Part 5 of the author's "Tartarus and Promethean Symbolism in Conrad and Hardy: The Return of the Native and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'". In-text citations refer to the linked bibliography of selected readings.
Whereas Egdon Heath is the classical Hell for Hardy's tragic heroine, Conrad's 'Narcissus' (its very name signifying the sin of self-love, its self-deluding and fatal consequences) is a piece of a different sort of Hell, a microcosm of European society, travelling towards the greater Hell of London. While Hardy employs classical allusions for their visual, poetic, and rhythmic effects and emotional connotations, Conrad uses such references and images to create a sensuous and sensory appeal for concrete and perceivable objects. In The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', Lord Jim , and Heart of Darkness Conrad is not merely a spinner of yarns but also an Impressionist painter working with sounds and images conjured up by sounds to make the reader (as he remarks in the well-known "Preface" to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' ) "hear," "feel," and "before al, . . . see" ( NN 13). Conrad does not rely on the intellectual cognition or decoding of mythological references in the way that Hardy does, although with the later novelist, too, a knowledge of the classics will furnish the reader with the necessary mental bank of images to "see" as Conrad would have him do. However, one needs neither a specific and detailed knowledge of Bulfinch's Mythology to mediate between his consciousness and Conrad's text, nor even a general acquaintance with the classics to feel the power of Conrad's imagery. Since Conrad would have his reader hear and, above all, see, he fashions his symbols with images that appeal to the senses first, and to the intellect second.
The Conrad tale is a "shadowy" reminiscence of a ship "manned by a crew of Shades" (143). To begin with, the reader apprehends an image of these men that has been rendered vague and amorphous by the passage of time; then he sees them as ghosts on a spectre barque. These men Conrad deems to be "about as wicked as any ship's company in this sinful world" (73), and, as such, suitable representatives of humanity on this 'earth in microcosm', the 'Narcissus', "a fragment detached from the earth, . . . [going] on lonely and swift like a small planet" (35). Thus, the symbolic level of Conrad's images of ship and crew proves to be a confusion of the classical underworld ("Shades"), the Christian Hell ("wicked," "sinful'), and the ship of fools ("ship's company," "a small planet"). In the midst of the storm that nearly destroys the 'Narcissus' and her human cargo, the ship becomes a second Noah's Ark, "the last vestige of a shattered creation . . . , bearing an anguished remnant of sinful mankind" (p. 53). Although both visually and connotatively effective, these images seem to lack any coherent, central design or intent. In fact, in this last image Conrad has inverted the pattern found in biblical and classical flood stories (the saving of the innocent and the concomitant punishing of the wicked) — in Ovid's retelling of the Deucalion and Pyrrha myth, for example, the couple are spared because "both had served the gods, and done no ill" (I, 10) — by floating on the flood those who are damned.
Fit representatives of the worst elements in humanity are Donkin, a Cockney from London's East-end slums, and James Wait, a Black seaman from St. Kitt's in the British West Indies. The former is a lesser devil, a Beelzebub or Mephistopheles, who "looked as if he had known all the degradations and all the furies" (20) and, as one of the crew initially remarks, appears "a blamed sight worse than a broken- down fireman" (21). Wait, on the other hand, seems to represent a higher order of evil; his dramatic appearance, for example, so startles the rest of the crew that the cook exclaims, "I thought I had seen the devil" (27). An analogue for Wait is the polluting tug that tows 'Narcissus' out of harbour, "an enormous and aquatic black beetle . . . [that] left a lingering smudge of smoke on the sky, . . . an unclean mark" (an Impressionistic image) that is similar to the "smudge" (25) of Wait's name on the ship's roster. A visual analogue for Wait and Donkin's towing the ship towards a moral hell is J. M. W. Turner's "'Fighting Temeraire' Tugged to Her Last Berth To Be Broken Up" (Plate; Royal Academy, 1839), the evil pair represented by the smoke- and cinder-belching tug in the foreground. Sails furled, the 'Fighting Temeraire' is drained of all colour, in contrast to red and black, twin paddle- wheeled tug, its reflection, and that of the painting's discordant, blood-red sky. What is touching in Turner's painting is the loss of the romance of sail, the passing of a way of life and its being replaced by more efficient but less attractive modern technology; what we sense in Conrad' novel is the concomitant loss of faith, of fidelity to the craft, so that Wait and Donkin, like Turner's devilish, little tug, are symbols not merely of the new technological age but of a new ( and hardly better) morality that attends making men extensions of a machine.
