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221 OF MEN MD SHIPS MD MORTALITY: CONRAD'S THE NIGGER OF THE "NARCISSUS" By C. F. Burgess (Virginia Military Institute) Surprisingly few of Conrad's critics have touched upon the problem of the unity of The Nigger of the "Narcissus." And there JLs a problem . As Albert J. Guerard has observed, Conrad might very readily have ended up with two separate stories, one, the story of Jimmy Wait, and the other, the story of the ship. Narcissus, and its struggle for survival in the midst of the hurricane.i Conrad himself was evidently aware of the precarious game he was playing. Although he was generally pleased with his "Beloved Nigger" and remained pleased with it throughout his life, the composition of the novel cost him more than his usual portion of anguish and soul searching. In fact, bringing the Narcissus to port put Conrad in a sick bed, "a cheap price," he remarked, "for finishing that story."2 One or two of Conrad's early reviewers, who were examining a newlypublished novel and not an established classic, called attention to the book's apparent structural flaws. They were chiefly troubled by the seemingly gratuitous presence of Jimmy Wait in what, to all purposes , appeared to be a nautical yarn and they tended to write off the Nigger as an unfortunate blunder on the part of the author.3 Conversely, it might be noted, if one accepts that the story is centered around Wait, then it is a remarkable tribute to Conrad's narrative genius that, to my knowledge, only James E. Miller has been alert to what is an even more egregious blunder on Conrad's part. If The Nigger of the "Narcissus" is, indeed, seen as essentially Wait's story, "tïïen the novel is seriously flawed, not so much by a "misplaced" middle, as Henry James would have it, but by an inflated middle. In the fifty-three pages required to bring the Narcissus safely through the hurricane, Walt appears physically on only seven pages and even here, he plays a totally passive role.**· It would appear that Conrad has performed some effective sleight of hand and has sold us Typhoon all over again, with a different cast of characters . Yet, only the few anonymous reviewers and Messrs. Guerard and Miller have been troubled by the apparent schizophrenia which besets The Nigger of the "Narcissus." When one turns from structure to statement, however, from how the novel speaks to what the novel says, the case is very different. Virtually all of Conrad's critics have touched upon the theme of the work, and if one accepts the critics* Judgments, the meanings which Conrad attached to his tale are inexhaustible. The readings which have evolved run a full range from the exposure of the crew of the Narcissus to the life force, symbolized by the sea, and to the death force, symbolized by Jimmy Walt, to a study of man's egoism and capacity for self-deception, to the conflict of order, symbolized by the ship and its officers, and anarchy, symbolized by Walt, to the struggle for the crew's loyalties between the good sailor. Singleton, and the bad sailor, Donkln, to the Narcissus as a death ship, to the 222 symbolic voyage from light to darkness or, mlrablle dlctu, from darkness to light, to the conventional construct of the Narcissus as microcosm and the sea as macrocosm, to the even more conventional concept of appearance versus reality.5 If, on the matter of structure we have had a conspiracy of silence, on the matter of theme, there has been veritable garrulousness. And still, for all this critical concern, there has been no effort to integrate the two aspects of the novel, no effort to see if a consideration of the structure will not yield up the meaning. We begin, then, with structure. Is there really this dichotomy in the book, this unresolved conflict of interest between the story of Jimmy Wait and the ordeal of the Narcissus? Conrad evidently felt that the two were entirely compatible. For proof, we need only refer to the title which he fashioned for his novel; the book is about both...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 221-231
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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