tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links
The Black Mate was written, according to Conrad’s own reckoning, in 1886. This would make it his earliest tale or short story (though it is not so short). But it was not published until 1908, and was then republished posthumously as part of the collection Tales of Hearsay in 1925. The other stories in the collection were The Warrior’s Soul, Prince Roman, and The Tale.
The Black Mate – critical commentary
The tale starts in first person narrative mode. The un-named narrator is a friend of the mate of the Sapphire Winston Bunter, and he is present in the restaurant conversation where the story begins. In fact Conrad rather coyly signals his presence in his own account of events.
There was also a very young shipmaster, with a little fair moustache and serious eyes, who said nothing, and only smiled faintly from time to time.
But on Bunter’s voyage aboard the Sapphire to Calcutta and back, events are presented in third person omniscient narrative mode, with the thoughts and feelings of the secondary and tertiary characters fully expressed.
Then when Bunter nears home and his wife inherits the money, the narrator suddenly reappears to present the conclusion to the story as a first person narrative again.
Conrad offers no explanation of how the information in the central part of the story reaches us, nor any persuasive logical reason why there should be two narrative modes at work in the one tale.
None of this would be terribly important were it not for the fact that Conrad has become celebrated for his inventive use of narrators and the complex structure of his tales and novels. But the fact is that he often makes mistakes in the logic and the narrative paths by which information reaches the reader – and this is an early example of that weakness, which is worth noting.
He also sometimes plays fast and lose with the conventions of tale-telling – as he does here. The narrator knows perfectly well at the outset of the tale why Bunter’s hair is so black, yet he conceals the fact from the reader with teasing hints that Bunter has a secret (without revealing what it is). In fact it is the narrator who advises Bunter to dye his hair in the first place. This device reduces the story to not much more than an elaborate and delayed joke.
The Black Mate – study resources
The Black Mate – CreateSpace editions – Amazon UK
The Black Mate – CreateSpace editions – Amazon US
The Complete Works of Joseph Conrad – Kindle eBook
The Black Mate – eBook versions at Project Gutenberg
Joseph Conrad: A Biography – Amazon UK
The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK
Routledge Guide to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK
Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad – Amazon UK
Notes on Life and Letters – Amazon UK
Joseph Conrad – biographical notes
The Black Mate – plot summary
A number of sea captains meet at a restaurant in the Port of London. They tease Captain Johns, who thinks that only young seamen should be on ships. Then they discuss ghosts and comment on Bunter, the mate of the Sapphire who once lost a ship in the Indian Ocean and who has strikingly black hair.
Bunter complains to the narrator that Captain Johns has been treating him suspiciously, and has been trying to persuade him to share his belief in ghosts and spiritualism. He has also been oppressed by a berthing master who recognises him from somewhere. It seems that Bunter has some sort of secret, as well as the bad luck that has dogged him ever since the loss of his ship. He has been a captain, but is now forced to accept the position of mate.
The Sapphire sets off bound for Calcutta, and encounters rough seas in the Southern Ocean, which results in breakages of some of Bunter’s personal belongings. Captain Johns continues to harass Bunter with his belief in spiritualism and he regards any signs of scepticism as a personal insult. Then one night Bunter suddenly falls down a ladder and injures his head. There is a general mystery regarding the reason for this accident. When he recovers he tells Captain Johns that he was startled by an apparition and fell backwards in terror.
Bunter continues to be ill, and he is converted to a belief in spiritualism. Then he reveals that the fright has turned his hair white.
Meanwhile, back in London Mrs Bunter inherits money from a distant relative but cannot pass the good news on to her husband because the Sapphire is en route back from Calcutta. She goes to meet the ship at Dunkirk, along with the narrator.
In Dunkirk, Bunter reveals to the narrator that he merely slipped on some brass plates at the top of the ladder, and his hair turned white because he ran out of the hair dye he had been using to make himself look younger. The ghostly apparition was an invention to placate Captain Johns. Bunter leaves the Sapphire and goes off with his wife.
