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The Nigger of the "Narcissus": A Tale of the Forecastle

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    There is a reason Joseph Conrad is considered one of the greatest novelists of the English language. Next to Charles Dickens, he is certainly my second favorite. Thanks to the efforts of Project Gutenberg, I am elated that I now have access to almost everything he wrote.
    This is yet another of his masterpieces, a very early work, first published in 1897. Unfortunately, because the title is offensive to many, it perhaps has not received the attention is should get. Don't misunderstand—I am totally opposed to racial slurs or an words that purposely insult any group of people. But that's not what this book is about. It is a seafaring story, and roughened seamen weren't concerned about being politically correct. (For its first U.S. printing it was entitled "The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle" which I find a bit ridiculous, having read the book.)
    Conrad probed the depths of the human psyche; he sought to present the human experience and all its faults and imperfections; anguish, suffering, seeking. His books are often enigmas—one doesn't really know what they are about until they're over, and even then, one must ponder and let the fullness of his message slowly mature within one's mind. Conrad developed a certain style to unveil the mysteries of his novels like scraping layers and layers of frost off a window until the view becomes clear.
    Conrad himself was a seaman; (he reached the rank of Captain). I guess once its in your blood, it's there forever, kinda like farming. He is probably best known for his seafaring stories, which were drawn from his own experience, and he sometimes used real names. The "Narcissus" was actually a ship on which he sailed in 1884. Though the book itself is written in the third person, there is a narrator, an unnamed character, who shows up now and then. That character was Conrad himself. In the opening note "To My Readers in America," Conrad talks about the "Nigger:"

"From that evening when James Wait joined the ship—late for the muster of the crew—to the moment when he left us in the open sea, shrouded in sailcloth through an open port, I had much to do with him. He was in my watch. A negro in a British forecastle is a lonely being. He has no chums. Yet James Wait, afraid of death and making her his accomplice was an impostor of some character—mastering our compassion, scornful of our sentimentalism, triumphing over our suspicions.

But in the book he is nothing; he is merely the centre of the ship's collective psychology and the pivot of the action. Yet he, who in the family circle and amongst my friends is familiarly referred to as the Nigger, remains very precious to me. For the book written round him is not the sort of thing that can be attempted more than once in a lifetime. It is the book by which, not as a novelist perhaps, but as an artist striving for the utmost sincerity of expression, I am willing to stand or fall. Its pages are the tribute of my unalterable and profound affection for the ships, the seamen, the winds and the great sea—moulders of my youth, the companions of the best years of my life."

    He also goes on to say that at this point he knew he was to spend the rest of his life as a writer, not a seaman.
    Incidentally, if Conrad's seafaring books were based on his own experiences, he must have been through some real doozies—sea voyages from hell. No one could write with such realism unless they had been through it all. Typically, when I finish a Conrad novel, I am utterly emotionally exhausted. I sit, I sigh, I just stare, often with my mouth gaping. Gradually I am able to move again, and I am transported back to my own reality. But books like this, where not only must one deal with the weighty emotional burdens of the characters, one must go through a typhoon as well! I first experienced this in the collection of stories entitled The Secret Sharer. Oh, my.
    And now, briefly to the story: It begins in Bombay, as the Narcissus is preparing to return to London. A black man boards shortly before the ship sets sail. He is sickly and has a loud cough. His name is James Wait.
    But the story really isn't about him at all, as Conrad states above. He does nothing and says very little, and when he does speak, his words are filled with contempt. He plays almost no role in the action, but it is the psychological effect his presence has on the rest of the crew that makes him a fascinating character.
    And Conrad's characters are always fascinating. We've met quite a few before Wait. Mr. Baker is the chief mate—all business and talks with a recurring grunt—Ough! Captain Allistoun is still ashore seeking new crew members. There are the regulars—Craik, called Belfast, who likes to get the newcomers worked up with his tall tales. And there's Archie, Charley, two giant Scandinavians, and a Russian Finn. There's Old Singleton, a grizzly man of the sea who says little, but is well seasoned and has been through it all. There's a wisdom and stability about him that sets him apart. The cook, Podmore, is a preachy, self-righteous Christian. And there's the ship's cat. The regular guys are basically good.
    Then Donkin comes aboard—"a man with shifty eyes and a yellow hatchet face," filthy with barely clothes on his back. He is bad news and has never worked an honest day in his life.