From Wait's arrival on board Conrad figures the Negro as a devil or the Devil, to whom the currish Donkin pays strange homage. Like Milton's Satan regarding his fallen cohorts in the first book of Paradise Lost, Wait sweeps a glance domineering and pained over his shipmates, "like a sick tyrant overawing a crowd of abject but untrustworthy slaves" (39). In return, the crew serve him "as though [they] had been the base courtiers of a hated prince" (41). After Belfast's theft of a pie from the ship's galley, the cook announces "that wickedness flourishe[s] . . . [and] that Satan [is] abroad amongst those men" (41), and singles out Charley "with a patch of soot on his chin . . . [as] a brand for the burning" (42). Charley's blackened chin associates him with the polluting tug and the smudged name on the roster; it is also a mark of Cain, an emblem of the betrayal of the brotherhood of the craft. Wait's "infernal spell" (41) gradually overwhelms the spirits of more and more of the sailors until nearly all shirk their duties and make him obeisance. "He became the tormentor of all our moments; he was worse than a nightmare" (46), recalls Conrad's narrator. Although physically it was Wait who took "enough [paregoric] to poison a wilderness of babies" (47) — a suggestion of demonic rites and the worship of Moloch–it is the crew who suffer the malignant effects of a far stronger opiate, self-pity. As the narrator concludes, "he tainted our lives" (48), sapping the men of rectitude and loyalty to the craft. Even when the ship is in peril during the storm, the crew misdirect their energies to "trying to keep life in that poor devil" (72).
As the foregoing paragraph implies, Conrad's allusions are far more oblique, fragmentary, and disconnected than Hardy's; indeed, only when connected in the manner demonstrated do they begin to suggest a symbolic pattern. Viewed individually in context, these allusions seem to be nothing more than evanescent impressions. Viewed collectively and out-of-context, however, they combine to create a network of meaning, which for example in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' endows Wait with Satanic qualities and renders the voyage a purgatorial experience. Whereas Hardy states similarities in clear similes, although Conrad works at both realistic or conscious and metaphorical or unconscious (Cedric Watts calls this level "symbolic and allegorical;" p. 179) levels of meaning, he tends merely to imply.
As she approaches her destination (by implication, Hell), the 'Narcissus' becomes closely associated with fire imagery. For instance, after the storm had subsided,
the becalmed craft stood out with its masts and rigging, with every sail and every rope distinct and black in the centre of a fiery outburst, like a charred ship enclosed in a globe of fire. (91)
The image recalls both the spectre ship of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the Flying Dutchman legend, but also suggests the exhaustion of the crew's energies. "That's how them firemen do in steamboats," explains the sweating cook about their efforts to save the vessel; "Did you ever see them down the stoke- hold?" he enquires of Wait. "like fiends they look — firing — firing — firing — down there" (98). As one who works the topmasts, Wait may not have had the experience of seeing firemen working in a stoke-hold, but the implication is that, as a Satanic figure, he has witnessed many a time the agonies of the damned.
