The Nigger of the "Narcissus" Critical Evaluation - Essay

Joseph Conrad

Critical Evaluation

With The Nigger of the Narcissus, Joseph Conrad has constructed a tale that is at once a realistic and a symbolic, even mythic, representation of human life. The sailing ship Narcissus serves as a microcosm of society, with its crew forming an isolated cross section of humanity. In this relatively brief novel, Conrad establishes a surprisingly large number of individual characters with fully established personalities that represent the range of human possibilities. Conrad’s description of the vessel as “a fragment detached from the earth” accurately summarizes his thematic purpose. The novel implies: These are the basic facts of human existence, and these are the ways in which people respond to their trials and difficulties.

The characters, clearly defined individuals, are also archetypes of personalities and philosophies. Captain Allistoun, the figure at the apex of this narrowly confined nautical society, is described in almost godlike fashion. He appears to see, hear, or notice nothing, but actually he is keenly aware of everything that takes place on the Narcissus and, except for the workings of the inexplicable and unmanageable powers of nature, is responsible for everything that takes place aboard his ship. As is often the case with the divine, the captain is sometimes ambiguous in his purpose and intent, and often apparently absent from the action. Throughout most of the voyage, for example, he fails to resolve the dilemma of Wait, refusing to either confirm that the man is dying or condemn him as a malingerer.

Others in the crew play their own particular roles, which often have ironic overtones. Donkin, the master of using language to fool, mislead, and control others, is a lackluster sailor, ultimately despised by his shipmates, but on land he becomes a success among a certain class of society. In contrast, the older man Singleton, an outstanding sailor whose long years of knowledge of the sea have made him almost silent but whose few words are epitomes of wisdom, becomes a sot when ashore.

The most symbolic figure is that of James Wait, the mysterious black sailor who is the last to board the Narcissus and who spends the entire voyage lying in his bunk, awaiting and avoiding death. Wait represents the common...

(The entire section is 937 words.)