The Nigger of the Narcissus
a Tale of the Forecastle
Joseph Conrad

Review by Nick Burningham

“My task... is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel - it is, before all, to make you see. That - and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there, according to your deserts, encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, all you demand - and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask” Conrad, from the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus. But that is not what Conrad's novels are about, they deal at a complicated, theological, and cerebral level with the difficulty of true communion, coupled with the idea that communion can be unexpectedly forced on us. He explores the ways in which the codes we live by are tested in moments of crisis, revealing their inadequacy or our own, or occasionally the grace of a few simple giants among men. Conrad's men are motivated by the complex conflicts of the love and hate, good and evil, within them.

Conrad sailed on a number of fine square riggers including the passenger clipper Torrens and rose to the rank of master mariner commanding the barque Otago. Narcissus was a real ship, a pretty Clyde built semi-clipper and Conrad sailed on her as second mate. Conrad's descriptions of life on the “heartless sea” and the operation of sailing ships are indisputably work of the highest authenticity and rank amongst the canon of must-reads for anyone seriously interested in the subject. That said, for me, Conrad is far from easy to read. His writing seems unnecessarily laboured and if he can find ten different ways to say something he rarely leaves any of them untried. The late-Victorian/Edwardian style of prose which he epitomises is the style which Hemmingway's clipped, matter-of-fact prose is a reaction to - and a very necessary reaction too, in my opinion.

Conrad, christened Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, did not have an easy life. His parents were of the Polish land-owning class but his father, a Polish nationalist, was exiled to Siberia by the Russians who ruled their part of Poland/Ukraine. Conrad spent some of his early childhood in Siberia and was orphaned at an early age. He was then brought up by his uncle. Although he had never seen the sea he expressed a strong desire to go to sea and, as a teenager set out for Marseilles and joined a French ship. His early career as a merchant mariner was none-too-respectable, he became involved in gun-running, through gambling he amassed considerable debts, and because of an unhappy affair or the debts attempted suicide by shooting himself through the chest. His later career with the British merchant marine was more favourable, but his time as skipper of a river boat on the Congo left him prone to recurrent fevers and gout for the rest of his life. He left the sea in 1894 and married the following year, living near Ashford, Kent, which by English standards is a long way from the sea. He began his literary career then, but it was twenty years before he was able to earn a good living. Before his death in 1924 he refused a knighthood offered by Prime Minster Ramsay MacDonald. (It has been proposed that another Prime Minister, A. J. Balfour ghosted Conrad's writing. Conrad had no opportunity to practice spoken English before he was twenty-one and his fluency and facility with the language are remarkable; however, his father was a translator of English literature.) Writing was not an easy or pleasant undertaking for Conrad. On finishing Nostromo he commented, “an achievement upon which my friends may congratulate me as upon recovery from a dangerous illness.”

The Nigger of the Narcissus, his third novel, describes a homeward voyage from India rounding The Cape in winter, with the ship Narcissus getting knocked down on her beam ends. It is also a story of troubled inter-personal relationships, an exploration of compulsion, obsession and neurosis - most of the characters can be seen as either weirdly hysterical or Hollywood-heroic. And it is a heavy exploration of Conrad's gloomy Slavic soul. Even in a ship romping across tropical seas before a favourable monsoon Conrad sees dark despair and regret: “like the earth that had given her up to the sea, she [the ship] had an intolerable load of hopes and regrets”.

Conrad is very fond of the words “intolerable” “torment” and “lonely”, but I don't always know what he intends by them. E-text allows me to check which words of gloom are used most - shadow, shadows or shadowy appear nearly forty times. I checked to see whether the usage was mainly metaphorical, adjectival or literal but couldn't tell - the distinction becomes blurred in Conrad's writing. Here is an example describing the ship becalmed at night: “And nothing in her was real, nothing was distinct and solid but the heavy shadows that filled her decks with their unceasing and noiseless stir; the shadows blacker than the night and more restless than the thoughts of men.” Those shadows are not really shadows, not exactly metaphorical, but they are archetypally Conradian in their restlessness. In the last paragraph of Narcissus Conrad writes: “Then on the waters of the forlorn stream drifts a ship--a shadowy ship manned by a crew of Shades. They pass and make a sign, in a shadowy hall.” Why the upper case “Shades”? The metaphorical equation between shadow and the soul's relation to death is always at play in Conrad's writing. Members of the ship's company going about their daily business always loom like unquiet ghosts, and I don't understand why they do that.

A good deal of Conrad's introspective writing goes over my head. Take this sentence discussing “true peace" - the opposite of restlessness”: “The true peace of God begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land; and when He sends there the messengers of His might it is not in terrible wrath against crime, presumption, and folly, but paternally, to chasten simple hearts - ignorant hearts that know nothing of life and beat undisturbed by envy and greed.” Conrad is saying that seamen are guileless men with good hearts. The innate morality or sanctity of untutored, rough, simple seamen is probably the main theme of The Nigger. But such a weighty pronouncement probably carries theological significance, and it eludes me. Here Conrad describes the mate calling the muster: “He called distinctly in a serious tone befitting his roll-call to unquiet loneliness, to inglorious and obscure struggle, or to the more trying endurance of small privations and wearisome duties.” I suspect that if I'd been there I wouldn't have picked up all that terrible signification in the mate's intonation.

