The Nigger of the “Narcissus” is Conrad’s third novel, and as John G. Peters wrote about this “unfortunately titled” book, “it undoubtedly would be read more often than it is currently” if it were called something else. No joke. Conrad’s symbolic use of the black West Indian James Wait is “problematic” enough (to say the least); the title does not make this a pleasant book to read (or tell someone you’re reading, or talk about, or write about…).
The first American edition was called instead The Children of the Sea (not, I’ve read, because the original title was offensive, but because a novel that appeared to be about a black man wouldn’t have sold). My first thought, as I made my way through the novel, was that Children of the Sea was an infinitely more apt title to begin with. But it turns out it’s more apt as the title of one of the two books contained in Nigger of the “Narcissus”, which packs a lot of psychology into a short novel.
The novel open with the “Narcissus” in Bombay Harbor, just finished taking on its crew for the homeward voyage. As the mate finishes the roll call, the last sailor on the list shows up, James Wait. He is “calm, cool, towering, superb,” and the sole black crew member, and as he heads to the forecastle, he coughs ominously, insisting that he simply has a cold.
Not long after, Wait is laid up, unable to work for the rest of the voyage and eager to remind his fellow crew that he is “a dying man,” in need of peace, quiet, and delicate foods. This weighs on the crew, having the specter of their mortality hanging over the ship like this, but the same time they develop the tenderest of feelings for Wait.
The scene thus set, the “Narcissus” begins to round the Cape of Good Hope. The captain is pushing her too hard. A spectacular storm, spectacularly described by Conrad, turns the ship on her side. The extreme trauma of the storm brings the crew to new levels of solidarity.
After the storm scene, which occupies a few days and a fair amount of the novel, the James Wait storyline picks back up. Wait is a burden on the ship. He causes discord, and through occult reasons best understood by superstitious sailors, the ship cannot get home while he still lives.
What I mean by “the James Wait storyline” should be clear enough, I think. So what’s the second book in this book? It’s the pilgrimage, the journey made by the crew, a microcosm of humanity, on the ship, a microcosm of the earth. Conrad is explicit about this. The narrator often explains, in a way that could be fairly called Victorian, the meaning of what he is describing.
The narrator is a fascinating topic all his own, by the way.
But this pilgrimage story, it’s brilliant. One of the best sea stories I’ve read, no question, and I’ve read a lot. This “children of the sea” novella on its own would have been a first-rate book well worth reading. The formation of the crew as a crew, from a group of individuals, the way its solidarity develops, and then the way it disintegrates again when the ship reaches London, are all superb.
The other story is harder. It’s darker and more difficult and much less pleasant. It mustn’t do much for Conrad’s reputation with Chinua Achebe, either—Conrad wrote in a preface to a later American edition, which carried the original title, that Wait “is nothing; he is merely the centre of the ship’s collective psychology and the pivot point of the action.” This is his status “in the book,” though Conrad also describes him as “very precious to me.” This won’t satisfy any number of critics, and there is a huge mass of color symbolism in the novel that I have only just begun to wade through. I probably won’t be talking much about those issues this week, but they are certainly there and deserve to be explored more fully than I will this time around.