“The Nigger of the Narcissus” by Joseph Conrad

Plunge Opening Paragraph:

Mr. Baker, chief mate of the ship Narcissus, stepped in one stride out of his lighted cabin into the darkness of the quarter-deck. Above his head, on the break of the poop, the night watchman rang a double stroke. It was nine o’clock. Mr. Baker, speaking to the man above him, asked, “Are all hands aboard, Knowles?”

The man limped down the ladder, then said reflectively, “I think so, sir.”

“Tell the boatswain to send all hands aft,” went on Mr. Baker, “and tell one of the youngsters to bring a good lamp here. I want to muster our crowd.”

(Howard Pease, my Mentor, offers) In reading any story by Conrad we need to focus all of our attention upon his prose. There are undertones and depths not always seen at first glance.

Here in a few words we learn that Mr. Baker is first officer on the Narcissus, that it is night—specifically nine o’clock— and the question “Are all hands aboard?” informs us that his ship is tied up in port. The word youngsters further informs us that Mr. Baker is not young, or he would not have used this term.

Notice the repeated taps on darkness: from the lighted cabin to the darkness of the deck, the night watchman, nine o’clock, a lamp needed. We are soon to meet the main character, James Wait, a black seaman. The mood of this novel is somber. The darkness is followed by somber daylight at sea, and then blackness and a terrific storm. On a deeper level are darkness and turmoil within the characters. All this is the work of an artist.

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