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

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 which is almost unreadable:

“‘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.” (Chapter 3)

In terms of meaning or purpose, Kipling’s book is a ‘coming of age’ tale in which a spoilt American 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, through 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. (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 this is 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 brought up against his just-as-powerful personal vision of the heartless universe, and the failure of the story is Conrad’s failure to make them coalesce in any coherent manner.

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 Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling (1897)

Kipling moved to America in 1892, settling in Brattleborough, a village in rural Vermont, on the estate belonging to the family of his new American wife, Caroline (Carrie) Balestier. Here he built a cabin, had children, was happy, wrote the two Jungle Books and continued pouring forth poems and short stories.

Late in 1896 he began serialisation of a new prose work, Captains Courageous. It’s short, only ten chapters and 153 pages in the Oxford University paperback edition I read.

Like a lot of Kipling’s fictions, it’s long on journalistic details and specialised jargon, short on plot, extremely light on pyschology. Spoilt teenage son of millionaires, Harvey Cheyne, is irritating the crew on a transatlantic liner before going for a walk along the deck when – whoops – he is washed overboard by a big wave. He comes to on a New England fishing boat and learns, to his horror, that the rough old fishermen who’ve saved him a) don’t believe a word about him being a rich man’s son b) stay out fishing for cod on the Grand Banks all summer long with no plans to return to shore till the autumn!

After cheeking them a few times, Harvey gets knocked down and starts to find out the hard way that if he wants to eat, he has to work.

Over the next eight chapters Harvey becomes a Man in the sense that ‘you’ll be a man, my son’ in Kipling’s most famous poem, If (1895). Eventually he is reunited, a changed person, with his grieving parents who thought he was drowned.

The striking issues are: Masculinity; the gospel of work; showing off; the language; the plot.

1. The plot It’s more like a set-up or predicament than a plot. Or the thinnest of fairy tale transformations. In the hands of a Henry James or Joseph Conrad the pleasure would have been in seeing Harvey’s character genuinely change through a sequence of events. Instead Kipling supplies a stream of incidents but they’re curiously detached from Harvey’s transformation. And Harvey’s transformation doesn’t occur in a gradual way but very quickly in chapter 2 after he’s been knocked down for cheeking the skipper and then chased around the deck with a rope till he performs the shipboard chores correctly. In other words, the chastening and growing-up of Harvey is poorly handled. Because Kipling isn’t really interested in it. Psychology isn’t his thing.

Instead of plot there is a succession of incidents. The crew tell stories. The crew sing songs. A luxury liner nearly hits them in foggy weather and does run over and sink another schooner, killing most of the crew. In a good piece of Kipling cruelty and spookiness, the crew dredge up the corpse of one of the sailors from the wrecked schooner, which seems to have eerily followed them. A hair-standing-up-on-end moment. But these incidents merely follow each other rather than accumulating, let alone prompting Harvey’s psychological progress.

2. Showing off If there’s next to no psychological depth on display, what there is a lot of is Kipling’s characteristic concern to impress the reader with the depth of his expertise – this time on the subject of New England cod ships and sailors. Apparently, he researched the story very thoroughly, visiting shipyards, going out in boats, gutting cod himself, and having long conversations with a friend who sailed. The result is a text absolutely stuffed with fishing expertise and technical terms. No part of the fishing boat or process is left unexplored and unexplained and this can get rather wearisome.

3. The language The expertise is most obviously displayed in the dialect speech of the cod sailors which Kipling renders phonetically, as exhaustively as he renders the regional dialects of his famous Soldiers Three (Yorkshire, Ulster, Cockney) or the Indians who populate his Asia stories. Short though it is, I found the book difficult to read because almost every sentence required decoding from Kipling’s phonetic spelling. Add to this the plethora of technical terms he makes sure he stuffs into every sentence, and his preference for often elliptical conversations over authorial explanation, and it gets quite hard to understand what’s going on in places.

