Conrad’s ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’: High art through the lens of racial tension


by Joe McCarthy

In all sea-going tales one finds a common thread of symbolism pointing to a larger dilemma or ‘grand narrative’ in which the author probes the crevices of the human soul and sees his worldview exemplified. Melville’s Moby Dick portrays the tortured themes of obsession and redemption as personified in Captain Ahab in his quest for the great whale: his pursuit ending in a lamentable tragedy, as all such ill advised grail-like endeavors must; the message being that the redemptive urge must be tempered by the golden mean of balanced equilibrium lest the path taken end in madding, obsessive destruction.

Equally exalted through distinctly poignant themes are pursued by that master of sea borne adventure, the Anglicized Polish novelist Joseph Conrad (born Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski) in his awkwardly titled (at least to modern eyes) story The Nigger of the Narcissus, which is best understood as an attempt by the author to deliver both a homily and a tribute to that capacity within the human soul which enables the creation of art that transcends yet simultaneously allows man to see life in all its gritty reality. Perhaps Conrad’s descriptive soliloquy in describing the point of his enterprise manifests when he says in his preface that art, which necessarily includes his own, “appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of the responsive emotions.”

This appeal to the emotive can be said to be the hallmark of the artist’s purpose, in contradistinction to the more dispassionate, rational discourse of the theoretical. Keats said it best in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds in noting that, “extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people – it takes away the heat and fever;” yet in converse to this he recognized that it is precisely this “heat and fever” which is lacking in the realm of pure reason as he went on to observe that it is “impossible to know how far Knowledge will console us for the death of a friend…” This understanding of the need for that which reaches into the pores of human experience and extracts depth and feeling is the keystone to a truly ascendant art.

Our tale centers around one James Wait, a black crewman who is reviled by the other members aboard the ship Narcissus – an ocean-going vessel embarking on a voyage from Bombay to London. The general tone in regards to feeling on board toward Wait can be seen in the narration that he “became the tormentor of all our moments; he was worse than a nightmare. You couldn’t see that there was anything wrong with him: a nigger does not show. He was not very fat – certainly – but then he was no leaner than other niggers we had known.”

The theme of strong racial resentment, mutually held by both Wait and the other members of the ship, is developed further in the clash between Wait and Belfast: “Belfast approached our nigger with great fury,” upon which Wait responds to Belfast in taunting derision – “you little Irish lunatic, you!” The predictable melee follows, with Wait ending up on his back, overlooked by a steaming adversary: “We expected Belfast to strangle Wait without more ado. Dust flew. We heard it through the nigger’s cough, metallic and explosive like a gong. Next moment we saw Belfast hanging over him.”

The principle that like attracts like and that ‘birds of a feather flock together,’ is given its motive force in Wait’s disappointment upon finding that the Narcissus has a white cook: “Again he was heard asking: ‘Is your cook a coloured gentleman?’ Then a disappointed and disapproving ‘Ah! h’m!’ was his comment upon the information that the cook happened to be a mere white man.”

Over five decades after the court dictated the end of state sanctioned school segregation, where blacks continue to voluntarily self-segregate themselves in school cafeterias, and where various in your face racial clubs are seen on campus, perhaps Conrad can help us to see that there is something natural in one’s Being which demands that a person’s sense of self is undergirded with a pride in belonging to a distinct race or group, even if such a fact makes liberals wince.

What struck this writer most in reading this work, beyond the overarching racial struggle, is the microcosm of larger events that it articulates. Aboard a small ship, traveling through the Indian Ocean, we are witness to an allegory demonstrating the futility of multicultural do-goodism, which seeks to artificially thrust disparate peoples together, ignoring the inherent Darwinian ‘struggle for life’ between varieties of the same species. Indeed, The Nigger even contains instances of the whites on the ship insulting each other in ethnically tingled slurs, thus adding even further validation to the theorem of inherent hostility found toward the ‘other,’ which post-structuralists such as Derrida would prefer be glossed over, yet nonetheless is undoubtedly with us. The underlying current, seen time and time again in Thomas Sowell’s celebrated trilogy on race and its relation to culture, is that societies, which Conrad’s book can be seen as a representation of in the micro, featuring ‘diverse’ cultures can only exist in one of two ways, to wit: with the dominant group in a position of oppressive empowerment over the weaker, or with the divergent groups in a state of turmoil. This, Conrad’s story demonstrates powerfully, if subliminally. The ship’s crew are sent into an uproar, for want of homogeneity, and what is true in this fictional account aboard a ship featuring what Conrad describes as the “obscure lives of a few individuals out of all the disregarded multitude,” is true as well in the real life society at large. Art is a reflection of the reality of the bitter underbelly of human intercourse is ultimately Conrad’s message, and we’d be wise to heed it.