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The Nigger of the 'Narcissus': A Tale of the Forecastle (also subtitled A Tale of the Sea and published in the United States as The Children of the Sea) is an 1897 novella by Joseph Conrad. Because of its quality compared to earlier works, some critics have described it as marking the start of Conrad's major or middle period;[1][2] others have placed it as the best work of his early period.

The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'
The N of the 'Narcissus' cover.jpg
First edition cover
AuthorJoseph Conrad
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreNautical fiction
Set inA ship on the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean
Publication date
Media typePrint: hardback
LC ClassPR6005.O57
Preceded byAn Outcast of the Islands 
Followed byHeart of Darkness 
TextThe Nigger of the 'Narcissus' at Wikisource
First US edition
(publ. Dodd, Mead and Company)


Conrad's preface to the novel, regarded as a manifesto of literary impressionism,[3] is considered one of his most significant pieces of non-fiction writing.[4] It begins with the line: "A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line".[5]


The title character, James Wait, is a dying West Indian black sailor on board the merchant ship Narcissus, on which he finds passage from Bombay to London. Suffering from tuberculosis, Wait becomes seriously ill almost from the outset, eliciting suspicion from much of the crew, though his ostensible plight arouses the humanitarian sympathies of many. The ship's master, Captain Allistoun, and an old sailor named Singleton remain concerned primarily with their duties and appear indifferent to Wait's condition. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the ship capsizes onto her beam-ends during a sudden gale and half her hull is submerged, with many of the crew's rations and personal belongings lost; the men cling onto the deck for an entire night and day, waiting in silence for the ship to turn over the rest of the way and sink. Allistoun refuses to allow the masts to be severed, which might allow the hull to right itself but would prevent the ship from making use of her sails. Five of the men, realizing that Wait is unaccounted for, climb down to his cabin and rescue him at their own peril. When the storm passes and a wind returns, Allistoun directs the weary men to catch the wind, which succeeds in righting the ship.

The voyage resumes but eventually drifts into the doldrums, where the head winds diminish and the ship is becalmed for many days. Rations grow even scarcer and the men become anxious to return home. Wait eventually confesses to a lazy and slippery Cockney named Donkin that he is not as sick as he first claimed: that he is feigning illness to avoid having to participate in the laborious work required of every healthy seaman. Many others had already grown suspicious of him, and Captain Allistoun reveals Wait's charade before the entire crew. Wait claims he feels well enough now to work, but the captain orders that he be confined to the forecastle for the remainder of the voyage, a decision which quickly polarizes much of the crew between Wait's supporters and detractors. Allistoun prevents a near-mutiny encouraged by the conniving Donkin. Forced to stay abed, Wait grows increasingly frail as his condition deteriorates. The ship continues to drift without a breeze and some of the crew, including Singleton, begin to whisper that Wait himself is responsible, and that only his death will bring favorable winds.

As the ship passes the Azores and Wait nears death, Donkin discreetly plunders Wait's personal belongings from his sea chest. Wait eventually succumbs and dies -- the first proof that he was genuinely ill. This occurs within sight of land, as Singleton had predicted, and a strong wind returns immediately after Wait's body is committed to the sea. The Narcissus soon arrives in England.


The work, written in 1896 and partly based on Conrad's experiences of a voyage from Bombay to Dunkirk, began as a short story but developed into a novella of some 53,000 words. As it grew, Conrad began to think of its being serialized. After Smith Elder had rejected it for the Cornhill Magazine, William Ernest Henley accepted it for the New Review, and Conrad wrote to his agent, Garnett, "Now I have conquered Henley, I ain't 'fraid o' the divvle himself!" Some years later, in 1904, Conrad described this acceptance as "the first event in my writing life which really counted".[6]

In the United States, the novel was first published under the title The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, at the insistence of the publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company, that no one would buy or read a book with the word "nigger" in its title,[4] not because the word was deemed offensive, but because a book about a black man would not sell.[7]

In 2009, WordBridge Publishing published a new edition titled The N-Word of the Narcissus, which completely excised the word "nigger" from the text. According to the publishers, the offensive word may have led readers to avoid the book, and thus by getting rid of it the work was made more accessible.[8] Although praised by some, others denounced the change as censorship.


The novel can be seen as an allegory about isolation and solidarity,[9] with the ship's company serving as a microcosm of a social group. Conrad appears to suggest that humanitarian sympathies are, at their core, feelings of self-interest[2] and that a heightened sensitivity to suffering can be detrimental to the management of a human society.[9]

In his critical study of Conrad, John G. Peters said of the work in 2006:

The unfortunately titled The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (titled The Children of the Sea in the first American edition) is Conrad's best work of his early period. In fact, were it not for the book's title, it undoubtedly would be read more often than it is currently. At one time, it was one of Conrad's most frequently read books. In part because of its brevity, in part because of its adventure qualities, and in part because of its literary qualities, the novel used to attract a good deal of attention."[10]


  1. ^ Jenny Stringer, ed., The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English
  2. ^ a b David Daiches, A Critical History of English Literature, vol. 2 (1969, revised edition by Mandarin, 1994, ISBN 0-7493-1894-5)
  3. ^ Ian Ousby, The Wordsworth Companion to Literature in English (Wordsworth, 1992, revised paperback edition 1994, ISBN 1-85326-336-2)
  4. ^ a b Orr, Leonard (1999), A Joseph Conrad Companion, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-29289-2
  5. ^ Preface, The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and Other Stories (Digireads, 2010), p. 120
  6. ^ Peter D. McDonald, British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880-1914 (2002), p. 28
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-01-04. Retrieved 2012-07-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ Conrad, Joseph; Alvarado, Ruben (7 December 2009). "The N-Word of the Narcissus". WordBridge Publishing. Retrieved 13 January 2018 – via Amazon.
  9. ^ a b Norris W. Yates 'Social Comment in The Nigger of the "Narcissus"' in Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 79, issue 1 (Modern Language Association, 1964), pp. 183–185, doi:10.2307/460979, JSTOR 460979
  10. ^ John G. Peters, The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad (Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-521-54867-0)

Further readingEdit

  • Jacques Berthoud (1978), Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29273-5
  • Peter Villiers (2006), Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner, Seafarer Books, ISBN 0954706293

External linksEdit