All that unquiet loneliness, inglorious and wearisome duties, come from Conrad's tortured Slavic soul. What was it that troubled him so? Perhaps the answer lies in what Conrad never discusses. Neither romantic love nor sexual gratification are topics that Conrad approaches. His seamen are often heavy drinkers, but do they ever visit brothels? The omission is not simply a question of Victorian morality because his contemporary Thomas Hardy felt no such constraints. It would be very old-fashioned to leave unturned the cold stone under which Conrad's sexuality lies buried. The possibility that he was troubled by homosexual urges is too easily argued for me to leave it alone. (Readers who dislike this kind of twaddle should jump to the next paragraph.) I couldn't help noticing that the paragraphs which bore the greatest burden of gloomy introspection and images of unquiet purgatorial death were close to descriptions of the seamens' big butch bodies in states of undress. This is Conrad describing what others might see as innocent bunks: “The double row of berths yawned black, like graves tenanted by uneasy corpses.” The same paragraph contains the following words and passages: “sybarite” [i.e. luxurious and effeminate person], “A leg hung over the side, very white...”, “Singleton stripped again... his arms crossed on his bare and adorned chest.”, “The nigger, half undressed... a pair of braces beating about his calves.”

A curious aspect of The Nigger of the Narcissus and other Conrad novels is the auctorial stance. Partly the story is told from a removed stance - the events are reported by an narrator not involved in those events, telling us what the various characters do; yet the last page is written in the first person singular (“I”) and some passages are third person plural (“we”), apparently the collective perspective of the men in the forecastle. Conrad was, in fact, second mate of the Narcissus, but the second mate in the story is Mr. Creighton - stern, taciturn and quick to anger, but definitely English - and the story is not told from Creighton's point of view. Conrad's removed narrator is not the traditional omniscient narrator, instead multiple narrators provide unreliable and conflicting views of what is happening - he is, in fact, writing from within the action but his role is invisible. This shifting, sometimes misapprehending, stance allows Conrad to show and explore the complexities of moral judgment and motivations.

There is lots of irony but no joking or obvious humour in Conrad's writing. The seamen on the Narcissus joke and laugh uproariously at times, but Conrad doesn't retail their jokes. However, he does play tricks on the reader. Early in the book, Singleton, the oldest able seaman on the ship is seen slowly reading Pelham, a novel about redefining the role of a dandyaic English aristocracy in an industrialising economy, written by the elitist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Yet at the end of the voyage when he is paid off he cannot sign his name and with difficulty makes a cross. No comment on this inconsistency is offered by the narrator. Singleton has appeared throughout as a tower of strength - self-contained, placid and possessed of a simple sagacity - yet he either pretends to be able to read or pretends illiteracy: the first interpretation would undermine his honour, the second is at least enigmatic since he is presented as guileless and most unlikely to dissemble. But there is another explanation. Early in the book we learn that: “old Singleton... boasted, with the mild composure of long years well spent, that generally from the day he was paid off from one ship till the day he shipped in another he seldom was in a condition to distinguish daylight”. Careful reading reveals that the Singleton who collects his pay is “uncertain as to daylight”. Singleton, is in fact the central character of the novel, though he speaks and acts on the edge of the action most of the time. His patriarchal presence is always there and in his few words he enunciates some of the main ideas of the novel. Singleton didn't stir. A long while after he said, with unmoved face: “Ships!....Ships are all right. It is the men in them!”

Singleton stands as symbol of the passing of a type of humanity and a loss innocence, perhaps also as a symbol of the passing of the age of sail, (an image later evoked by Masefield “We mark their passing as a race of men / Earth shall not see such ships as these again.”) “[Singleton] was only a child of time, a lonely relic of a devoured and forgotten generation. He stood, still strong, as ever unthinking; a ready man with a vast empty past and with no future, with his childlike impulses and his man's passions already dead within his tattooed breast. The men who could understand his silence were gone--those men who knew how to exist beyond the pale of life and within sight of eternity. They had been strong, as those are strong who know neither doubts nor hopes. They had been impatient and enduring, turbulent and devoted, unruly and faithful... they had been men who knew toil, privation, violence, debauchery--but knew not fear, and had no desire of spite in their hearts. [Why say something once if you can say it ten times?] Men hard to manage, but easy to inspire; voiceless men--but men enough to scorn in their hearts the sentimental voices that bewailed the hardness of their fate... Their generation lived inarticulate and indispensable, without knowing the sweetness of affections or the refuge of a home--and died free from the dark menace of a narrow grave. They were the everlasting children of the mysterious sea. Their successors are the grown-up children of a discontented earth. They are less naughty, but less innocent; less profane, but perhaps also less believing; and if they had learned how to speak they have also learned how to whine... They are gone now--and it does not matter. The sea and the earth are unfaithful to their children: a truth, a faith, a generation of men goes--and is forgotten, and it does not matter! Except, perhaps, to the few of those who believed the truth confessed the faith--or loved the men.”

Singleton remains at the wheel for thirty hours when the ship is on her beam-ends (presumably the wheel could have been lashed since the ship wasn't steering, but that would not have fitted the plot) and afterwards, in exhaustion, realises that he is grown old and thus achieves a “completed wisdom”. He is the only one who is assured in his reactions to the slowly dying Negro - neither angry with him nor motivated by guilty compassion. Whether such “everlasting children of the mysterious sea” really existed in such innocent grace is open to question.

Conrad's knowledge of seafaring is above question, but a couple of details, other than not lashing the helm, struck me as curious: topmast stunsails are mentioned though I would have thought they were pretty unusual on an 1876 built ship, especially by the mid-1880s. The other thing I was curious about was the moon rising after dark and then setting before dawn off the island of Flores. Perhaps the moon didn't actually set. What Conrad actually wrote is: “The declining moon drooped sadly in the western board is if withered by the cold touch of a pale dawn.” This is well before dawn on a sub-tropical sea in summer. Why, if it was feeling that dispirited, did the moon bother to get up in the first place?

Copyright © 1999 by Nick Burningham
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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