The Nigger of the "Narcissus" between the Work Ethic and the Refusal of Work


Abstract – In this essay, I investigate the role played by the work ethic in The Nigger of the “Narcissus”. I interpret the novel, in the wake of Fredric Jameson and Giuseppe Sertoli, as a political allegory expressing Conrad's views on the crisis of the value of work which took place during the fin de siècle. The novel represents an idealized pre-modern organic community, based on discipline and work, and embodied by the crew of the Narcissus, as it is attacked by the evil forces of degenerate modernity, embodied by the two antagonists James Wait and Donkin and their refusal of work. On the one hand, Wait stands for the turn-of-the-century decadent culture, which was undermining the Victorian faith in work. On the other hand, Donkin stands for contemporary social movements and criticism of the labour system of the time. By analysing the way the ethic of work and its discontents are represented in The Nigger of the Narcissus, and by highlighting the ambiguous stance taken by the narrator and the author in the face of it, I intend to show how, in spite of his veneration of work, Conrad was well aware that such an attitude was quickly becoming anachronistic. The organic community in which the Victorian worship of work could be a meaningful social experience rather than a mere glorification of profit and social climbing was on the wane, and a new and more modern ethic of work had to be invented.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i22390359v21p27

Keywords: Joseph Conrad; The Nigger of the “Narcissus”; Work Ethic; Refusal of Work; Charles Marlow (character).


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