"This clean white forecastle was his refuge; the place where he could be lazy; where he could wallow, and lie and eat—and curse the food he ate; where he could display his talents for shirking work, for cheating, for cadging; where he could find surely some one to wheedle and some one to bully—and where he would be paid for doing all this. It is his relationship with Wait that becomes the most interesting."

    Wait is the last to show up.

"The nigger was calm, cool, towering, superb. The men had approached and stood behind him in a body. He overtopped the tallest by half a head. He said: "I belong to the ship." He enunciated distinctly, with soft precision. the deep, rolling tones of his voice filled the deck without effort. He was naturally scornful, unaffectedly condescending, as if from his height of six foot three he had surveyed all the vastness of human folly and had made up his mind not to be too hard on it."

    But despite his strong presence, there is something wrong.

"Suddenly the nigger's eyes rolled wildly, became all whites. He put his hand to his side and coughed twice, a cough metallic, hollow, and tremendously loud; it resounded like two explosions in a vault; the dome of the sky rang to it, and the iron plates of the ship's bulwarks seemed to vibrate in unison, then he marched off forward with the others."

    This is the beginning of his uncanny influence, not only to the crew, but the ship herself. He soon makes it clear that he is too ill to work, and his cough worsens. He takes to his bed and does little else. He says he is dying.
    But there is something mysterious about him that draws the others near, especially Belfast, who even steals officers' food for him. Yet he treats them terribly and thinks only of himself. There is an underlying opinion that his illness may not be real and he may be faking it only to be paid at the end of the voyage. This possibility fascinates the crew even more.

"It was just what they had expected to hear, that idea of a stalking death, thrust at them many times a day like a boast and like a menace by this obnoxious nigger. He seemed to take a pride in that death which, so far, had attended only upon the ease of his life; he was overbearing about it, as if no one else in the world had ever been intimate with such a companion; he paraded it unceasingly before us with an affectionate persistence that made its presence indubitable, at the same time incredible. No man could be suspected of such a monstrous friendship! Was he a reality—or was he a sham—this ever-expected visitor of Jimmy's? We hesitated between pity and mistrust, while, on the slightest provocation, he shook before our eyes the bones of his bothersome and infamous skeleton."

    It is Singleton who quietly points out that a dying man aboard ship will finally expire at the sight of land. And the events of the voyage seemed to prove that this dying man was preventing that ship from reaching land. They get stuck in the typhoon from hell. Captain Allistoun cares little for the welfare of the crew; his main concern is to save the ship at all costs.

"He had commanded the Narcissus since she was built. He loved his ship, and drove her unmercifully; for his secret ambition was to make her accomplish some day a brilliantly quick passage which would be mentioned in nautical papers."

    The voyage becomes catastrophic—the ship takes on a personality of her own—as if she works against those aboard.

"Captain Allistoun, looking more hard and thin-lipped than ever, hung on to full topsails and foresail, and would not notice that the ship, asked to do too much, appeared to lose heart altogether for the first time since we knew her. She refused to rise, and bored her way sullenly through the seas. Twice running, as though she had been blind or weary of life, she put her nose deliberately into a big wave and swept the decks from end to end. As the boatswain observed with marked annoyance, while we were splashing about in a body to try and save a worthless wash-tub:—'Every blooming thing in the ship is going overboard this afternoon.' Venerable Singleton broke his habitual silence and said with a glance aloft:—'The old man's in a temper with the weather, but it's no good bein' angry with the winds of heaven.' Jimmy had shut his door, of course. We knew he was dry and comfortable within his little cabin, and in our absurd way were pleased one moment, exasperated the next, by that certitude."

    The storm worsens and nearly all the crew's belongings, and much food and supplies go overboard. They are freezing, and drenched as the ship takes on more water. In their frenzy to save her and themselves, everyone temporarily forgets Jimmy, until someone realizes he is trapped in his cabin. They risk life and limb to rescue him, with Belfast being the one who pulls him out. With no thanks from Jimmy of course—as usual, their efforts are treated with cold contempt.
    Eventually, between the storm, Jimmy, and Donkin, emotions are so heightened that the crew comes close to mutiny, or at least, a refusal to obey, coupled with seething anger toward the Captain and disunity among themselves.
    As is typical with Conrad, the plot of the story is less important than the character portraits that he paints, and this one certainly is an incredible character study—the human experience pushed to its limits. And as with all Conrad's books, it is highly recommended reading.


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