Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad is one of my favorite novels, and a truly great one. It’s about a young man, Jim, with Romanticized ideals of the seamanship and the seas, who becomes a first mate of a ship named the Patna. On a voyage to take 800 Muslims from Malaysia to Mecca for their Hajj the ship crashes, and when it appears the ship will sink and there are only a handful of lifeboats, the dastardly crew abandons the ship. Jim in a moment of indecision and moral failing jumps from the ship and escapes with the crew, a crew with whom he was never been close and actually an outsider. However, the ship by some miracle of events doesn’t sink and the crew including Jim, in disgrace, are hauled into court for prosecution. In court Jim meets Captain Charles Marlow, who feels pity and befriends him and who tells the story of Jim’s life through the novel. From Panichas essay:
Beyond the immediate details and the effects of a shipwreck, this novel portrays, in the words of the story’s narrator, Captain Marlow, “those struggles of an individual trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be…” That individual is a young seaman, Jim, who serves as the chief mate of the Patna and who also “jumps.” Recurringly Jim envisions himself as “always an example of devotion to duty and as unflinching as a hero in a book.” But his heroic dream of “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line,” does not square with what he really represents: one who falls from grace, and whose “crime” is “a breach of faith with the community of mankind.” Jim’s aspirations and actions underline the disparity between idea and reality, or what is generally termed “indissoluble contradictions of being.” His is also the story of a man in search of some form of atonement once he recognizes that his “avidity for adventure, and in a sense of many-sided courage,” and his dream of “the success of his imaginary achievements,” constitute a romantic illusion. Jim’s leap from the Patna generates in him a severe moral crisis that forces him to “come round to the view that only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things.”
The novel has several themes: a contrast between the realist Marlow and the Romantic Jim; the psychological struggle for Jim to refit into the world after his disgrace; the struggle to uphold honor and morality in a world filled with manifest evil; inherent alienation; and the need for redemption and atonement. Panichas focuses his essay on Jim’s striving to uphold his moral code while faced with the disgrace from a moment of panic.
The assaults of nature on Jim’s outer situation are as vicious at this pivotal point of his life as are the assaults of conscience on his moral sense. These clashing outer and inner elements are clearly pushing Jim to the edge, as heroic aspiration and human frailty wrestle furiously for the possession of his soul. What happens will have permanent consequences for him, as Conrad reveals here, with astonishing power of perception. Here, then, we discern a process of cohesion and dissolution, when Jim’s fate seems to be vibrating unspeakably as he experiences the radical pressures and tensions of his struggle to be more than what he is, or what he aspires to be. Jim, as if replacing the dead officer lying on the deck of the Patna, jumps: “It had happened somehow…,“ Conrad writes. “He had landed partly on somebody and fallen across a thwart.” He was now in the boat with those he loathed; “[h]e had tumbled from a height he could never scale again.” “‘I wished I could die,’” he admits to Marlow. “‘There was no going back. It was as if I had jumped into a well—into an everlasting deep hole.’”
Marlow goes on to catch glimpses of Jim for the next few years. The trial has become famous, a sort of media event that we see today, and everyone in civilization recognizes Jim. Alienated, Jim moves further and further away.
In a state of disgrace, Jim was to work as a ship-chandler for various firms, but he was always on the run—to Bombay, to Calcutta, to Rangoon, to Penang, to Bangkok, to Batavia, moving from firm to firm, always “under the shadow” of his connection to the Patna “skunks.” Always, too, the paternal Marlow was striving to find “opportunities” for Jim. Persisting in these efforts, Marlow pays a visit to an acquaintance of his, Stein, an aging, successful merchant-adventurer who owns a large inter-island business in the Malay Archipelago with a lot of trading posts in out- of-the-way trading places for collecting produce. Bavarian-born Stein is, for Marlow, “one of the most trustworthy men” who can help to mitigate Jim’s plight. A famous entomologist and a “learned collector” of beetles and butterflies, he lives in Samarang. A sage, as well, he ponders on the problems of human existence: “Man is amazing, but he is not a masterpiece…man is come where he is not wanted, where there is no place for him…,“ he says to Marlow. He goes on to observe that man “wants to be a saint, and he wants to be a devil,” and even sees himself, “in a dream,” “as a very fine fellow—so fine as he can never be….“ Solemnly, he makes this observation, so often quoted from Conrad’s writings: “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea….The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.”
Through Stein Jim is given a job in the fictional South Seas country of Patusan, a primitive and lawless place where he is to try to keep stability. And he does. He is so successful that the natives give him the title of “Tuan” or “Lord.”
The year in which Jim, now close to thirty years of age, arrives in Patusan is 1886. The political situation there is unstable—“utter insecurity for life and property was the normal condition.” Dirt, stench, and mud-stained natives are the conditions with which Jim must deal. In the midst of all of this rot, Jim, in white apparel, “appeared like a creature not only of another kind but of another essence.” In Patusan, he soon becomes known as Lord Jim (Tuan Jim), and his work gives him “the certitude of rehabilitation.” Patusan, as such, heralds Jim’s unceasing attempt to start with a clean slate. But in Patusan, as on the Patna, Jim is in extreme peril, for he has to grapple with fiercely opposing native factions: the forces of Doramin, Stein’s old friend, chief of the second power in Patusan, and those of Rajah Allang, a brutish chief, constantly locked in quarrels over trade, leading to bloody outbreaks and casualties. Jim’s chief goal was “to conciliate imbecile jealousies, and argue away all sorts of senseless mistrusts.” Doramin and his “distinguished son,” Dain Waris, believe in Jim’s “audacious plan.” But will he succeed, or will he repeat past failures? Is Chester, to recall his earlier verdict on Jim, going to be right: “‘He is no earthly good for anything.’” And will Jim, once and for all, exorcise the “unclean spirits” in himself, with the decisiveness needed for atonement? These are convergent questions that badger Jim in the last three years of his life.
I’ll stop here and not cover any further. Read the entire essay if I’ve piqued your interest, but more importantly read this great novel. Like most Joseph Conrad novels, it’s not an easy read. But given that he has written four or five of the greatest novels of the twentieth century (Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and possibly even Victory) he is among the very top of English novelists of the past century.
You might also enjoy this orchestral suite, titled "Lord Jim" composed by Branislaw Kapur. The music is overlaid with scenes from the movie starring Peter O'Toole as Jim.