‘Mother av delight! He s forkin them wan by wan,’ howled Long Jack, as Uncle Salters got to work laboriously; the little man in the other dory counting a line of notches on the gunwale. ‘That was last week’s catch,’ he said, looking up plaintively, his forefinger where he had left off. Manuel nudged Dan, who darted to the after-tackle, and, leaning far overside, slipped the hook into the stern-rope as Manuel made her fast forward. The others pulled gallantly and swung the boat in man, fish, and all. ‘One, two, four nine,’ said Tom Platt, counting with a practised eye. ‘Forty-seven. Penn, you re it!’ Dan let the after-tackle run, and slid him out of the stern on to the deck amid a torrent of his own fish.

It’s all like this. Very hard work.

4. Surfaces Kipling’s energy doesn’t go into the psychological depths, into where you’d expect a novelist to be working; it goes into the surfaces of facts and language. As a novelist, Kipling is a great journalist. It’s typical that in Chapter 9, when the bereaved parents learn that their son is alive after all, instead of even attempting to describe the psychological impact on them, Kipling spends pages detailing the route Cheyne senior’s private train would have taken from San Francisco to Gloucester, Mass., including the details of all the drivers and engineers required, the messages sent ahead to key junctions and so on and so on. The grieving parents’ reunion with their son takes place in a sentence, and has little or no impact on either of them.

5. The gospel of work If the Victorians can be divided into Hebrews or Hellenes, Kipling is a prophet of Hebraicism. Following in the traditions of Carlyle et al he believes in the virtues of Work, the Dignity of Labour, that the truth is only revealed to those who work hard, do their duty, building and maintaining the world we live in.

In chapter 7 the schooner (emblematically named We’re Here) is nearly run down in the fog by a vast luxury liner; a fellow schooner is actually cut in half and the whole crew crushed or drowned.  the tragedy / disaster / accident rams home Kipling’s moral that the pampered passengers on the liner fussing over their gilt-edged menus don’t even notice that, in a few seconds, their vessel has destroyed the livelihoods, and actually killed, poor, hard-working, honest sailors.

At the end of the story the Cheyne parents attend the annual church service for fishermen lost in that season and the pampered Mrs Cheyne is shown breaking down in tears as the long list of drowned seamen is read out. Kipling has a highly moral purpose in almost all his writings, which is to show pampered liberals the sheer bloody hard work of the thousands of unsung soldiers, sailors, merchants, explorers, engineers etc who provide the peace, stability, goods and services they all take for granted. It is not an unworthy task.

5. Masculinity What is it to be a man? Kipling has a very clear idea, and Harvey’s transformation from pampered brat to blooded young man is accomplished through hard physical work, dedication to duty, masculine comradeship, and the rejection of all luxury. These are the values Kipling elsewhere esteems in his Indian administrators and soldiers, in the New England sailors, in his South African pioneers. It is a narrow, blinkered view of (hu)man nature, but one he made his own and expresses more completely than, maybe, any other English writer.

The well-known poem, If, written a year earlier than Captains Courageous, in 1895, may be regularly parodied and mocked by knowing intellectuals. But it is just as regularly voted Britain’s favourite poem. Whatever you think of Kipling’s politics and artistry, his jingoism and sexism, he is saying something which still endures and speaks to many people today.

The story is written from the point of view of Harvey, but it can also be seen as the story of Mr Cheyne, the successful millionaire, too busy running his business empire to attend to his son who, as a result, becomes a spoilt brat. The act of Fate which throws Harvey into the company of the sailors and shows him hard work, comradeship and respect – which makes a responsible adult of him – was something Cheyne senior realises that he was failing to do himself. As a father, I wouldn’t be unhappy if something similar happened to my son.

Related links

The movie

There have been two film versions, the 1937 one starring Spencer Tracy. I bet it’s great. Costs £20 on Amazon. And a 1977 remake starring Karl Malden.

Other Kipling reviews

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