Insiders/outsiders: Conrad's 'The Nigger of the "Narcissus" 'And Bram Stocker's 'Dracula'

By Kane, Michael | The Modern Language Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Insiders/outsiders: Conrad's 'The Nigger of the "Narcissus" 'And Bram Stocker's 'Dracula'


Kane, Michael, The Modern Language Review


There may be a wide gulf separating these two novels published in 1897 in terms of literary quality (or simply good writing) as well as in terms of the expectations of their respective readerships, but thematically and structurally, as I suggest here, they are not so far apart: indeed, they are strikingly similar. In brief, both are what one might call fantasies of invasion and expulsion; both deal with the threat posed to a community by someone who is defined as an 'outsider', and with the constitution of that very community through the final redrawing of the boundary between 'insiders' and 'outsiders'. James Wait, the 'nigger' of the ship Narcissus, threatens the ethos and saps the morale of the ship's company by not 'pulling his Wait'; Dracula, the Transylvanian vampire, sucks the very life-blood of the community. The community thus threatened and thus constituted is, strangely enough, in both cases understood by extension to be England or Britain as a whole. 'Strangely enough', as neither of the authors concerned was himself English: Conrad was Polish and Stoker was Irish, and an Anglo-Irishman at that. Thus both authors were themselves outsiders with regard to the English community of 'insiders' they appear to be writing about and, of course, for: an English community apparently needing to be purged of some foreign body that has somehow come to be lodged in its midst.

The concerns of each novel were, moreover, not restricted to England or Britain at the end of the nineteenth century but were part of a European discourse on the subject of degeneration, decadence, and a perceived threat of anarchy accompanying the arrival of modernity itself. The common response across Europe to such perceived threats was a renewed emphasis on loyalty to and identification with the nation-state or empire as the ultimate guarantor of identity in a world of flux, and on the distinction or boundary between the community as empire or nation-state and its 'outside', an ideology that would, of course, feed the intensified New Imperialism of the 1890s and jingoism in England surrounding the outbreak of the Boer War, and would ultimately culminate in the so-called Great War.

The 'nigger'

In Conrad's novel the threat posed by the presence of the 'nigger', James Wait, on the ship Narcissus is both clearly political and vaguely metaphysical. From the outset his blackness sets him visibly apart from the rest of the crew, rendering the other foreign members of the crew less noticeably foreign and himself the embodiment of the alien. (1) Wait disturbs the comradely hierarchy of the ship's company by adopting an aristocratic, individualist attitude, inappropriate to his position as newcomer to that hierarchy. He was 'naturally scornful, unaffectedly condescending'. (2) Even his first words, when at the end of a roll call he calls out his name 'Wait', initially misunderstood as an impudent command from a nobody, are seen to draw attention to himself as an individual and disrupt and delay the efficient course of events in which individuals at this level of the hierarchy are not important. Once at sea, he refuses to play his allotted role in this society by shirking hard work and pretending to be sick. As he gains the sympathy of other members of the crew, his influence spreads to infect morale on the ship and a short-lived, disorganized mutiny erupts. The dissatisfaction that leads to this is whipped up by an inadequate revolutionary called Donkin, who appears to be something of a lesser Doppelganger of the 'nigger', an 'enemy within' corresponding to the invading enemy, and is described as:

The pet of philanthropists and self-seeking landlubbers, the sympathetic and deserving creature who knows all about his rights, but knows nothing of courage, of endurance, and of the unexpressed faith, of the unspoken loyalty that knits together a ship's company. (p. 6)

Just as Jimmy's blackness isolates him, the unmanly appearance of this would-be revolutionary sets him apart from the rest of the crew: 'His neck was long and thin; his eyelids were red; rare hairs hung about his jaws; his shoulders were peaked and drooped like the broken wings of a bird' (p. …

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