Later the cook warns the crew of the torments that await them for their current sins: "Hot! Did I say? The furnaces of one of them White Star boats ain't nothing to it" (99). The furnaces on Pacific and Orient and Cunard vessels would be suitable analogues also, but for Conrad would lack the connotations of fate, destiny, and doom with which "White Star" is freighted. As Kay points out, as a symbolist Conrad selected details from actual experience, including the names "Wait" and "Narcissus," and employed them in a way both "integrated and pervasive as we contemplate the structure of the novel, its characters and theme" (176). The centre of these images of fire, heat, and furnaces is Wait's cabin, "hot as an oven" ( NN 100). The Hell in store for Wait may be that of Judeo-Christian tradition, for physically he is dying; that in store for the rest of the crew is the outbreak of mutiny, for spiritually they have been perverted by the influence of Wait and Donkin. Even Allistoun, who is convinced that the crew are essentially hardy-working and trustworthy, concedes that they possess the capacity to be "Worse than . . . down-right, horned devils" (108). When they rebel, they sin against the principles of order and discipline, and are metamorphosed from being "a troop of wild beasts" (91) to "forlorn souls," agents and subjects of the Devil and Beelzebub, Wait and Donkin, self- love and disobedience. The ship has unmistakably become a hell: "At night, through the impenetrable darkness of earth and heaven, broad sheets of flame waved noiselessly" (91).
Also contributing to Conrad's symbol of the passage of the 'Narcissus' as a voyage to the realm of the dead and damned are abundant images of ghosts and the grave. At the outset, Conrad describes the berths in the forecastle as "resembl[ing] narrow niches for coffins in a whitewashed and lighted mortuary" (19), and Donkin as "a startling visitor from a world of nightmares" (20), Wait being expressly identified later as "worse than a nightmare" (46). The port of Bombay, from which the 'Narcissus' sails, proclaims evil through its electric lamps, which pierce the dark "with a glow blinding and frigid like captive ghosts of some evil moons" (24). While Conrad presents the crew's quarters as their grave, he implies that the city that marks their point of departure is the entrance to the classical Underworld.
Ironically, Conrad expresses his admiration for these common seamen in moribund metaphors: the sailors are "men who knew how to exist beyond the pale of life" and cities, men who perished at sea and "died free from the dark menace of a narrow grave" (32) on land. Wait's ominous arrival silences the lively hum of conversation on deck; as he shakes before them "the bones of his bothersome and infamous skeleton" (40), reminding them of their own mortality, Wait blights the crew's spirit of fellowship. Later, "singers became mute because Jimmy was a dying man" (40). The imaginations of the crew begin to weave a spell of gloom about the ship as they are unnerved by their own hung-up oil suits, which assume the aspect of the "reckless ghosts of decapitated seamen dancing in a tempest" (53), and by Archie's great coat, "resembling a drowned seaman floating with his head underwater" (57). The scene may be borrowed from vestry scenes in Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit and Collins's Woman in White, but Conrad has made it his own through its marine context and psychological realism. Envisioning themselves as dead, the sailors lose their vivacity and morbidly dwell on death, serving the death's head of James Wait. "They clustered round that moribund carcass, the fit emblem of their aspirations" (104), which they place upon the shoulders of a dying man who is "becoming immaterial like an apparition" (117). As Wait has cowed each man into submission through his counterfeiting the dread image of death, so the crew's passions run highest when he becomes a living corpse, his "fleshless head resembl[ing] a disinterred black skull" (117). "For what the crew see reflected in their black mirrors is the face of their own Todenangst, a fear of death so obsessive that, clinging to the preservation of the self's identity, it negates the spirit of life itself" (Kay 178).
Appropriately enough, off the island of Flores, true to the patriarchal Singleton's prediction, Wait dies and is buried at sea. Almost reluctantly, his remains go to their final rest off "a sombre ruin [lying] upon a vast and deserted plain" (122), as if it were not an island at all, but rather the ruins of some ancient citadel such as Troy or Sodom, laid low by human pride and folly. "The word 'wait' can be a noun meaning 'a delay', and the ship appropriately makes increasingly slow progress until his death, upon which the vessel spurts for home" (Watts 179). Freed of the burden (the homophonous 'weight') which Wait's "name itself suggests" (Torchiana, 30), its idol of self-love gone to the bottom like the self-obsessed body of Narcissus in the Ovidian myth, the 'Narcissus' returns to normality when it encounters the British coastal steamers, "migrating and amphibious monsters" (135). Is Conrad here suggesting the world has been purged of evil with Wait's burial at sea as it was by the great flood in Genesis , or is he merely creating a striking image? Either interpretation is viable.
