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Racism and The Nigger of the "Narcissus"

From: Conradiana
Volume 43, Numbers 2-3, Fall/Winter 2011
pp. 51-66 | 10.1353/cnd.2011.0032

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The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897) foreshadows, even suggests prescience of, present-day social concerns—racism, the unionization of labor, socialism/ capitalism, whereas the other major sea tales such as Typhoon, "The Secret Sharer" and The Shadow-Line are more at a remove in their impact on the contemporary reader, given that these have more to do with the Merchant Service as such. It is true that Typhoon brings in the coolie trade, but it is an episode of the distant imperial past, more remote to people in the developed rather than the developing countries. The Nigger of the "Narcissus" also enjoys priority because it is, in the words of Henry James, "the very finest and strongest fiction of the sea and sea-life that our language possesses—the masterpiece in a whole class" (Stape and Knowles 367), a view which is not merely "typical of the affection in which the novel is held" (Knowles and Moore 278) but is a reflection of its remarkable impact on the reader. In an interview in 1931, William Faulkner stated: "The two books I like best are Moby Dick and The Nigger of the Narcissus" (Qtd. Stape 227-28). The continuing relevance and topicality of The Nigger were curiously confirmed in 2009 when Reuben Alvarado, owner of WordBridge Publishing in the Netherlands issued The N-word of the "Narcissus," replacing the offensive term "nigger" with "n-word" in Conrad's tale, the first of the publisher's Classic Texts series "featuring texts with a message for moderns, made accessible to moderns." This edition sidesteps the issue of race, important historically and culturally, and particularly today as a crucial cause of conflicts within and between nations.

The opening scene of the tale is arresting, and it sets the stage. Members of the cast—Baker, Belfast, Wamibo the Russian Finn, the two Norwegians, Singleton—are shown, while the Captain, off-stage, is referred to—almost a kind of portrait gallery. The importance of the Merchant Service to the thematics is clear from the outset; in a letter to Arthur Quiller-Couch of 23 December 1897, Conrad said: "it has been my desire to do for seamen what Millet . . . has done for peasants." (CL I 430-31) Then there occurs the delayed, dramatic entrance of the Afro-Caribbean Wait that focuses all eyes on the "nigger" and draws attention to his surname. When he first cries it out, it seems a verb and sounds like a command. Eugene B. Redmond points out "the Wait-late equation and the weight-burden/ed pairing" (Redmond 361), meanings generated by the evocative name, increasingly important as the narrative unfolds. In as far as Wait is first presented as tall, impressive, "disdainful" and capable of imposing his will on the white sailors, "standing easy" while manipulating them to carry his baggage before he is credited with illness, he builds himself up as a figure invested with dignity, calm and confident, perhaps in a conscious maneuver to compensate for his weak and isolated position, a kind of preemptive defense and pose of superiority, not to be dissipated by the term "nigger." Nowhere in the narrative, here nor elsewhere (as in Belfast's attempts to make him comfortable), is there a sign of a color bar, but racism, introduced by the reference to Wait as "the nigger" and used constantly, becomes increasingly prominent, heralded by the description: "a head powerful and misshapen, with a tormented and flattened face—a face pathetic and brutal; the tragic, the mysterious, the repulsive mask of a nigger's soul" (Nigger 11). Specifically applied to Wait, it is then generalized. "Mask" maintains the aura of dignity and possible worth with which the delineation of Wait begins, contributing to our fascination with the revelation we wait for as we read on to know the heart of the mystery. But "the mask" is not really a mask as, when it is stripped away, the "soul" too is "repulsive"—brutal, craven, driven by nothing nobler than indolence and craving for physical comfort. Not a nice picture of an African. The fact that Wait is preceded by Donkin, contemptible, his worst characteristics highlighted without subtlety, signals that two disruptive forces have...

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