Here's a sentence from Joseph Conrad's "The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'":

Jimmy's hateful accomplice seemed to have blown with his impure breath undreamt of subtleties into our hearts.

I understand the first part of the sentence. The problem starts with the "breath undreamt of subtleties."

To be honest, I'm lost in translation. What does it mean at all? What is undreamt of subtleties? What is undreamt? What is going to get into the hearts? Could anybody explain it to me?

More context:

We were trying to be decent chaps, and found it jolly difficult; we oscillated between the desire of virtue and the fear of ridicule; we wished to save ourselves from the pain of remorse, but did not want to be made the contemptible dupes of our sentiment. Jimmy's hateful accomplice seemed to have blown with his impure breath undreamt of subtleties into our hearts. We were disturbed and cowardly. That we knew. Singleton seemed to know nothing, understand nothing.

If it helps, what is meant by Jimmy's accomplice is "the death".

3 Answers 3


If you're reading English at this level I'm going to assume you're perfectly comfortable with metaphor. "Heart" is a common metaphor in many languages for deep-seated thoughts and feelings, for example:

She knew in her heart that she was right.

Her heart still told her she loved him, despite all his faults.

It would have helped to include more of the context of the story. From Wikipedia

The title character, James Wait, is a dying West Indian black sailor on board the merchant ship Narcissus, on which he finds passage from Bombay to London. Suffering from tuberculosis, Wait becomes seriously ill during the voyage, and his plight arouses the humanitarian sympathies of many of the crew.

It is Jimmy's death that is, as you say, the "hateful accomplice" who has the metaphorical "impure breath". This breath "blows" into their spirits subtleties (subtle thoughts) that they had not previously dreamt of (thought about)

In this sentence, the narrator is saying, in effect, that while the crew of the forecastle is trying to act decently toward the dying Jimmy, nevertheless his impending death makes them think about things they never previously considered, or think in ways they had never previously done. They were torn between the natural concern for the dying sailor, and the desire not to be in the bad graces of others of the crew who expected them to do their duty.

The prose is slightly archaic in the style of the late 19th century. It also contains frequent use of dialogue, written to reproduce the dialect spoken by the sailors on the ship. This sentence seems to fit in well with those elements, and with the time frame.

More importantly, though, is the way this sentence fits into the context of the dying James Wait as the central metaphor of the story -- but a full discussion of that is beyond the scope of this forum.

  • Thanks a lot. By the way, was it a question for this section of the stack or for the English Language & Usage?
    – P. Vowk
    Jul 13, 2019 at 19:32
  • @P.Vowk I don't know. The line between the two forums can be vague. But if you want to discuss the overall theme and other literary elements of this short novel, then try the literature forum. I can take some guesses, but it's been a while since I did any serious literary analysis.
    – Andrew
    Jul 13, 2019 at 20:29
  • I get it. I did ask a couple of questions at literature.stack... This one wasn't about literature, though)
    – P. Vowk
    Jul 13, 2019 at 21:33

Conrad is usually a careful writer, but this sentence is not as clear as it could be.

Jimmy's accomplice, using his impure breath, seemed to have blown into our hearts subtleties that we had never previously dreamt of.


The main issue I see here is that "undreamt of" is a phrase, modifying "subtleties". For this reason, it should probably be hyphenated:

undreamt-of subtleties

This means "subtleties that one has not dreamt of" (or "subtleties that no-one has dreamt of").

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