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Conrad embarked on Narciso in Bombay on 5th June 1884 to take the ship back to Dunkirk. The captain told

him that on the outbound journey to Bombay, numerous mariners carried out a mutiny and so they were left in

Bombay forcing him to hire a new crew composed of English, Scottish, Irish, Norwegian, Polish, Canadian and

Australian mariners.

Among these new crew members there was also a black mariner from Georgia, Joseph Barron, who had been

ill when he embarked the ship and after a lot of suffering he died and was buried at sea.

The novel “The Nigger of Narcissus” certainly took inspiration from this event, even though there are some

differences between the novel and the actual event:

The actual final destination of the Narcissus was the port of Dunkirk, whereas in the book it is London;

­ The crew in the novel was mainly made up of Britons;

­ The captain in the novel was English, whereas in real life he was Scottish;

­ The character “Jimmy” is very different from the real Joseph Barron.


The novel tells the story of an adventure at sea that involves the entire crew of the sailing ship “Narcissus” that

had to face many adversities during the voyage: a storm, a dead calm and head winds.

The is very linear, both in a chronological and spatial way, that is, the story begins in

narrative structure

Bombay and ends in London.


1) two narrators

The point of view in the novel “The Nigger of the Narcissus” is composed of which are

represented by the third person plural “they” and the first person plural “we”, which turns into the first person

singular “I” in the last lines of the novel.

The change of the narrator represents an evolution from an objective perspective to a personal, inner one.

The narrator “they” represents the omniscient narrator, which was typically used in the XIX century, while “we”

and then “I” represent the “narratore that is a sort of witness, who doesn’t know everything


about the story and the characters, but he is only a sailor­narrator who lives the story itself together with the

other sailors. This kind of narrator makes the comprehension of the novel easier, with all its meanings.

When the narration becomes more intense and emotional, Conrad uses “we” and “I”: “we” is used for example

to express the sailors’ exasperation towards Jimmy, their fear during the storm and the sense of brotherhood in

dangerous situations. coherence

Despite this change of narrator, Conrad maintains in the narration, because each narrator has its

own role: the omniscient narrator tells the story from the outside, with an objective point of view; the sailor­

narrator tells it from the point of view of a member of the crew, someone who is on board.

This narrative choice is also coherent with the in the XX century. It

multifaceted vision of the world

means that there are many different points of view as there are different readers, who have to judge or

comment on the events and the protagonists of the narration; there isn’t a single vision of the world, because

the world is extremely complex.


The time of the narration is characterized by different tenses:

the distance between the time of the story and the time of the narration is unspecified

simple past:

­ (element of tradition) this is prevalent in the whole story;

these are the tenses of the last paragraphs of the novel. The

future, present perfect, present:

­ present perfect connects both present and the past in the story. On the contrary, the present (which is

intuitively noticed) reveals a temporal coincidence between the story and the narrator.


As regards the level of narration, the French literary critic Genette has underlined two different possibilities:

as Conrad is absent himself in the narrated story, he makes use of “they”

extradiegetic narrator:

­ to tell the story all the same; this is when Conrad uses “we” to be part of the story as a character.

homodiegetic narrator:

­ Genette distinguishes other two types of narration: that in which the narrator isn’t present as a

protagonist, but plays a secondary role as an observer and witness (“we”: collective witness, who

represents the entire crew of “Narcissus”) and the other in which the witness­narrator becomes the

protagonist (“I”).


The narration is also characterized by the the entire story takes place on the

unity of action and place:

ship Narcissus and during a single voyage.


Conrad uses the dramatic function and the ideological function.

The is a narrative technique which was used in the XIX century, which refuses

dramatic function

omniscience and allows the reader’s intervention.

The is characterized instead by the direct intervention of the narrator, which may be

ideological function

expressed indirectly through his comments when “they” is used and directly when “we” and “I” are used.

An example of indirect intervention is represented by the character of Singleton: Conrad doesn’t allow either

the omniscient narrator or the character himself to reveal his thoughts and psychology, but lets the reader

discover this by himself. An example of direct intervention is instead represented by the character of captain


A direct comment made by the narrator is found at the beginning of chapter four, in which he tells us not only

about the meaning of a difficult and painful life, but also about the courage of men such as Singleton.

From these comments we understand that the narrator doesn’t establish a direct dialogue with the reader, as

an explicit reference to the reader is not made, but, even though the extradiegetic narrator seems to be

addressing no one, he is actually communicating with its interlocutor through these comments.

The morality underlying such comments denotes in fact the will to communicate the various human truths

which become meaningful from the moment the narrator refrains from giving some sort of judgment, thus the

reader is prompted to react.