Joseph Conrad – video biography
The Black Mate – principal characters
|I||the un-named narrator, a friend of Bunter|
|Winston Bunter||a former captain, now a mate|
|Mrs Bunter||his wife|
|Captain Johns||commander of the Sapphire|
The Black Mate
first edition 1925 Fisher Unwin
The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad offers a series of essays by leading Conrad scholars aimed at both students and the general reader. There’s a chronology and overview of Conrad’s life, then chapters that explore significant issues in his major writings, and deal in depth with individual works. These are followed by discussions of the special nature of Conrad’s narrative techniques, his complex relationships with late-Victorian imperialism and with literary Modernism, and his influence on other writers and artists. Each essay provides guidance to further reading, and a concluding chapter surveys the body of Conrad criticism.
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Joseph Conrad’s writing table
Amar Acheraiou Joseph Conrad and the Reader, London: Macmillan, 2009.
Jacques Berthoud, Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Muriel Bradbrook, Joseph Conrad: Poland’s English Genius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941
Harold Bloom (ed), Joseph Conrad (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010
Hillel M. Daleski , Joseph Conrad: The Way of Dispossession, London: Faber, 1977
Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Aaron Fogel, Coercion to Speak: Conrad’s Poetics of Dialogue, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985
John Dozier Gordon, Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1940
Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958
Robert Hampson, Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992
Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Language and Fictional Self-Consciousness, London: Edward Arnold, 1979
Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment, London: Edward Arnold, 1990
Jeremy Hawthorn, Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, London: Continuum, 2007.
Owen Knowles, The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990
Jakob Lothe, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008
Gustav Morf, The Polish Shades and Ghosts of Joseph Conrad, New York: Astra, 1976
Ross Murfin, Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1985
Jeffery Myers, Joseph Conrad: A Biography, Cooper Square Publishers, 2001.
Zdzislaw Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life, Camden House, 2007.
George A. Panichas, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, Mercer University Press, 2005.
John G. Peters, The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
James Phelan, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008.
Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1966
Allan H. Simmons, Joseph Conrad: (Critical Issues), London: Macmillan, 2006.
J.H. Stape, The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996
John Stape, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, Arrow Books, 2008.
Peter Villiers, Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner, Seafarer Books, 2006.
Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, London: Chatto and Windus, 1980
Cedric Watts, Joseph Conrad: (Writers and their Work), London: Northcote House, 1994.
Other writing by Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim (1900) is the earliest of Conrad’s big and serious novels, and it explores one of his favourite subjects – cowardice and moral redemption. Jim is a ship’s captain who in youthful ignorance commits the worst offence – abandoning his ship. He spends the remainder of his adult life in shameful obscurity in the South Seas, trying to re-build his confidence and his character. What makes the novel fascinating is not only the tragic but redemptive outcome, but the manner in which it is told. The narrator Marlowe recounts the events in a time scheme which shifts between past and present in an amazingly complex manner. This is one of the features which makes Conrad (born in the nineteenth century) considered one of the fathers of twentieth century modernism.
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Heart of Darkness (1902) is a tightly controlled novella which has assumed classic status as an account of the process of Imperialism. It documents the search for a mysterious Kurtz, who has ‘gone too far’ in his exploitation of Africans in the ivory trade. The reader is plunged deeper and deeper into the ‘horrors’ of what happened when Europeans invaded the continent. This might well go down in literary history as Conrad’s finest and most insightful achievement, and it is based on his own experiences as a sea captain. This volume also contains ‘An Outpost of Progress’ – the magnificent study in shabby cowardice which prefigures ‘Heart of Darkness’.
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© Roy Johnson 2013
Joseph Conrad web links
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Joseph Conrad – his greatest novels and novellas
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Joseph Conrad at Wikipedia
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Works by Joseph Conrad
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