Bruce's Reviews > Lord Jim

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
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Mar 31, 10

Read from March 24 to 31, 2010

The book opens by describing Jim vaguely, finding him somewhere in the East, a water-clerk at port after port, always moving on once his shadowy past is revealed, eventually ending up somewhere inland in the Indonesian-Malaysian archipelago, living with the natives. This brief situation having been established, the story leaps backward to discuss how Jim came to go to sea, his background and training, how he was injured aboard ship in the East, convalesced ashore, decided not to return to England, and found a position as an officer on the decrepit steamer, the Patna, hauling 800 Muslim natives to the Middle East. Conrad’s syntax occasionally seems awkward, and his sentences do not always scan smoothly, but his descriptions, particularly of nature, are beautifully evocative.

At the end of Chapter 4, after the Patna has sunk and during Jim’s trial, Conrad introduces Marlow, the narrator of several of Conrad’s works, whose subsequent narrative frames the rest of the story. During his early rather rambling preliminary to a group of listeners, Marlow admits that his interest in Jim’s “case” is due to his own nagging and increasing “doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct,” the very issue about Conrad wrote and wrestled in The Heart of Darkness.

Jim places his highest value on his own perception of himself, that being the core of his sense of honor, and he therefore cannot bear to be reminded of his failure to live up to his ideals, moving from place to place and job to job whenever something or someone appears that reminds him of his “failure” episode, thus becoming a kind of vagabond. The sea captain Brierly, conversely, places the criterion of honor on the perceptions of others, on one’s reputation. Marlow is clearly skeptical about whether Jim does not delude himself, whether he avoids examining his own real motives. Has Jim’s lifelong habit of cultivating “recklessly heroic aspirations” led him to delude himself about his having abandoned the passengers on what he viewed as a sinking ship? Is he simply, as Stein asserts, a “romantic”? And why need one say “simply”? Is Jim’s eventual death an attempt at atoning for his earlier failure, or does he view his final circumstances as a fresh means of being the hero he always envisioned? Yet Marlow, on the other hand, believes that all truth, all “right” is ambiguous and circumstantial, and it is that ambiguity that greatly troubles him. In particular, he implies that it is an illusion to believe “that age and wisdom can find a remedy against the pain of truth.” Marlow’s narration of Jim’s story, a narration with frequent extended digressions involving his own affairs, reveals as much about himself as it does about Jim, and in a very real sense both characters are the focus of Conrad’s novel.

At the end of his continual fleeing, assisted by Marlow’s interventions Jim establishes himself as Lord of community of Patusan, deep in the jungle (cf Kurtz). Visited there by Marlow one last time, Jim seems ever ambivalent. Even as he wants to be autonomous, beyond the reach of civilization and the pains it has inflicted upon him (or that he has internalized from his interactions with it), he nonetheless craves its approval, wanting the outside world to know that he has overcome his fate and become heroic. His romanticism never wavers, and now it is couched in terms of his responsibility to this community. He and Marlow acknowledge to each other that he will never return to civilization, and they part knowing they will never see one another again.

The text raises profound questions about colonial imperialism, a major issue in the Britain of Conrad’s day, and it explores whether or not “Western man” can successfully interact with peoples of color and other races on their own terms, in their own cultures and contexts, or whether he can only relate to them from the perspective of a sort of patronizing and paternalistic “progress,” an attitude of cultural superiority. Perhaps, as Marlow says, it is our imagination that sets our destiny upon us. And what are dreams of greatness and power, after all, and even the pursuit of “Truth?” Why is humankind so driven?

As his world ends and he makes his final gesture, Jim’s motives remain elusive, inscrutable to the last. Was his an action of heroism, of self-sacrifice, of egotism, of escape and thus cowardice, of an attempt at atonement? Who can know? But his story cannot leave the reader unchanged, cannot allow the reader to close this narrative without long pondering.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Czarny Pies Well done. I think I will write my review in French as I have nothing to say to enhance this well thought out efforts. The French readers are fewer in number but also have fewer reviews to consult.


Bruce I look forward to reading it.


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