I wrote yesterday that the idea of work was important to sea narratives. I discussed this back when I was doing the maritime literature unit. I’m a little bit sad that I didn’t read, or even think to read, “Narcissus” back then, because it would have been perfect. The ultimate sea voyage narrative in so many ways.
Conrad develops a morality of work here. The men of the crew take an immediate dislike to Donkin, because they can tell he shirks his duty and does not work hard. James Wait, on the other hand, is seen as highly desirable when he first appears on deck; the first and second mate both want him in their watch because they can see how strong he is and what a good worker he seems. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, and his shirking of duty will have a profound effect on the whole psychology of the crew.
The rightness of work is made clear as soon as the ship gets away from land, which is a generally unhealthy and negative place, with all its opportunities not to work. On the Narcissus, just after the mate puts everyone’s nose to the grindstone:
The men working about the deck were healthy and contented—as most seamen are, when once well out to sea. 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 or greed.
The simple hearts of the sailors stay that way, it seems, because they don’t have much chance to become anything else. Patterns of work and idleness actually affect the way they deal with James Wait, and how much sway over the crew he and his condition hold. Those instances are, if not subtle, at least not explicitly pointed out by Conrad. He does call direct attention to the issue in places, however, most notably just after the storm has cleared.
The storm is almost unbelievably intense, described as a once-in-a-lifetime event for many sailors. The ship ends up on its side, for at least 18 hours or so. During this whole time the men must hold on for dear life. Somehow, the cook manages to brew hot coffee in his cabin. The men, half-frozen, realize that James Wait is still holed up in his cabin, a makeshift sick bay on deck. Several risk their lives to save his—not that he’s terribly grateful for their trouble, mind. And still, they all cling to the ship, lashing themselves to the deck for hours in freezing temperatures while the storm still rages around them. Finally, the ship rights itself. The sails are set. Singleton, the oldest crew member, steers “with care.” But the men do not have time to reflect on the life-threatening experience they have just been through:
On men reprieved by its disdainful mercy, the immortal sea confers in its justice the full privilege of desired unrest. Through the perfect wisdom of its grace they are not permitted to meditate at ease upon the complicated and acrid savour of existence. They must without pause justify their life to the eternal pity that commands toil to be hard and unceasing, from sunrise to sunset, from sunset to sunrise; till the weary succession of nights and days tainted by the obstinate clamour of sages, demanding bliss and an empty heaven, is redeemed at last by the vast silence of pain and labour, by the dumb fear and the dumb courage of men obscure, forgetful, and enduring.
For Conrad, though it’s not necessarily expressed in this novel, men face a problem in self-examination. The tendency toward it can be overwhelming, but the soul does not hold up well under scrutiny; the self does not bear examining. How to avoid it? Hard and unceasing toil, here at least.