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.