The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'

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First US edition
(publ. Dodd, Mead and Company)

The Nigger of the 'Narcissus': A Tale of the Sea (1897) is a novella by Joseph Conrad. Because of its quality compared to earlier works, some have described it as marking the start of Conrad's major (middle) period;[1][2] others have placed it as the best work of his early (first) period. John G. Peters said of it in 2006:

"The unfortunately titled The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (titled The Children of the Sea in the first American edition) is Conrad's best work of his early period. In fact, were it not for the book's title, it undoubtedly would be read more often than it is currently. At one time, it was one of Conrad's most frequently read books. In part because of its brevity, in part because of its adventure qualities, and in part because of its literary qualities, the novel used to attract a good deal of attention."[3]

The author's preface to the novel, regarded as a manifesto of literary impressionism,[4] is considered one of Conrad's significant pieces of non-fiction writing.[5]

The title character, James Wait, is a West Indian black sailor on board the merchant ship Narcissus sailing from Bombay to London. Wait falls ill with tuberculosis during the voyage, and his plight arouses the humanitarian sympathies of many of the crew, five of whom rescue him from his deck cabin during a storm, placing their own lives and the ship at risk. Captain Alistoun and the old sailor Singleton, on the other hand, remain concerned primarily with their duties as sailors and are indifferent to Wait's condition.

The novel is seen as an allegory about isolation and solidarity,[6] the ship's company serving as a microcosm of a social group. Conrad appears to suggest that humanitarian sympathies are, at their core, feelings of self-interest[2] and that a heightened sensitivity to suffering can be detrimental to managing a society.[6]

In the United States, the novel was first published with the title The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, at the insistence by the publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company, that no one would buy or read a book with the word nigger in its title,[5] not because the word was deemed offensive but that a book about a black man would not sell.[7]

In 2009, WordBridge Publishing published a new edition titled The N-Word of the Narcissus, which also excised the word nigger from the text. According to the publisher, the point was to get rid of the offensive word, which may have led readers to avoid the book, and make it more accessible.[8] Though praised in some quarters, many others denounced the change as censorship.

British film director Ridley Scott, an admirer of Conrad, named the ship in his science fiction movie Alien after Nostromo, and its lifeboat the Narcissus.


  1. ^ Stringer, Jenny, ed. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English.
  2. ^ a b Daiches, David (1994), A Critical History of English Literature 2 (Revised (1969) ed.), Mandarin, ISBN 0-7493-1894-5 
  3. ^ John G. Peters. The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge University Press. 2006. ISBN 978-0-521-54867-0
  4. ^ Ousby, Ian (1994), The Wordsworth Companion to Literature in English (Revised (1992) paperback ed.), Wordsworth, ISBN 1-85326-336-2 
  5. ^ a b Orr, Leonard (1999), A Joseph Conrad Companion, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-29289-2 
  6. ^ a b Yates, Norris W. (1964), Social Comment in The Nigger of the "Narcissus", Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America (Modern Language Association) 79 (1): 183–185, doi:10.2307/460979, JSTOR 460979 
  7. ^
  8. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Jacques Berthoud (1978), Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29273-5 

External links[edit]