The connection between 'Narcissus' and Britain Conrad subsequently clarifies when he compares the island to an ark, a huge "ship carrying the burden of millions of lives" (135). As the great island-fortress harbours within its stronghold such decadence and corruption as one finds in London, so the 'Narcissus' has sheltered the corrupting Donkin, whom Wait reviles as "East-end trash" (47). As the tug takes her in tow, 'Narcissus' is "Shorn of the glory of her white wings" (136), a possible allusion to the dove that Noah sent out to find land in the Genesis flood story. Now the nexus of images shifts as, following the tug "through the maze of invisible channels" (136), like Theseus following the thread to the heart of the Cretan Labyrinth, the ship passes buoys pulling "at their chains like fierce watch-dogs" (136), suggestive of Hades' watchdog Cerberus. Further up river, factory chimneys seem to leer down at her as if they are "a straggling crowd of slim giants" (136), like the Titans whom Zeus consigned to Tartarus as punishment for their rebellion.
Once 'Narcissus' has been docked and chained, Conrad adds with a note of finality, she has "ceased to live" (137). Her voyage to Hades is complete when her melancholy crew disembark to re-group later for their pay.
And to the right of the dark group the stained front of the Mint, cleansed by the flood of light, stood out for a moment dazzling and white like a marble palace in a fairy tale. (143)
If this place is not London but Hades, the central feature is not the Mint but the Palace of Dis. The ritual of signing names and in return receiving notes and coin is like a funeral's, each man paying his respects and contributing to the post-mortem of a voyage like that of the short story "Youth," a voyage fitted to be an illustration of life. Now that 'Narcissus' has died, the crew ceases to exist as a corporate entity. The sailors drift off on their separate ways, and belong to 'Narcissus' no longer. "The sea took some, the steamers took others, the graveyards of the earth will account for the rest" (143); their end, like Eustacia's, is oblivion.
Of course, this final succession of images need not be absorbed into the novel's symbolic pattern. As Cedric Watts remarks in A Preface to Conrad, "the dominant conventions of Conradian fiction are secular and realistic" (179), so that London need not be the classical underworld, the tug a Charon's ferry, the buoys a multiple-headed Cerberus, the lowering chimneys incarcerated Titans, or the Mint Pluto's palace. Conrad makes no specific identifications because such are not necessary to the creation of the appropriate feeling and visual effects. Although we may attribute the gradual deterioration of the crew's morale through "sentimental pseudo-sentimentality" (Watts 177) to the same cause as that of Narcissus, unwitting self-love, we need not make any such connection to realize that the physical deterioration of James Wait is intimately bound up with the spiritual wasting away of the crew. Conrad makes no special demands on his reader in terms of a priori knowledge, only in terms of imaginative sensitivity.
Hardy, on the other hand, assumes his reader to be a member of a 'fit audience though few' which possesses the background knowledge necessary to comprehend and interpret his classical allusions. Only one who has read Virgil's Aeneid , for example, can properly savour the irony of Hardy's likening Eustacia's appearing before Clym in the guise of a mummer to that occasion "When the disguised Queen of Love appeared before AEneas" (Norton 113) to send her son to seek Dido, the Carthaginian Queen whom he loves passionately, then abandons at the behest of the gods and destiny. Virgil's story of love and betrayal becomes a metaphor for the ill-founded affair between Eustacia and Clym, the flame of which is as intense but also as brief as that of the affair between Dido and AEneas. "His passion for Eustacia had been a sort of conserve of his whole life, and he had nothing more of that supreme quality to bestow" (304), so that Clym never re-marries, for after the death of Eustacia he finds himself drained of emotion. While Virgil's heroine does not want her lover to answer the promptings of fate by leaving her to found Rome, Eustacia implores Clym to renounce his plans for becoming a country schoolmaster.
