The Anathema to Narcissus


Nautical Fiction is a genre that has intrigued the masses with its larger-than-life representation of sea voyages, the life of the seamen and bringing forth various aspects of nautical culture. This is a genre that is filled with the finest details of the voyages and expeditions, elucidation of the roaring deep blue sea, narratives of the struggles of the sailors together laced with lores of the maritime expanse. As the genre evolved, it became synonymous with Joseph Conrad- one of the most famous exponents of this genre. Popular among readers for his works like the “Heart of Darkness“, “Lord Jim“, “Typhoon” and one of his distinguished works which was disputable for its contentious title: “The Nigger of the Narcissus“.

Conrad’s career as a sailor and his life on sea gained him sufficient experience to beget the process of writing. It was his attempt to recount his time on the sea through his narratives and thus eventually letting the readers peek into his life- one that was fraught with adventure and challenges. Conrad’s work contemplates the depths of his personal experiences which reflects in his narratives.

The novel- The Nigger of the Narcissus– revolves around the protagonist James Wait, a dying black sailor. It describes the journey of a ship named Narcissus, the life and struggle of the protagonist on board. The gripping plot advances with the ship being ambushed by a strong gale and engulfed in the curtains of credulity which eventually results in the death of Wait.

Conrad stands out particularly from other writers due to his engaging style of writing. For a novice in the world of Conrad, it takes time to get acquainted with the long illustrative narrations and somewhat ambiguous style of writing. Conrad’s works are heavily infused with nautical jargons and “even if the exact meaning is not clear to the reader, the use of technical terms serves to signify the restoration of order in the face of the tumult of the sea and the mutinous stirrings of the ship’s crew.”[1]

Conrad makes use of the technical terms in the conversation among the sailors. The reader finds such instances of nautical jargons in the plot – “The main topsail had to be goose-winged” or “the ship moved ahead slowly under topsails“. Conrad’s employment of expletives pervades throughout the novel though he tries to use them strategically. “The technical language of the passage not only provides a way of talking about the hardships of the voyage but also emphasizes that simple, routine, good seamanship is important to the success of the venture.”[2]

The novel narrates a detailed and meticulous description of the ship Narcissus and its journey. Conrad makes a point of assimilating his own experience as a sailor in the novel. He subtly paints an illustration of the ship’s journey from Bombay to England which was in fact the narration of his own experience. During his days as a sailor, Conrad boarded the ship of Narcissus which sailed from Bombay to Dunkirk. He, therefore, considers the reference of Bombay and thereby incorporates it in the novel. The voyage begins and Narcissus set sail from Bombay. Conrad brings in the real essence of Bombay by delineating it with the typical Indian mob possessing a deep, heavy Indian accent and an unyielding demeanor.

The theme of “men against the sea” permeates throughout the novel with the extensive description of the sailors’ struggle. The novel as a sea fiction illustrates a picture of the crude reality of the life of the sailors and their endeavour to remain afloat on the vicious sea. The realistic description of the sailors’ labour harboured with hate and rebellion made the novel quite distinct from the conventions. Vivid descriptions and bold use of imagery describing the struggles of the sailors during and after the storm gives the reader a clear insight into the situation. Drowned in the sea of vulnerability and battling against exhaustion, deprivation of sleep, hunger and thirst, the sailors make a feeble attempt to remain alive on board.

Conrad employs adjectives like “stiff hands”, “swollen red fingers”, “obstinate and exhausted”, bringing in front of the readers the powerfully evocative imagery which reflects throughout the novel. What particularly stands out in the novel is Conrad’s ability to make the audience “see the novel” through his style of narration. Conrad’s evident use of oxymoron while illustrating the scenic beauty of the setting sun juxtaposed with the wild, roaring waves brings out the sensual elements of the narrative. The use of synesthesia can be evidently pointed out through these alluring and bewitching exegeses.

What remains evident among the struggles of the sailors is the indubitable presence of slavery and social hierarchy on the ship. Wait’s terrified response to Donkin’s remark of being “cast overboard”, marks the existence and culmination of slavery. “Wait’s global, traversal movement- his home in Saint Kitts, his boarding of the Narcissus in Bombay, the storm at the Cape of Good Hope, his near approach to England- echoes those forms of collective life that violently refuse and threaten the hierarchal organization on which the sea fiction relies”[3] (Jernigan 27).

Amidst the waves of slavery and social hierarchy, what particularly stands out is the representation of the dying “nigger”. The racial discrimination along with the advancement of his disease, “he becomes not so much a human being but as an embodiment of death – so that his blackness is in effect a symbol of the ultimate darkness.”[4] The belief that the other sailors hold about Wait is that his death will result in the occurrence of favourable winds. This credence remains etched in the minds of the sailors despite being impolitic and superstitious.

The majority of the novel seems to be tainted in shades of grey and black hues thus ultimately suggesting the bold existence of the superstitious beliefs of the seamen which they hold against the death of Wait.  The dark, grey weather stands as a metaphor for the psyche of the sailors and the beliefs that they cling onto. In the deep sea, where lies endless vast opportunities and if thought upon a deafening silence if not for the violent crashing waves, the sailors at their wit’s end hold onto everything possible even if it seems dark!

Though the westerners established maritime fiction as an independent genre, still the same genre marks its presence in Indian literature too. The subcontinent being surrounded by the waters from three sides; slowly creeps into the writings of the Indian authors only to mark its presence quite evidently among the Eastern folk. Samanth Subramanian’s “Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast”; narrates the fishing culture of the famous Indian sea coast and thereby recounts the traditions and folklore of the people. Sanjeev Sanyal’s “The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History” ventures into the unexplored territory of the vast Indian coastline while Amitav Ghosh’s “Sea of Poppies”, the epic saga describes the uproarious voyage of the ship Ibis, across the Indian Ocean to the Mauritius Islands. In the roaring sea of Nautical fiction, Indian authors drop in the anchor and set sail on the chronicles of Maritime fiction.



[1] Hampson Robert, Baxter Katherine. Conrad and Language, Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

[2] Jones Michael. Judgement and Sentiment in the Nigger of Narcissus -Jstor

[3] Jernigan Brandon. Belabouring the Maritime novel: The Nigger of the Narcissus, Sea fiction and Constituent Power: Semantic Scholar.

[4] Phelps Gilbert. The Nigger of the Narcissus: A tale of the sea.



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