The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'
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, or middle, period; others have placed it as the best work of his early, or first, period.
The author's preface to the novel, regarded as a manifesto of literary impressionism, is considered one of Conrad's most significant pieces of non-fiction writing. This preface begins with the line: "A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line".
The title character, James Wait, is a dying West Indian black sailor on board the merchant ship Narcissus sailing from Bombay to London. Wait, suffering from tuberculosis, becomes seriously ill during the voyage, and his plight arouses the humanitarian sympathies of many of the crew. However, the ship's master Captain Alistoun and an old sailor named Singleton remain concerned primarily with their duties and appear indifferent to Wait's condition. Off the Cape of Good Hope the ship capsizes onto her beam-ends with half her hull submerged, and the crew clings onto the deck for an entire night and day, waiting in silence for the ship to turn over the rest of the way and sink. Alistoun refuses to allow the masts to be severed, which might allow the hull to right itself. Five of the men, realizing that Wait is unaccounted for, climb down to his cabin and rescue him at their own peril. When the storm passes and a wind returns, Alistoun directs the weary men to catch the wind, which succeeds in righting the ship. Later in the voyage Alistoun prevents a near-mutiny led by a slippery Cockney named Donkin. Wait eventually succumbs and dies within sight of land, as Singleton had predicted he would.
The work, written in 1896 and partly based on Conrad's experiences of a voyage from Bombay to London, began as a short story but developed into a novella of some 53,000 words. As it grew, Conrad began to think of its being serialized. After Smith Elder had rejected it for the Cornhill Magazine, William Ernest Henley accepted it for the New Review, and Conrad wrote to his agent, Garnett, "Now I have conquered Henley, I ain't 'fraid o' the divvle himself!" Some years later, in 1904, Conrad described this acceptance as "the first event in my writing life which really counted".
In the United States, the novel was first published under 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, not because the word was deemed offensive, but because a book about a black man would not sell.
In 2009, WordBridge Publishing published a new edition titled The N-Word of the Narcissus, which completely excised the word "nigger" from the text. According to the publishers, the offensive word may have led readers to avoid the book, and thus by getting rid of it the work was made more accessible. Although praised by some, others denounced the change as censorship.
The novel can be seen as an allegory about isolation and solidarity, 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 and that a heightened sensitivity to suffering can be detrimental to the management of a human society.
In his critical study of Conrad, John G. Peters said of the work 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."
In popular culture
The film director Ridley Scott, an admirer of Conrad, named the lifeboat in his science fiction movie Alien, "Narcissus", and he also named the ship in the movie after Conrad's Nostromo.
- Jenny Stringer, ed., The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English
- David Daiches, A Critical History of English Literature, vol. 2 (1969, revised edition by Mandarin, 1994, ISBN 0-7493-1894-5)
- Ian Ousby, The Wordsworth Companion to Literature in English (Wordsworth, 1992, revised paperback edition 1994, ISBN 1-85326-336-2)
- Orr, Leonard (1999), A Joseph Conrad Companion, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-29289-2
- Preface, The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and Other Stories" (Digireads, 2010), p. 120
- Peter D. McDonald, British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880-1914 (2002), p. 28
- N-word Narcissus
- Norris W. Yates 'Social Comment in The Nigger of the "Narcissus"' in Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 79, issue 1 (Modern Language Association, 1964), pp. 183–185, DOI 10.2307/460979, jstor 460979
- John G. Peters, The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad (Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-521-54867-0)
- Jacques Berthoud (1978), Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29273-5
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