Joseph Conrad’s novella, ”The Nigger of the Narcissus,” besides having perhaps the single most offensive title in all of English literature, leaves the reader wondering exactly what has been experienced as its final page turns. The story, of course, is simple. A ship, the Narcissus, prepares to leave port, signing on new crew members on the night before departure. The final sailor to board the ship is James Wait, a black West Indian. The crew, initially, think very little of Wait. First, they are put off by his race. Later, they are bothered by his rather lackluster work habits. In short, while they begin by reacting in prejudice, they ultimately have a fair reason not to like Wait.
Eventually, however, we recognize that at least part of Wait’s problem is not the lack of a proper Protestant work ethic but rather a nasty, and terminal, case of tuberculosis. Indeed, James Wait will not survive the voyage. As his illness becomes evident, Wait is moved to an on-deck cabin. During an especially fierce storm, five members of the crew risk their own lives and possibly the well-being of the ship in rescuing Wait from this cabin. Their actions are tolerated but not particularly sanctioned by the ship’s officers. Despite the crew’s antipathy toward Wait, despite their revulsion at his otherness, he is, ultimately one of them. Something that the lesser seamen seem to recognize more clearly than the officers. Conrad subtitled the story, “A Tale of the Forecastle,” emphasizing the role of the ordinary sailors in the account.
As I read this story, I’m reminded of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). In the biblical tale, Jesus responds to a question: “Who is my neighbor?” We know the story that Jesus uses to answer the questioner, an expert in the law who “wanted to justify himself,” but what of Conrad’s story. Like the priest and Levite who pass by on the other side of the road, avoiding the unpleasant sight of a beaten man, the officers aboard the Narcissus rationalize their inaction towards Wait’s impending death. Do we think for a moment that the name of the ship is simply random or chosen for its alliteration with the racial term in the title? The officers, we might argue, identify themselves with the ship as a whole. By emphasizing the whole, they turn their attention to themselves and want to justify themselves.
The officers seem to care genuinely for the ship as a whole, but they cannot seem to see each member of the ship as a thing of value. Only the other inhabitants of the forecastle can see James for a human being worthy of being rescued. They do this despite peril to themselves, just as the Samaritan sacrifices his own money and perhaps risks his safety in helping the robbed man. The crewmen see the value of Wait despite his membership in a not-quite-human race, just as the Samaritan might have looked with scorn on the Jew in the story.
In looking at the this tale again, I have been left thinking on the unfortunate title choice that Conrad made. Because of this choice, a fine piece of writing and an admirable commentary on human community does not find itself read in polite society as often as it might. Since Conrad’s story is anything but racist, I find this a sad outome.