However, as Hardy often quotes Novalis as remarking, character is fate, so that Clym can no more renounce his unrealistic schemes than Eustacia can abandon hers. "Hardy's fictive world [is] composed of an indifferent nature, irresponsible fellow travellers, and exquisite twists of circumstance" 27 intimately connected with the accidents of time and place. Eustacia on this desert heath, which is like something out of King Lear or Macbeth , yearns to escape across the water, but instead achieves release through drowning. Unlike the conclusion of a Shakespearean or Attic tragedy, the end of Eustacia's fitful drama coveys little catharsis , no ambivalence of reaction, and no dual sense of mourning for the passing of a great one but elation at the hero's final triumph over circumstance. Classical and Elizabethan similitudes seem out- of-place on Egdon; thus, Hardy's employing grand allusions to characterize Eustacia only heightens "the cruelty of illusions" (DeMille 699) that such hyperbolic comparisons as those to classical myth and legend embody.
She has created for herself an unattainable, unrealistic ideal as a shield against surroundings which she feels are not merely mundane, but horrible. The repeated allusions, then, convey Eustacia's state of mind, her sense of apartness from the world of Egdon, as well as her sense of kinship with the beau monde of Paris. By unknowingly attempting to severe Eustacia's emotional affiliation with that ideal Clym is unwittingly attempting to assault her sense of herself. She has cherished an illusion of what she is (Paris) as well as what she is not (Egdon), and chooses to risk all rather than abandon her ideal. In that she cannot bring herself to part with a spiritually-sustaining illusion, Eustacia comes very close to Conrad's Lord Jim, who deliberately chooses death with honour over a life of "inherent opportunities for failure" (DeMille 706).
In Conrad, as in Hardy, ideas come to have a strange power over the concrete, so that the mistake of Eustacia and Jude is also the mistake that the crew of the 'Narcissus' make, a failure to value the practical and the real (the solidarity of the craft) over the sentimental ideal. In accordance with the genre that he had chosen for his story in The Return of The Native and the language in which he had couched his descriptions of his dark heroine, Hardy gradually transformed her into something she is not: a tragic heroine in the Greek manner. As a result of her refusal to compromise her unrealistic aspirations and adjust herself to normality, Eustacia is a pathetic but hardly a tragic figure. Hardy becomes the victim of his own allusive framework, making Eustacia so compelling a figure by virtue of the images with which he associates her that the reader identifies with her despite her folly.
Conversely, as Gerald Morgan points out, in Conrad consciously controls how characters and things acquire their symbolic meanings, "by reason of the clarity, rather than the obscurity of their perceptible aspect" (45). To see as Conrad would have us see, with the mind's eye, is quite enough to apprehend his meaning. Despite the classical tale of destructive self-love alluded to in its title, The 'Nigger' of the Narcissus defies the sort of rational decoding that one might apply to The Return of the Native , and yet Conrad never puts the reader in jeopardy of misapprehending his central figure. The standard of manly conduct and single-minded determination, Singleton, is clearly juxtaposed against the deviousness of Donkin and "the duplicity of the ambiguous James Wait" (Watts 179). As specific, concrete, and visually appealing as Conrad's images may be, they do not lend themselves to a point-by-point correlation to myth, legend, history, and the Bible that Hardy's do; nor, however, do they engender ambiguity. For instance, the story of Narcissus and his reflection as found in Ovid's Metamorphoses has relevance to Conrad's novel only in so far as the ship's name is a fitting emblem for the self-love that captivates and nearly destroys the crew. That Wait dies off a real island named Flores is symbolically convenient, but his doing so might be literally true in light of its actual position relative to the Bombay-to-London shipping lanes.
Other Sections of this Discussion
- Introduction: Comparing Imagery in Conrad and Hardy
- Tartarean Imagery in Hardy's The Return of the Native
- Conrad's Imagery in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'
- Defending Hardy's Classical Symolism to Describe Eustacia Vye
- Conrad and Classical Imagery in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'
Last modified 6 December 2000