Guest post: Racism and the Works of Joseph Conrad

Today I’m doing a guest post for Kaet because the subject matter fits her blog more than my own.

Joseph Conrad

Image via Wikipedia

I first encountered the works of Joseph Conrad when I was in high school when I had to read Heart of Darkness for English class. The volume I purchased for the class also had in it the novella The Secret Sharer which I promptly read as well. Although I was constantly reading, I usually selected my own fare to read and did not go above and beyond in school. However, Conrad was the first author I encountered who wrote above the sea and life at sea who got the details right. At the time, I still lived on a boat myself, and so The Secret Sharer was particularly vivid. Conrad instantly became one of those authors I regarded as a favorite. Yet somehow, I didn’t read more by Conrad, although I purchased a few volumes by him which I placed on my ever-overflowing “to read” shelf– or shelves, to be honest.

I did re-read Heart of Darkness my final year of high school, again for English class. I’d switched school and it was part of the curriculum for the final year, but the English teacher gave it short shrift that year. She made all too clear she was reading it because she had to but she preferred romances like Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice.  The subject matter of Heart of Darkness could easily have lent itself to racism, and yet I did not notice any in the two works of Conrad I had read nor did either English teacher– both of whom reveled in such criticism– point it out to me.

Book Nigger of the NarcissusSo when recently I pulled off my shelf to read a volume containing three novellas by Conrad, I was not put off by the fact that the first of them was entitled The Nigger of the Narcissus. I assumed confidently that here was Conrad’s work analogous to Mark Twain‘s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which uses a thoroughly offensive word but which does so in a way that is thoroughly justified by a point that decries racism.

Then I started reading. The famous preface of the work enheartened me; here was a manifesto about art with recurring themes of words and color. Surely these were allusions to his following major work confronting racism. The objectionable word in the title appears repeatedly in the text, but with each of the five chapters I became more forced to the conclusion that the fact that the title character James “Jimmy” Wait happens to be a black man makes no difference in the story or its events. Maybe, I thought, that was itself the point?! Yet the casual racism of the characters, including the narrator, is never questioned, never challenged, never even held up in contrast to confront the reader. To all appearances, the matter of fact bigotry of the ship’s company in the novel, not a burning raging vehemence against a black man but thoroughly careless assumption that the title character is socially inferior by virtue of his color, remains throughout entirely unquestioned– even by the author. I conclude so reluctantly because no point whatsoever is made in the book that could not be made as well or better were James Wait white or his color simply never mentioned.

The other book in the volume I’ve been reading other than Heart of Darkness is the Conrad’s novella Typhoon, but that will have to wait. I’m still coming to grips with what I think of Conrad as an author. Certainly I’m disappointed and I feel I’ve lost my respect for Conrad as an author. In future when I refer to my liking of Conrad, doing so will always be apologetic, because in my mind his work has become tainted. While I know the prejudice was common in his time, yet that just does not seem to me a good enough excuse when others like Twain were coming out against racism before the book was published (which by the date of the preface was 1897).

Kaet here: My DH finished reading this novella today, and while I haven’t read it myself, he’s been sharing his impressions (and the storyline) with me throughout. Long time readers of this blog will know that reading classic fiction with racist and sexist elements in it, apparently acceptable at the time, but certainly not now, has been something I’ve struggled with (it’s something I certainly discussed when deciding how much of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘s Tarzan series to read, for example), and so I thought these perspectives on the topic might be of interest here.

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2 Responses to “Guest post: Racism and the Works of Joseph Conrad”

  1. SilverSeason Says:

    If you want to see complexity in the matter of racism, take a look at Conrad’s Nostromo (http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/joseph-conrad-nostromo/). Set in South America, it seems to me that he differentiates national characteristics much more than racial ones.

    • originalliterature Says:

      Conrad is many things, but never simple. Since reading the book, I’m thinking that Conrad was a modern writer (possibly the first) whose expressed opinions in his works are his characters’ and not necessarily his own. Thus Conrad may or may not actually be racist in TNotN; I as a reader just don’t know. I still find it highly suspect.

      Thanks for the reply because you’ve reminded me that I want to get and read a copy of Nostromo.

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