The Nigger of the "Narcissus" Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The British freighter Narcissus sits in Bombay harbor on a hot, sticky tropical night in the 1890’s. Already loaded, it is to sail the next morning on its homeward voyage. The last crew member to come aboard is a huge black man, James Wait. Wait has a severe cough and asks his shipmates to help him in stowing his gear. A little later, the men are in their bunks, and the only sound is snoring, interrupted at times by Wait’s fits of coughing.

At daylight, the Narcissus sails. That evening, as the sailors gather in little groups about the deck, the laughter and yarn spinning ceases at the sound of a weak rattle in Wait’s bunk. It ends with a moan. Wait climbs up on deck, looks about, and makes the men miserable by berating them for making so much noise that he, a dying man, could have no rest. It seems, after a few days, that Wait looks upon his approaching death as a friend. He parades his trouble to everyone, railing bitterly at the salt meat, biscuits, and tea at mealtime.

All the men in the forecastle are touched by the dying man and his fits of coughing. There is nothing that they would not do for him, even stealing pie for him from the officers’ mess. Even Donkin, a Cockney who thought that no one was ever right but him, catered to Wait. Wait did no work after they were a week at sea. The first mate finally orders him below to his bunk, and the captain upholds the mate’s order. Each morning, the men carry Wait up on deck. Finally, he is put in one of the deckhouse berths. He never lets anyone doubt that his death is imminent. He fascinates the officers and taints the lives of the superstitious sailors, even those who grumble that his illness is a fraud.

As the Narcissus approaches the Cape of Good Hope, heavier sails are set, the hatches are checked, and everything loose on deck is securely lashed in place in preparation for the winds that are sure to come. On the thirty-second day out of Bombay, the ship begins to put its nose into the heavy waves, instead of riding over. Gear blows loose, and the men are tossed about the deck. At sunset, all sails are shortened in preparation for a terrific gale. That entire night, nothing seems left in the universe except darkness and the fury of the storm. In the gray morning, half the crew goes below to rest. The remainder of them and the officers of the ship stay on deck. Suddenly, a great wall of water looms out of the mist. The ship rises with it, as a gust of wind lays the vessel on its side. The watch below decks rushes out of the forecastle and crawls aft on hands and knees to join their comrades already on deck. The ship lays on its side for hours, while the men huddle against the various projections on the deck to which they had lashed themselves. At last, someone asks about Wait. Another man shouts that he was trapped in the deckhouse, now half under water, and had drowned, because the...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)