant ship on a long sea voyage who live through a terrifying storm which pitches the ship right onto its side and nearly drowns them all. It is directly comparable in length, publication date and subject matter to Kipling’s ‘Captains Courageous’.

Both books are, frankly, hard to read, but for different reasons. Kipling is concerned to show you he has mastered the terminology of sea fishing, so his text is stuffed with technical terms. When he’s not showing off his expertise, his characters are talking in a phonetically rendered version of New England fisherman slang:

“‘Ver’ good. Ver’ good don,’ said Manuel ‘After supper I show you a little schooner I make, with all her ropes. So we shall learn.’ ‘Fust-class fer a passenger,’ said Dan, ‘Dad he’s jest allowed you be wuth your salt maybe fore you’re kaownded. Thet’s a heap fer Dad. I learn you more our next watch together.”

(Captains Courageous, Chapter 3)

In terms of meaning or purpose, Kipling’s book is a ‘coming of age’ tale in which a spoilt brat is transformed into a Man by learning discipline and duty and comradeship from the fishermen he’s fallen among. Though all the characters are American, the message is British public school: Become a Man through Responsibility, Hard Work, doing your Duty.

Conrad’s vision and style are far removed from this. His vision is one of European existentialism, of despair at the meaninglessness of human existence. His pages are overwhelmed with mournful asides about the immensity of the sea and the pettiness of human concerns.

“A heavy atmosphere of oppressive quietude pervaded the ship. In the afternoon men went about washing clothes and hanging them out to dry in the unprosperous breeze with the meditative language of disenchanted philosophers. Very little was said. The problem of life seemed too voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would in time infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all the errors, the certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the frontiers of sorrow and fear.”

(‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’, Chapter 5)

And as you can see, this vision is conveyed in a baroque style of exceeding wordiness – a seemingly limitless litany of boom words and big phrases, all circling hopelessly round his one big perception, the horror of existence. The word horror is repeated a number of times.

Kipling’s bright, shallow British optimism. Or Conrad’s doom-laden European pessimism. Posterity – and literature courses everywhere – have favoured Conrad. But is that right?

As to the ‘nigger’ of the title, the novella centres on a black sailor – James Wait – who ships with the Narcissus knowing he is dying (presumably of TB, though never made explicit). Various crew members – Old Singleton, the sneak Donkin, the youth Charley, sturdy Captain Allisoun, the first mate Baker – are described at length and become fairly ‘real’, but Wait is an allegorical figure, the man doomed to Death who melodramatises his plight, and becomes the psychological centre of the ship, mesmerising the crew.

I think the book is a failure. I didn’t understand from the text or from Conrad’s preface the point of Wait. Conrad keeps calling him a fake, an imposter, but Wait does, truly, die of illness, exactly as he’d been worrying. I think Conrad is wrestling in a confused manner with the issues which obsess him: his sincere love of the sea and his sailor comrades is tangled up with a more personal vision of the heartless universe.

To my mind Conrad sorted these confused feelings out in his next book, also a novella, ‘Heart of Darkness‘, published in 1899 – whose key quote, ‘The horror, the horror’, has become part of the culture thanks to the movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now’, and whose critique of the mindless brutality of western Imperialism has never been surpassed. Here the horror of Conrad’s vision finds its ‘objective correlative’ – the publicly understandable image or symbol of Conrad’s private feelings – in the story of Kurtz, the exemplary imperialist servant gone grotesquely rotten in the depths of the jungle.

In the same year as ‘Heart of Darkness’, Kipling published his volume of stories about jolly public schoolboys, ‘Stalky and Co‘, learning through their wily japes the ways of Brotherhood and Service which will stand them in good stead when they go out to run the British Empire.

The contrast couldn’t be starker.

‘All Hands to The Pump’ by Henry Scott Tuke

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