Part 3 of the author's "Tartarus and Promethean Symbolism in Conrad and Hardy: The Return of the Native and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'". In-text citations refer to the linked bibliography of selected readings.

The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' demonstrates how differently Conrad uses symbolism from Thomas Hardy. Conrad constructs his symbols not on this tension of past and present, but on that of binary opposites such as day and night, life and death, dream and reality. His symbol is the poetic equivalent of a Hegelian concept: thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis. In this early Conrad novel visible reality is a juxtaposition of opposites — the crew, for example, contains both Singleton, devoted to his craft, and Donkin the shirker. Oxymoron abounds:

"Life seemed an indestructible thing . . . . It was bright like the twisted flare of lightning, and more full of surprises than the dark night," and "the sky [was] like a triumphal arch of eternal light, thrown over the dark pathway of the earth" (98-9). In both the instances cited Conrad utilizes the light-dark dichotomy to suggest that all experience is a fusion of diametrically-opposed opposites: "white, symbolizing the pure abstract virtue and ideality, and black, symbol of material reality and evil." [91]

While time in Hardy moves forward through seasonal cycles and human epochs, Conrad redefines time as a stream whose currents wash images up on the shores of human consciousness. As no two people perceive the world in the same way, so in Conrad no two persons' conceptions of time's passing can be identical. What is and what seems to be exist in the same proportion as the visible and unseen parts of an iceberg.

. . . man's participation in Ideality may be far more "real" to him than his participation in the material world; and so the [Conrad] novel works extensively with the paradox that the real is unreal and dead, whereas the unreal is alone real and alive. [Schneider 428]

Such an apprehension of material reality as unreality is a reflection of the fundamental pessimism of the latter part of the nineteenth century. This Arnoldian frame of mind, which Conrad and Hardy share, is apparent in their choice of symbols, and in the relationships they establish between these symbols and their characters. Acccording to Paterson's Making of "The Return of the Native", Hardy "persistently identifie[s]" Egdon Heath "with the Tartarean underworld of the ancients" (p. 19) to reinforce Eustacia's conception of the Heath: "Egdon was her Hades" ( The Return of the Native 54). Whereas the female protagonist in Hardy's novel has arrived in Hell prior to the story's opening, in Conrad's novel the 'Narcissus' is a vessel bound thither. Through an accumulation of images Conrad renders the voyage from Bombay to London as a Dantesque, Virgillian, or Homeric descent. As they complete their initial muster in Bombay harbour the crew are confronted by James Wait, emerging from the darkness beyond the ship; gradually for his fellows he becomes "a symbol, not of death but of fear of death" (Watt, p. 275) to which each member of the crew must reconcile himself. James Wait is significant (indeed, is real) only insofar as he influences his fellows and they perceive him. "He is merely as Conrad put it, the centre of the psychology and action" (Kay 177). In this voyage of inner exploration the elements through which the 'Narcissus' passes reflect the conflicting emotions and ephemeral moods of the crew: "As with the sea, so with the universe; and so with ourselves" (45). Conrad's crew constitute a "minute world" ( NN 36), a microcosm of humanity that carries within itself visions of hell and heaven, visions that are ever- present in each man's mind and therefore more real to him than the ship's physical destination. Thus, Conrad renders the experience of the crew of the 'Narcissus' Tartarean through a series of images that play upon the reader's subconscious rather than, in the manner of Hardy, through specific, 'learned' allusions.

As in Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, Conrad here imparts a nebulous glow to elements of his setting and his characters in order to develop his symbolic patterns. Conversely, through clearly-defined similes and metaphors Hardy works from the outset to endow the inanimate Heath with superhuman attributes, breathing poetic life into "its Titantic form" (3) through classical allusions and images. It is intended from the first to remind the reader of that region where in Virgil's Aeneid "the breed of Titans, who / Were hirled down by Jove's lightning writhe" (C. D. Lewis trans., VI, 580-1) because they refused to acknowledge Jupiter's supremacy over the universe. Hardy associates the Heath with the classical underworld as a whole rather than with any particular set of occupants. It is "the home of strange phantoms" ( RoN 4) where with "Promethean rebelliousness" (12) the denizens, "fettered gods of earth" (12), light bonfires to dispel the anarchic gloom of night. Both Homer and Virgil mention the suffering in the outer darkness of the Titan Tityos, and the earlier poet Hesiod recounts how a vengeful Zeus punished Prometheus for having stolen fire to comfort his creatures, shivering humanity. Although Hesiod places the chained Titan on a rock upon Mt. Caucasus, his Prometheus suffers the same torture as that which Zeus imposed upon Tityos. Since later Greek poets tended to confuse the rebellious giants with the warring Titans, the same figure is likely the subject of all three poets from classical antiquity: "He lay more than nine measures long / And two vultures, perched on both sides, rent at his liver / Plunging into the caul." 17 The giant's perpetual torment is analogous to Eustacia's on Egdon, the liver being held to be (appropriately enough) the source of sexual and reproductive energies. In that Prometheus has come to represent a pagan Christ, suffering in order to redeem feckless humanity, Eustacia's sufferings are hardly Promethean since they are the direct consequence of her egocentricity. However, in his image of the heath-dwellers as shackled Titans at the opening of the novel Hardy is attempting to demonstrate the futility of humanity's age-old struggle against the natural, environmental forces arrayed against it. The denizens of the heath are the product of ages of natural selection: like their ancestors, they have survived on the heath because they have adapted to it rather than, as is Eustacia's case, struggled against it. Consequently, her suffering is not totally unmerited since, by refusing to adjust her ambitions and desires to her environment, she wilfully brings her suffering upon herself. "Like Oedipus," as Charles E. May observes, "Eustacia meets the destiny she unknowingly created in the very process of trying to escape that destiny." 18 Like Oedipus' father Laius in his attempt to cheat the Delphic Oracle and the divine ordinances, Eustacia's vying (true to her name) with circumstance in an attempt to escape it leads ironically to her destruction. However, since it is her character and not unknown deities who shape her fate, Eustacia is responsible for her own downfall in a way that Sophocles' Oedipus is not: through her determination not to adapt to life on the heath through her willing herself to be unhappy and unfulfilled on Egdon, she suffers, schemes, rebels against social norms, and drowns.

Other Sections of this Discussion


Victorian Web Joseph Conrad Thomas Hardy Bibliography

Last modified 23 June 2007