The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’

  • Benita Parry


When Lord Jim (1901) is read in conjunction with The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), the amalgam of defensive and subversive strategies in the later work stands out as an interrogation of the authoritarian philosophy which the earlier fiction underwrites. Both novels partake of received meanings and even in the ideologically heterodox Lord Jim, opposition to imperialism’s world-outlook is deflected by the fiction’s endorsement of patriotism as the noblest sentiment and ethnic solidarity as the ultimate loyalty. But crucial differences exist and these can be seen as a measure of Conrad’s self-contradictory stance towards official ideas and values. Where the novella upholds the power to act, the longer fiction contemplates the faculty of visionary imagination, and where the first stands by the ethic of responsibility to socially appointed duties and excludes from its discussion further questions of the ends such action serves, the second reflects on the propriety of pursuing disentitled ideals at the expense of transgressing mores that govern the existing order. The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ militantly sponsors the commandment on ‘law, order, duty and restraint, obedience, discipline’ that had been hymned by Kipling and handed down as scripture to imperialism’s servants, while Lord Jim considers the validity of heretical alternatives to imperialism’s formal prescriptions.


White Skin Deep Rolling Narrative Voice Death Instinct Ethnic Solidarity 
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  1. 2.
    Jacques Berthoud, Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase (Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 6.
    Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Chatto and Windus, 1980), p. 125. For Watt ‘the heroic figure of Singleton’ is associated with ‘the millennial continuity of human solidarity … Unlike other members of the crew of the Narcissus, Singleton is absolute in his unthinking commitment to the spirit of a simpler phase of society’ (p. 123).Google Scholar
  3. Cf. Tony Tanner, ‘Butterflies and Beetles — Conrad’s Two Truths’ in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Lord Jim: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited Robert E. Kuehn (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969), first published Chicago Review, xvi, No. 1 (1963), who writes of Conrad’s presentation of Singleton: ‘It makes it seem as though he were acting in unflinching compliance with a categorical imperative. The particularly Conradian aspect of this concept of duty is the fact that he can no longer produce the sanctions and proofs which would justify and endorse the standards of conduct which he nevertheless feels to be “imperative”’ (p. 66–7).Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    The function of Wait’s blackness in the fiction has been given various interpretations: Michael J. C. Echeruo, The Conditioned Imagination From Shakespeare to Conrad: Studies in the Exo-Cultural Stereotype (London: Macmillan, 1978), who argues that the seriousness of a work of literature is directly the function of the force of the conditioning frenzy or prejudice, maintains that Wait is symbolic not in the ordinary sense of representing an abstract idea, but in the special sense that ‘Conrad asserts a correspondence … between the imaginative predispositions of his European audience to this black sailor and his realised role in the novel’. Since Conrad is dependent for the presentation of Wait on the long-standing association of the black person with the brute and of physical blackness with moral darkness, ‘the symbolic power of Wait’s blackness is not a metaphoric construct but a kind of brutal fact to which Conrad draws attention in the story’ (quotations from pp. 101, 103). Vernon Young in ‘Trial by Water’, op. cit., accounts for Conrad’s racism by claiming that his experience with African ‘savages’ justified his using the type as illustrative of the black-magical and the ‘unevolved’. When describing Wait’s face, Young continues, Conrad ‘was enjoying the privilege, apparently inevitable to their psychology, which the white races have taken upon themselves, of seeing the dark races as either exotic or sinister but in any case inferior’ (p. 114).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Benita Parry 1983

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  • Benita Parry

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