Places: The Nigger of the Narcissus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1897

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Symbolic realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed<i>Narcissus</i>

NarcissusNigger of the Narcissus, The. Freighter on which the novel’s action takes place, as the ship sails from India to Britain, going around Southern Africa. The Narcissus is modeled on a real ship on which Conrad worked in 1884. A light/dark, white/black, life/death motif begins within the ship’s forecastle even before the arrival on board of the black sailor, Wait. The narrator notes how the light there illuminates the white of the berths and only the heads of the men, whose bodies “were lost in the gloom of those places, that resembled narrow niches for coffins in a whitewashed and lighted mortuary,” and takes on a new dimension with Wait’s boarding the ship. With Wait confined there at the beginning of the voyage because of his mysterious illness, the forecastle becomes the focal point for the crew’s emotional life and id-like underworld in which the men respond in various ways, according to their beliefs and temperaments, to the shadow of their own mortality.

The above-deck section of the ship represents the visible ego-like area, a place illuminated by the light of day and controlled by the captain, whose elevated “Olympian” position on the poop deck suggests the hierarchical position and the role of the superego. The dark, emotional turmoil of the forecastle moves above deck when Wait is moved into the deckhouse, an effort intended to quell the mutinous spirit arising from Wait’s impossible demands on crew’s time and emotions and Donkin’s ceaseless shirking and grumbling about mistreatment. The inner storm is externalized not only by the movement of Wait into the light of day and reason but also by a strong gale that the ship encounters at this point.

*Cape of Good Hope

*Cape of Good Hope. Peninsula near the southern tip of Africa separating the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean. Conrad selected this location–the literal turning point of his novel’s journey–to draw together several of the novel’s themes: the early modernist sense of isolation and alienation alluded to by the description of the ship as a lone, minuscule, foundering object tossed about by enormously powerful forces in contrast to the men’s teamwork; the saving dignity of good, hard, honest labor in spite of the facts that it will neither be noticed nor prevent the inevitable end to life; and the hope to be found both in wise, attentive, self-sacrificing leaders and in men willing to set aside their private desires when so demanded by higher authority for a greater good than any one individual’s satisfaction.

The men’s ability to survive the storm is due primarily to their knowledge of ships and seamen, and the watchfulness, the concern, and the devotion of Captain Allistoun. After traveling far southward both geographically and psychically, facing the traditional hero’s three major trials, in this case a gale, a near mutiny, and the death of Jim Wait after the storm–the crewmen demonstrate, by the spirit with which they approach their work, a better understanding of themselves and a rebirth in spirits as they travel northward. All except Donkin are united for that time before landfall by a sense of solidarity.

*Bombay

*Bombay. City in west central India that is now called Mumbai. Bombay is the exotic East of seamen’s romantic dreams, the symbolic dawning place of the journey, and a representative example of the darkness and corruption that Conrad associates with the land: the men are not happy until well out to sea and into their normal work routine. The darkest elements emerging from the land of Bombay are two new seamen, Donkin, an agitator, and Jim Wait, late to come aboard and thereby necessitating a “wait” for his arrival. Wait is the only black member of the crew, and a dying man whose process of decline and whose attitudes toward death and his fellow crewmen become a nearly unbearable “weight” on the rest of the men.

*London

*London. Capital city of Great Britain and the journey’s end in the novel. Once the men are ashore, the land exerts its influence, drawing to its corrupt bosom the ill-natured Donkin (despising the sea, he takes a job on land) even as the wilderness appears to have patted the head of its child Kurtz, in Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899), and scattering to the winds the men who once sailed together on the Narcissus.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Joseph Conrad. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A selection of critical essays that help place The Nigger of the “Narcissus” within the framework of Conrad’s fictions.Karl, Frederick R. A. Reader’s Guide to Joseph Conrad. Rev. ed. New York: Noonday Press, 1969. An introductory volume, especially helpful in guiding the reader through the actions and activities of the novel and relating them to Conrad’s thematic and artistic concerns.Schwarz, Daniel R. Conrad: “Almayer’s Folly” to “Under Western Eyes.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. Views The Nigger of the “Narcissus” in terms of Conrad’s developing style and point of view as an author, relating this growth to his own psychological state.Watt, Ian. “Conrad Criticism and The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus.’ ” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 12 (March, 1958): 257-283. Although considerably dated, this is a valuable survey of critical views of the novel from its publication to the mid-twentieth century.Winner, Anthony. Culture and Irony: A Study in Conrad’s Major Novels. Charlottesville: University Press of Virgina, 1988. Although the contrast between East and West is not strongly represented in The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” the dichotomy between the land-based and sea-based views of life gives Conrad, in the novella, ample material.
Categories: Places