Another function used by the narrator is the the narration unfolds on two levels,

transfigurative function:

the material and the allegoric.


Sertioli has proved that the story has to be seen as a political allegory.

It is the narrator’s intention to represent the world on the “Narcissus” as a mirror that reflects back an ideal

community, based on values such as solidarity and the so­called “brotherhood of the sea”, which is to be

destroyed by preindustrial society. Everything associated to preindustrial society is positive.

In contrast with the preindustrial society, industrial society, represented by the city of London, is negative.

The metropolis represented an isolated place with alienating work, where every human relationship was in a

crisis and ethics was lost, whereas life in the “village” represented community life.

This crisis of values in preindustrial society is represented by the arrival of Jimmy, who spoils (danneggiare)

the “brotherhood” among the members of the crew. The attempt to save Jimmy who embodies the crisis

means the attempt to save the preindustrial society.

Therefore, it is important to see the allegorical aspect of the narration. Actually, if we were to read the story

from a realistic point of view, we would see the arrival of the ship as a victory, when instead it is a defeat from a

political point of view.

The narrator “I” becomes the symbol of the industrial society’s arrival, the end of the “brotherhood” represented

by “we” and the victory over the crisis happening on land.

The “we” is dissolved drastically into two, the “I” and the “they”. As a matter of fact, the third person plural is

back and now it indicates the sailors seen as an external subject, “I”.

Consequently, these sailors will never be real beings again, but rhetorical figures.

Conrad understands that the only way to give life back to the values of the preindustrial society is through

using a form of art, because it is art which allows the existence of this particular social model that cannot stand

on reality anymore.


The scenario in which the novel is set is sinister and it is the symbol of a mysterious inner world.

The characters in the novel make the outer world theirs, even though we cannot talk about pantheism, as the

characters do not merge (non si fondono) with nature. They are a sort of reflection of nature’s mood and its


The elements of nature are anthropomorphized and personified.

For example, the quiet starry sky and the serene night evoke peace and calmness in the sailors. On the other

hand the sun conveys an atmosphere of unrest, like that created by the wind, the rain, the storm, generating

tension among the members of the crew.

Eventually, there is a coincidence between the external and the internal world of the sailors.


Conrad is considered the precursor of modernism. He is an author of transition between the previous century

and the XIX century characterized by authors such as Virginia Woolf and Eliot, representing respectively the

modernism of prose and poetry. Conrad, on the other hand, is a realistic author, typical of late­victorian writers,

particularly known for their descriptions of the sea and travel, but he’s also the precursor of new writing

techniques that will culminate in modernism.

His works in fact still have a traditional structure, that is characterized by a defined and logic plot that develops

according to an established chronological order. On the other hand, however, in his works it is easy to identify

the signs of a new technique of writing, which then will reach its apex with Joyce and Virginia Woolf. In these

pieces of work techniques such as the stream of consciousness do not appear yet, but the innovation lies in

the descriptions that they contain, which show Conrad’s intolerance of the traditional way of writing that was

imposed in the XVIII century (writers such as Richardson, Dofoe, Dickens, Hardy, etc.).

The work of transition from traditional way of writing to the modern one is “The nigger of the

This work is considered his masterpiece and is rich in poetic descriptions, thanks to which


Conrad manages to express the best use of his poetic sensitivity and that demonstrates its attempt to change

the way of writing novels. This work is rich in descriptive parts characterized by a remarkable poetic intensity,

which mainly concern the ship and the sea and through which Conrad represents the outside world, which he

defines as “visible universe”. In addition, in the parts narrated in the third person, Conrad’s descriptive qualities

are particularly evident, with great attention to physical details, significant gestures and motion.

The work of Conrad has a well defined narrative framework. The text tells the journey of Conrad from Bombay

to London consists of 5 chapters with a perfect symmetrical scheme (the ship departs and arrives in a port ­

the central chapter is the richest in emotional tension).


The importance of the image had already been theorized by Ezra Pound, founder of He puts


emphasis on the value of the image, which is represented in a straightforward, plain and essential manner,

devoid of every kind of rhetorical ornament and defined as dry by the same imagists.

In the same way, Conrad uses plain images thus providing what is defined by Fernandez as “synthetic poetry”,

that is, a poem compared to descriptive shorthand (stenografia descrittiva).

The parallelism with the imagist poets is essential because Conrad shares with them the realistic value of


the images

The first principle of imagism, in fact, is to treat the things of the outside world subjectively or objectively. In the

same way, Conrad declares that the work of art can be communicated only if this appeals to the senses.

