Like all great classic literature, Lord Jim embodies the era in which it was written, while maintaining a timeless, human element. Some things about it seem outdated: its initially slow pace, its paragraph structure, its debatable racism and colonialism. But its main theme of romanticism, in all its undeniable attraction and destructiveness, is as relatable today as it would have been when the novel was first serialised over one hundred years ago.
From the novel’s opening chapter, all the major plot points are alluded to. This establishes the novel’s tendency to tease the reader with the consequences before delving into the causes, an effective technique from both a narrative and thematic point of view.
When we meet him, the titular Jim, a young Englishman, is working as a water clerk, fleeing some ignominy, and destined for some ambiguous glory. We are given some details of his background: he is the son of a parson whose head was filled with notions of adventure and distinction on the high seas following “a course of light holiday literature”.
Jim misses his first chance to realise his fantasies on his training ship when a nearby vessel is wrecked in a storm, and he is too slow to act precisely because he is daydreaming about heroism. It is this imaginativeness that determines his actions on the pilgrim ship, the Patna, an incident which brands Jim with infamy, and which will define the rest of his life. But it also his immense pride and high ideals that cause him to flee from this shame, leaving a succession of comfortable jobs and ports, until he has, literally, no where else to go but the most remote corner of the earth.
Lord Jim is narrated by Conrad’s ubiquitous windbad, Marlow, who encounters Jim at the inquiry into the “Patna affair”, and who recites most of the story in a single night. Sometimes I like to imagine what it must be like to be a member of Marlow’s anonymous audience, stuck on a ship with the weathered old sea captain. “Oh no,” they’d say, “Marlow is in a talking mood again. Here comes another five hour monologue.” Marlow’s verbosity is something even Conrad makes fun of on a couple of occasions: the latter section of the novel is a letter to the only member of his audience who expressed interest in his tale.
A large chunk of the novel is made up of Jim’s relation of the events aboard the Patna to Marlow, told in what is sometimes exhaustive detail. I found this section a little tough going at times, which wasn’t helped by the format of the text. All I can say is, I’m extremely glad that short paragraphs came into fashion, because with big blocks of text it takes a while to find your place on the page if you look up to, say, eat a ham and cucumber sandwich, or make sure you don’t miss your bus stop. To make matters more difficult, Conrad’s long passages of description or musing had me glazing over at times, which was especially problematic when they hid a sudden change in speaker or scene.
But this is all just a result of TV rotting my brain. On my second read through, I could appreciate Conrad’s subtle exploration of Jim and Marlow’s psychology, and his comparison and contrast of Jim with various characters who have similarities in temperament or circumstance, such as Captain Brierly or the unnamed French lieutenant. These analogues and parallels are made throughout the novel, and highlight the gap between Jim’s ideals and actions.
The question over whether Conrad was a racist and colonialist rests on whether his depictions of “natives” subscribe to offensive caricatures, or parody them. The two Malay helmsmen of the Patna, for example, demonstrate alternately a complete absence of thought or blind obedience. Is Conrad being ironic? Later, Jim gains dominion as a kind of benevolent dictator over the village of Patusan in an unspecified corner of South-East Asia. Is this an expression of a view of whites as inherently superior, made to rule? And it is not until other whites come to the remote outpost that Jim is challenged, as if the indigenous population could not challenge his social and mental domination. Yet it could be argued that the figure of Jim himself is a critique of colonialism, on the folly and falseness of pursuing romantic ideas of civilising the savages.
I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle – that Conrad was conscious of some of the hypocrisy and destructiveness of colonialism, but was still tied to ideas of English superiority.
Even disregarding the socio-historical implications, Lord Jim makes for a good read. I’m sure many readers will relate to a character who puts themselves, and others, through pointless trials and anguish because their head has been filled with high ideals and a yearning for glory.
Marlow, whose narrative is heavy with judgement, is alternately scathing and protective of Jim’s idealism. He repeatedly asserts that he is “one of us”, a seafaring man, whose case has wider implications for their whole fraternity. At other times, however, he distances himself from Jim, especially for his aloofness and egoism. Marlow’s motivations are complicated, too, wanting to both rescue Jim from his delusion, and drag him down to earth because he is confronted by what Jim represents. The constant is Marlow’s fascination with Jim, which comes not just from their shared profession but also from the former’s repressed attraction to romanticism.
The author’s own views are similarly complex. While the novel is, on analysis, wholly critical of romanticism, many of the most engaging passages strike the most dramatic, exotic images and are related in the most glorious language: Jim casting a flaming torch into a river and taking his lover in his arms; the climactic scene of the novel which depicts Jim’s final action, or inaction.
Although Conrad, through Marlow, ultimately condemns Jim , his centrality in the text, and his immortal reputation, suggest that the attraction of romanticism endures, especially for a character, and author, who trade in stories. Recommended.
References and Links