Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

I ASKED Veronica if children at school were still allowed to study Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus', which I had just read on a train journey. `We did the "Pardoner's Tale",' she said unhelpfully.

The narrator in Conrad's tale says that the black man, James Wait, known as Jimmy or Jim, a seaman on the Narcissus, had 'a head powerful and misshapen with a tormented and flattened face - a face pathetic and brutal: the tragic, the mysterious, the repulsive mask of a nigger's soul'. In a note in the Penguin edition, Professor Cedric Watts writes that `the declaration remains irredeemably racist'. You don't say!

Yet the central question of the book is: what are the characters, and the readers, to make of Jim? Conrad makes him a black man to give the question more interest, just as Shakespeare does with Othello. If Jim's shipmates were not institutionally racist, there would be no point making Jim a black man.

Or 'nigger'. There's the problem. I have concluded that nigger is not a naturalised English word at all. It is really an American word, as the citations in the OED indicate, and in l9th-century England it was generally used either in real or notional inverted commas, or in a context of American slavery. …

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