It will be Fernandez himself to give Conrad the pictorial term of as Conrad’s images form


the very fabric of text and contain the intangible substance of the events.

The literary impressionism has in common with the pictorial one that the representation of the true

according to the personal impression of the artist is quick and synthetic.

This means that the impressionist writer does not aspire to describe in an orderly and precise way reality, but

rather to suggest, seize and recreate for the reader the impression of the moment. The attempt to record on

the page the effect of multiple sensations was born from this idea, but at the same time these sensations aren’t

concurrent (contemporanee) in the conscience of the individual.

This is how the artist achieves his aim, “to make you see”, in other words to show you what is behind the

simple external appearance. The inner truth of the artist revealed in the panorama shown (chapter 5).

Actually, the term “literary impressionism” is not only related to Conrad, but also to Ford Madox Ford, the same

Conrad has worked with and who said of himself and Conrad, “We have accepted this designation of

impressionists because what we have discovered is that life does not narrate (it does not express itself through

a logical and chronological order), but creates impressions in our minds”.

A relationship with the French symbolist doctrine is immediately identified. This doctrine had taken up as key

terms “suggérer” and “évoquer”. Also images like those of “clouds” and “veils” are used to suggest a kingdom

of mysteries behind the veil of superficial appearances.

Also Yelton, who studied Conrad’s works, made an analysis focusing on descriptions and images represented.

Counting the images used by Conrad in his texts, Yelton has noticed that the images are more numerous in the

moments of greater emotional tension.

Two kinds of images may be distinguished:

in other words, those images that have the function of rendering justice to the

outward images:

- outside and visible world (visible universe). For example the description of the landscape that the

sailors see when the ship is entering the port of London (naturalistic description of the ship that is

slipping down the English Channel);

images representing the subjective content (embodied by Marlow). For example,

inward images:

- the state of confusion caused by Jimmy when it is not possible to know whether he is pretending or he

is really feeling bad so as not to work. This creates a crisis on the ship.

In the work “The nigger of the Narcissus” the outward images are clearly dominant; however, in his later works,

this order is reversed in favor of the inward images (as for example in “Heart of Darkness”).

and act stenographically and are indispensable tools for the production of images

Metaphors similes

conceived according to the realistic­impressionist logic. They also show the symbolic value of art.

The concept of symbol that has most affected the Modern Age is the one that gives a broader and more

generic value than the one strictly used technically to indicate rhetorical figures.

Cesarani and De Federicis theorized a new concept of symbol:

the symbol is increasingly identified with the concreteness. Sensory perception is in fact of a highest

- priority for the symbol;

the symbol is also the expression of the feeling of the subject, that projects onto the world his state of

- mind (mind and nature tend to become one in the symbol);

the expressive function of language and semantics seem to coincide in the symbol: the subject, while

- representing nature, interprets the meaning of it and expresses himself emotionally;

the symbolic attitude is anthropomorphizing: the subject perceives himself and the external objects as

- part of a totality and sees in the objects themselves his own state of mind;

the symbol reminds us of something that is beyond the phenomena and is often identified with a

- transcendent and non­material source;

the concept of symbol coincides with that of art.


There is clearly a correlation between this concept of symbol and the symbol of Conrad, who, in a letter to

Clark, says that a work of art is symbolic, as it cannot have only one meaning and necessarily one single

defined conclusion. The metaphors and the similes used by Conrad are the fruit of a subjective perception of

the real and above all, they are undefined, which betrays (lascia trasparire) their multiple meanings and hence

(quindi) the possibility of as many interpretations as there are readers.

Thus, the frequent anthropomorphism of natural elements is the expression of the subjective perception of the

author and of his way of seeing reality, but it is an expression that leads to various interpretations.

2) Another innovative aspect which can be found in Conrad’s descriptions is represented by the fact they are

moments of inspiration and revelation, that is, This concept is traditionally associated with


Joyce, because he was the first one to define it in the work entitled “Steven Hero” , that is, the draft of his

subsequent work “A portrait of an artist as a young man” (Virginia Woolf does the same, though she does not

speak of epiphanies, but of “moments of being”).

For example, in “Lord Jim”, the same Marlow, on behalf of (a nome di) the author, is authorized to declare, “All

this happened sooner than what I would be able to express, since I am trying to interpret for you slowly the

effects of instant visual impressions”.


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Corso di laurea: Corso di laurea in scienze linguistiche (BRESCIA - MILANO)

I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher glibertino di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di Letteratura inglese e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore - Milano Unicatt o del prof Bendelli Giuliana.

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