Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

The crew of the “Narcissus” are prevented by hard work from overexamining their souls, but the central figure of Lord Jim is not so lucky. In Conrad’s fourth novel (if you count Heart of Darkness, published previous to this, as a novella), Jim is a young sailor who has done a very shameful thing: thinking a steamer full of passengers was about to sink, he jumped off and into an escaping lifeboat.

Oh, but if Conrad had told it like that! You might not have any idea how shameful that is. Or could be, for someone like Jim. What the circumstances were, how it happened, how understandable it was for Jim to make such a mistake, and yet how much he could regret it.* At this point Conrad is a master of building this kind of tension, planting the knowledge in the reader that something awful is lurking just below the surface, the narrative digging deeper and deeper until it finally reaches the horror of whatever-it-is-this-time. And this time it’s Jim, mad and mistaken, jumping (a major motif in the novel) from the steamer into the black stormy night.

Horrified to find out the ship hasn’t sunk at all, Jim knows he has no defense, and stays in the port to face justice. Disgraced, he loses his officer’s certificate. But he meets Marlow, who is fascinated by Jim and feels compelled to understand him. He has the whole story from Jim’s own mouth; they talk and talk into the night. Years later, telling Jim’s story to some friends, Marlow is still trying to figure him out.

‘I don’t pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog—bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of a country. They fed one’s curiosity without satisfying it; they were no good for purposes of orientation. Upon the whole he was misleading. That’s how I summed him up to myself after he left me late in the evening.’

Shifting views through fog is how Marlow always sees Jim, unless he’s seeing him through a veil, or a mist. Marlow can never quite make him out, although after many years he does certainly know him very well, as well as most people ever know each other. It’s just that, as another character will say, there is “no more reading of hearts than touching the sky with the hand.” Even if we accept that fully, there’s so much space in which to contemplate the mystery of other people’s statements and actions.

This is much of what Marlow does, rehashing the story of Jim’s rise, fall, and subsequent travels around Southeast Asia. Marlow gets him a job at a ship chandler’s, but Jim must keep moving to get away from his past. He’s never interested in denying what he’s done, but he can’t stand to live among people who know what he was capable of. Marlow’s analysis:

The truth seems to be that it is impossible to lay the ghost of a fact. You can face it or shirk it—and I have come across a man or two who could wink at their familiar shades. Obviously Jim was not of the winking sort; but what I could never make up my mind about was whether his line of conduct amounted to shirking his ghost or to facing him out.

This is, without question, the best Conrad I have read so far. It completely blew me away. To be blown away but someone you already know is excellent, that is strong stuff. Writing about it several weeks later, I still feel like I have the wind knocked out of me.

6 comments to Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

  • I thoroughly enjoyed Lord Jim when I read it a few years ago, and similar to you I was surprised how good it was even though familiar with Conrad. (I still laugh at the line about the luggage of the round-the-world passengers getting more out of the trip than the travellers.)

  • Ha, yes that’s a great line. Anyway lots more on Lord Jim coming up this week for you to enjoy—I hope!

  • Did you know that this novel is directly inspired by The Red Badge of Courage? Alternate question: is it true that etc?

    The “Further Reading” section at the back of the edition of Crane I read a few months ago made this claim. I haven’t read Lord Jim (my #1 Conrad Humiliation), so what do I know.

    Some of the quotes you use are uncannily like pieces of this Javier Marías novel I’m working on. The narrator is constantly going on about the knowability and unknowability of others.

    Everything evokes everything.

  • I’ll have to find out more about the connection to Red Badge of Courage. I’ve certainly read a lot about what Ford and Conrad thought about Crane. Conrad said something like, “he’s the only impressionist, and he’s only an impressionist”—not super friendly, but it does seem they admired him and especially Red Badge of Courage. That’s one I have to re-read myself, to rescue it from the horrible memories of my worst English class ever.

    I’m very glad to hear that about the Marías. Assuming, that is, that you’re working on the one staring at me, begging to be begun. Of course, here at bibliographing almost all books are about the knowability and unknowability of others, because I’m clearly obsessed with it.

    And you gotta get on this one.

  • The main difference between the Your Face Tomorrow narrator and the Marlow of, say, that 2nd passage is that the Marías narrator would add some connectors and make that into one sentence rather than three, with the addition, perhaps, of three or four more qualifiers, or doubts, or hesitations, much like I just did, except that one, or even two, or perhaps as many as three of the arguably unnecessary or excessive or redundant words or phrases would be in Spanish.

    And then on and on in this vein.

  • tuan jim

    This book marked an epoch in my life. I read it first as a teenager, when I was only able to appreciate its adventure and style. I lacked the experience and insight to understand what Conrad meant by calling Jim “one of us”.

    Thereafter I read it several more times over the course of my life — each time affected by some part of it that resonated differently than it had in earlier encounters. The line between Jim’s pride and his vanity always shifts with each new reading as Conrad veils it with a complex of subtleties and near-hits, forever ABOUT to say something fully and finally, yet veering off just before impact, hesitant to make the point directly and simply because it would be something like an abasement to be simple and direct, because it would be ungentlemanly, because the very effort to be forthright would diminish the depth and importance of his theme.