I just finished reading Joseph Conrad’s seminal work, Lord Jim. The story touched me in a way that only those rare, genuinely great books can touch you. On finishing the book, I spent hours just thinking about that poor boy Jim. I am not sure what it is about the boy that so touched me. He was a romantic fool, and if I am honest, a rather unpleasantly arrogant chap who feels himself to be cursed while fortune presents him with every opportunity for success. Yet despite these failings, Conrad’s Jim nevertheless remains a compelling character who you cannot help but grieve for when he meets his tragic end.
Perhaps the magic of this book has something to do with the narration of Captain Marlow, who, like the reader, is both disgusted and annoyed with the boy yet cannot help but feel that his fate is his responsibility. Conrad’s style of the story within a story bothers some readers, but to me, what we lose in urgency we gain in the sense of intimacy. The story feels like an old friend is telling us a sad tale about someone real. I cannot recommend the book highly enough; it is a psychological study and yet an enthralling adventure tale. It fills you with wanderlust and makes you miss your home at the same time. But, what of its message?
Lord Jim is, at its heart, a book about your conception of who you are and what happens when those illusions are shattered. As Stein puts it in chapter 20, “We want in so many different ways to be,’ he began again. ‘This magnificent butterfly finds a little heap of dirt and sits still on it; but man he will never on his heap of mud keep still. He want to be so, and again he want to be so….’ He moved his hand up, then down…. ‘He wants to be a saint, and he wants to be a devil- and every time he shuts his eyes he sees himself as a very fine fellow- so fine as he can never be…. In a dream….”
“‘And because you not always can keep your eyes shut there comes the real trouble- the heart pain- the world pain. I tell you, my friend, it is not good for you to find you cannot make your dream come true, for the reason that you not strong enough are, or not clever enough. Ja!… And all the time you are such a fine fellow, too! Wie? Was? Gott in Himmel How can that be? Ha! ha! ha!”
This observation cuts to the heart of Jim’s torment. Jim is a romantic, who, from his childhood, believes himself to be a hero, an adventurer and a superior individual. This conception of who he is bedevils him when serving as a second mate on a pilgrim ship, the SS Patna — the ship hits a submerged wreck and is in grave danger of sinking. The ship’s officers, who Jim despises as being inferior men, knowing that there were not enough boats and fearing a panic when the ship sinks, decide to abandon the ship and the passengers to their fate.
Jim freezes. He claims he was not afraid, yet he admits to being frozen to the spot and neither warns the crew nor is able to formulate a plan to save the ship. He just stands there until the last moment when he jumps into the lifeboat. Against all odds, the Patna does not sink, and on being rescued, Jim and the other ship’s officers are tried for dereliction of duty. An inquiry into the events are held and results in Jim and the Captain’s certificates being cancelled. Jim admits to his inaction yet maintains to Marlow (who is both a character and the narrator) that it was not his fault. He was not afraid; he was just caught unprepared by misfortune and did what anyone would have done.
Marlow helps Jim find new employment again and again, yet each time, Jim throws it in after someone appears who knows of the Patna and his failing. He feels himself not shamed but judged as a coward. The thing is, as we know, and Conrad reminds us through the mouths of various characters, cowardice and courage are separated only by a thin line. All men are afraid of danger, and no man is heroic all the time — sometimes they stumble, and they fall. In the end, we are shown that while they may curse Jim’s actions, they curse them in large part because they know that they would do the same and that it challenges their idea of who they are. In truth, they do not care about Jim’s failure like he thinks they do, but he ‘takes it to heart’ and, in a way, seeks redemption and escape from only himself.
As for us, Lord Jim offers lessons as to life and failure. It is memorable as much for the message that failure is never permanent as for the implication that no one cares as much about your mistakes as you do. This book also shows the folly of placing the false goods of honour, glory, wealth or power as your aim. Jim pursues his ideal of heroic glory to his doom. His devotion to his ‘good’ is inspiring, yet in the end, it is shown to be an empty aim. As Marlow puts it at the end, “we can see him, an obscure conqueror of fame, tearing himself out of the arms of a jealous love at the sign, at the call of his exalted egoism. He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied- quite, now, I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us — “
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First Published on https://www.andrew-stadtmauer.com/ on the 27th of September 2021.